Heading to the farmer’s market is one way to circumvent a lengthy field-to-table supply chain. Another increasingly popular option: buying a farm share that gets you weekly deliveries of fresh produce.
Farm shares, or community supported agriculture programs (CSAs), let consumers invest in a local farm by buying a stake in its harvest. The farmer gets cash up front to cover his operating budget, and usually, a little volunteer labor, too. You get regular shipments of what the farm produces — not just fruits and veggies, but potentially meat, milk, cheese, eggs, yogurt, honey and even wine.
Eating local is more sustainable for the environment, and shares can also be more sustainable for your finances. Depending on the farm, you’d pay from $200 to more than $1,000 for a weekly shipment of vegetables, but spread out into deliveries of 10 to 12 pounds over several months it can be fairly affordable. “It has reduced our food bill tremendously, by about $200 a month,” says Tampa, Fla. resident Jen Hancock of the seven-month share she’s been a member of for four years. “Given that the cost of the CSA was about $300, that is an excellent deal, and we just can’t buy produce as good as what we get at the farm.”
If you want in for the spring and summer growing season, now’s the time to do it. Many shares sell out by early April, or at least cut early bird discounts at that time. Here’s how to find the best deal, and make the most of your share:
Cheaper doesn’t always mean a better deal. Although prices vary widely, so does quality. “Many ‘CSA’s’ in the area have expanded to become more a grocery delivery service,” says Jenn Wisbeck of Seattle, who researches participating farms before buying in to make sure the food comes from local small providers, instead of more commercial properties hours away. Check reviews on LocalHarvest.org and the Chowhound boards.
Rethink meal planning
With regular, substantial deliveries, it’s important to plan meals around what you have on hand, versus what you feel like eating that week, to avoid waste, says Wendy Hammond of “The Local Cook.” Use your share to replace supermarket shopping instead of supplement it — a tactic that will shorten your shopping list and cut your bill further.
Share your share
A full farm share may be more than you need, which is a waste of food as well as money, says Molly Borchers of “Local Grape and Gourmet.” “Many times, half shares are enough for a two or three people and are much cheaper,” she says. None available? Consider splitting the cost of a full share with someone else. “I alternate weeks with a friend of mine,” says North Wales, Penn.-based nutritionist Joanna Chodorowska. “It ends up being the perfect amount for each of us.”
Check delivery locations
“Some CSAs require a pick up every week, while others will deliver right to your home for the same price,” Borchers says. If home delivery isn’t an option, or adds to the cost, review pick-up locations and times to make sure participating isn’t a hassle. (Keep in mind that some shares require you to volunteer at the pick-up stand for an hour or two each month — extra incentive to make sure it’s in a convenient place.) Some also offer a u-pick component, Hammond says, which can add value if you’re able to visit the farm.
Bad weather, pests and other crop problems can lead to monotony in your basket, so look for a share that lets you have some flexibility. Most farm shares let you weed out items you’re allergic to, but some offer the added benefit of letting you pick what you do and don’t want. Many are also willing to deliver less frequently, or even on demand. “The local meats, cheeses and eggs [available in our share] are really quite expensive, so we only do that when we have a special need,” Hancock says.
Look for deals
Some farm shares offer a discount of up to 20% for being among the first to sign up, or paying in full early in the season. Others cut the price by a few dollars for each hour spent volunteering at the farm or pick-up site, Hammond says.
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie