Community Supported Agriculture

Is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) for You?

See that pretty pile of produce above? How would you like to have it arrive in your kitchen every week? I just renewed our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership, so I thought I’d share few thoughts on the pros and cons of getting food this way.

What is a CSA?

If you’re like most people I know, you’re scratching your head right now. CSA??? It’s simply an arrangement where you pay a farmer at the start of the growing season, and they deliver fresh farm goodies as they’re harvested.

We’ve only used Bowden’s Eagle Creek Farms, for two seasons, so I’ll focus on them. There are, however, several other CSA programs in Calgary. (Note: I have no relationship with Eagle Creek, other than as a customer.)

How Does it Work?

For the summer program, with Eagle Creek, you sign up in the spring and get 16 deliveries from July to October. (They also offer a winter program.) They don’t actually deliver to your door, but there are five pick-up locations around Calgary, so hopefully one of them is convenient for you. If not, check out Calgary’s other CSA’s. On your designated day, you have about a 3-hour window to stop in and pick up your food.

You can choose a full share or a half share. For our family of four, a half share is plenty, supplemented with other fruit and vegetables from the grocery store. If you’re more committed to (and skilled with) local foods, you might be able to use a full share.

What Do You Get?

It will be different every week. The picture at the top is from the very first delivery last July, which included a big bag of cherries, 6 apricots, 2 apples, cilantro, kale, pea shoots, garlic scapes, horseradish, lambsquarters (a green like spinach), flowers, and a basil plant.

October CSA delivery (half-share).
An October delivery (half-share).

This picture is from October, when we were getting more apples, carrots, beets, cabbage and potatoes.

Each delivery works out to $38.50 and they aim to include seven to nine different vegetables plus the fruit. There is also an egg share, but at this point, it has a wait list. Beef and lamb options are coming.

Usually you get what you get, but sometimes there will be an option (say between kale and spinach). There is also a trade bin, where you can leave something you don’t want, in exchange for something else.

How much you get varies based on how well the crops do. Eagle Creek describes this system as “shared risk, shared rewards.” If their crops thrive, you benefit. If everything is wiped out by hail, you get less. However, when this happened two years ago (the farm got 4 inches of leaf-shredding hail in 20 minutes), the crops bounced back surprisingly well, and we still had what seemed like plenty of vegetables to me.

The Pros

Will joining a CSA make you healthier? Maybe. If you’re up to the challenge, you’ll probably eat more vegetables, something most Canadians struggle with. It also commits you to eating more locally produced, in-season foods, for which there is some evidence of enhanced nutritional quality, depending on how they’re grown and stored.

Also, it enables you know how your food is grown, and who is growing it. (John Mills, the fourth generation farmer on this land, often delivers the food himself. He’s transitioning the farm to organic production, if that’s important to you.) It’s a way of supporting local producers that doesn’t involve fighting for a parking spot at the farmers’ market. I can zip out and be home in 15 minutes.

Visiting the CSA farm is part of the fun.
Visiting the CSA farm is part of the fun.

CSA’s generally welcome members on the farm, which can be a relaxing and enjoyable outing. We also want our urban-dwelling kids to understand where food comes from.

The Challenges

For many people, the biggest challenge will be figuring out what to do with all of those vegetables! Some are commonplace, like potatoes and carrots, but you’ll get unusual things too, like Jerusalem artichokes and sorrel (thank goodness for Google). And you might find you get tired of seeing so many beets and cabbage.

If you want to improve your local food cooking skills, like me, this is a good thing. John sends recipes each week that match the vegetables in the delivery, and many of the more challenging foods (talking to you, kohlrabi) last in cold storage for quite a while. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. You’d hate to end up throwing food away.

This CSA kohlrabi was my nemesis last fall, but we eventually ate it.
This kohlrabi was my nemesis last fall, but we eventually ate it.

The other challenge for some will be making the weekly delivery fit into your schedule. However, if you miss a delivery, John is pretty flexible, letting you stop by another location later in the week, or doubling up the next week.

When you go on vacation, you can put your deliveries on hold and take extras the next week, or give them to a friend (it’s a nice way of saying thank-you for picking up the mail). But if you travel a lot, a CSA may not be for you.

The Cost

Eagle Creek charges $23.50/week for a half-share of vegetables, which works out to $376 for 16 weeks. The optional fruit share is $15/week, or $240 for the whole season. You can pay in 4 instalments if you like.

It seems high when you pay it all at once, but you’re probably spending that much on fruit and vegetables already, if you’re eating as much as is recommended. If you’re getting locally-produced food from the farmers’ market or a delivery service like SPUD, you’ll certainly be paying that much or more.

If cost is a real barrier, an alternative is Community Kitchen’s Good Food Box program. They offer monthly deliveries of fruit and vegetables for $25 and up. It’s a less expensive way to go, but unlike a CSA, you don’t know the source of the food. Still, it’s definitely better than not eating enough produce, which often happens when money is tight.

Bonus: Sunflower Maze

I wanted to finish with a quick word about Eagle Creek’s Sunflower Maze. There are over 100,000 sunflowers! It’s breathtaking, and just one of many fun activities on the farm for kids. Even if you don’t join the CSA, it’s worth visiting in August for that alone (check their Facebook page for updates on when it’s in bloom).

The Strachan girls take on the sunflower maze
I found it! I found the exit!!

Joining a CSA requires a real commitment to cooking, but it’s a great way to eat more veggies, while connecting with and supporting a local grower. You might find a new favourite food. I’m a big fan of roasted Jerusalem artichokes now, but I’m still working on the kohlrabi.

Have you tried it? What did you think? Join the conversation on Facebook.

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