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Category : About Food Sources, CSAs, Whatcom Locavore Basics, Where to Buy Local Food

Free Range Eggs

Photo by Fir0002

If you read these articles frequently (and may you and your descendants be blessed forever if you do!), you’ve probably seen me mention Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. If you want to start improving the quality of food you eat by buying locally grown ingredients, CSAs are the single easiest way to begin–and to save money!

CSAs, according to Wikipedia, “began in the early 1960s in Germany, Switzerland and Japan as a response to concerns about food safety and the urbanization of agricultural land.” Early CSAs in Europe were “cooperative partnerships” set up to support sustainable, biodynamic farming practices. The idea was brought to North America in 1985, and as of 2007 there were nearly 13,000 in the US alone (USDA statistics). CSAs have become especially popular in the Northwest, the Pacific Coast, and the upper Midwest. Here in Whatcom County, there are at least 20 CSAs available this year.

So what is a CSA and how does it work? Basically, a CSA is a way to buy a “share” of a farm’s production by “investing” at a time of the year when the farmer most needs cash. For example, for a produce CSA, I can purchase a “share” or “membership” from a farmer in the spring (now!) when the farmer is buying seeds, greenhouse supplies, etc. for the year. In return, the farmer promises me a bag or a box of fresh produce every week or two for a certain number of weeks throughout the growing season. Around here, a produce CSA typically runs from early June through September or October. Food is usually picked up at a central delivery location.

CSA customers also share in the farmer’s crop risk, to some extent. If the season turns out to be poor for some produce varieties, there will be few or none of those varieties in the boxes. Barring some kind of extreme conditions, though, farmers usually plan enough varieties to deliver plenty of food regardless of what Mother Nature hands out.

Beyond the universal “pay now for delivery later” structure, there is quite a lot of variation from CSA to CSA. Some CSAs, for example, are for a single product, such as eggs or meat. Some may offer a specific list of products, while others like to serve up some surprises from time to time. I remember the first time I tasted sea beans was as an unexpected inclusion in a CSA bag. It became quite an adventure to figure out what they were and how to prepare them.

Prices can vary quite a bit from one CSA to another depending on what is included and for how long food will be delivered. It’s worth shopping around to find a package that most closely matches your family’s eating habits and budget. Because the CSA portion of a farm’s crops are presold, you can usually save 10% to 25% over regular prices at farm stands or farmers markets. Some CSA farms also welcome work trades, which allow more savings, as well as a way to learn a little about farming.

Some CSAs deliver the same products to everyone. Others offer options or add-ons. Growing Whatcom CSA is an example of a CSA based primarily on produce which also offers add-ons for: eggs, milk, butter, cheese, sour cream, bread, pasta, coffee, and even flowers. Growing Whatcom includes some ingredients grown in Skagit County, too, and some products (such as coffee) are imported, but are processed and blended locally.

Acme Farms + Kitchen is an online CSA alternative based in Bellingham which offers mixed boxes of produce, meat, seafood, cheese, bread, pasta, and more. They have a small initial investment and use a “pay as you go” model. They also offer options such as gluten-free, surf or turf, vegetarian, or ala carte ordering.

Another CSA variation in our area is worthy of special note. Most CSAs run through the summer growing season. A few, such as egg CSAs, may be year round. A new CSA just announced this year, however, is aiming to fill your pantry with foods that will keep over the winter until the next growing season. Three Sisters CSA, a partnership between Krista Rome of Backyard Beans and Grains Project and Georgia Mitchell of Dragon Tongue Farm, will deliver winter squash, potatoes, storage onions and garlic (all of which can be stored over the winter) along with dried beans, garbanzos and soup peas, golden flax seed, grinding corn (for tortillas, polenta, and cornmeal), and mixed grains. This CSA is bound to be popular with Whatcom locavores because it aims to ensure plenty of healthy, winter food.

One word of caution: most CSAs have a limited membership, since they are offered by small farms. In other words, don’t wait! Right now is a good time to investigate local CSA programs to see if one might be a good way for you to access the bounty of our healthy, incredible food bounty from Whatcom County farms.

1. Click here for a list of CSAs linked to the farms’ websites.
2. Get a free copy of the Whatcom Food & Farm Finder, a booklet published locally by Sustainable Connections. Page 29 has a list of this year’s CSA sources keyed to their contact information. Available at Community Food Co-op stores, Terra Organica, local libraries, and other locations, the booklet is also available online.
3. The Community Food Co-op also maintains a list of CSA farms. You can get one at the information desk in either of their store locations (Forest and Holly, or Cordata and Westerly).

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