Investing in a Farm: Is a CSA Right for You?

Community-supported agriculture lets you share the risks and rewards that come with being a farmer.

Woman showing red strawberry on hands in farm

Many people are attracted to farm shares because they receive fresh organic fruits and vegetables from a local source.

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Every spring, Asta Sinusas, a 39-year-old public relations professional in New York City, shares in the joys and disappointments of being a farmer. That is, Sinusas buys a farm share.

This month, she will spend $540 and receive nothing – until mid-June when, every week until mid-November, she will go to a nearby community center and pick up fresh vegetables from Stoneledge Farm in Leeds, N.Y. She is also weighing the idea of spending an extra $260 from her tax refund to pay in advance for a season’s worth of fresh fruit.

"It's not for everyone," Sinusas says, but she loves having access to organic produce, "which is more flavorful than store-bought, picked about 48 hours before I get it."

Sinusas is correct that this isn't traditional grocery shopping because she is sharing in both the risks and rewards that come with being a farmer. If this year's harvest is bountiful, she will receive a lot of vegetables (and maybe fruit). If it's a bit of a bust, Sinusas might not do so well.

[See: 10 Ways to Save on Food Costs.]

In fact, 2011 was a disaster. "Irene flooded the farm," Sinusas says, speaking of the hurricane that blew through the East Coast in August that year and became the seventh-costliest hurricane in U.S. history. After Irene, for the rest of 2011, Sinusas didn't receive any more produce – or a refund.

"Other than that, it's been a positive experience," says Sinusas, who started buying farm shares in 2010.

If you're intrigued by the idea of buying farm shares, often called CSA shares (community-supported agriculture), here's what you need to know.

Why farmers do this. "Farm shares are essentially helping farmers pay for next year’s crop. Instead of going to the bank and taking out a loan, farmers can subsidize the cost of farming through these shares, which is a huge help to farmers," says Steve Ford, associate professor of economics at Sewanee–University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.

Who buys farm shares? Farms throughout the country offer shares, and the target demographic is anyone who loves fresh fruits and vegetables. It probably isn't for you if you think of corn chips as a vegetable or if you live paycheck to paycheck, although Sinusas disagrees with that latter argument. "For me, the veggies break down to about $20 a week," she says. "During the season, the weekly amount I usually pay for groceries now goes down dramatically." 

Spring is the best time to buy a farm share. That's when farms typically require shares to be purchased, and many farms have waiting lists. Farms tend to allot a set number of shares because they don't want to spread their produce too thinly among their customers.

How much you're likely to pay. Typically, $500 is a good average to hang onto, no matter what state you live in, and the cost usually covers four to five months. However, some farms will let you pay as you go from week to week. Others offer small shares for $250 and heftier shares for $600 to $700, or even $1,250. Some farms even deliver to your front door.

What you receive. Every farm share arrangement is different. Some farms specialize in offering a variety of produce. One week you may be looking at a box full of kale, summer squash and dandelion greens; the next week, bok choy, eggplant, tomatoes and green beans. You might find a farm that gives you more than vegetables – perhaps a couple dozen duck eggs and a weekly bouquet of wildflowers. A useful search engine that may help you find a CSA in your area is on the home page of localharvest.org.

Sinusas says she usually gets about eight to 10 different types of vegetables. "It varies, but it's enough to feed myself and my husband for the week, along with any additional ingredients to make a meal," she says. "For instance, we'll get chard, but I'll pick up spaghetti to have with it, or I'll get spinach and then buy phyllo and feta to make spanakopita, or buy a baguette and make bruschetta with the tomatoes. I usually use the lettuces and cabbages to make salads for lunch. Later on in the season, especially with the squashes, I steam, mash and freeze the pulp to use for soups throughout the winter." 

[Read: 7 Foods to Buy When You're Broke.]

"Usually we run out of vegetables just in time for the next weekly pickup to occur," Sinusas adds. "The vegetables vary by the season, so early on it's a lot of lettuces, then it graduates into cucumbers and tomatoes, and towards the end, a lot of squashes. Sometimes it's by quantity – one red lettuce, one cabbage. Other times it's by weight – a pound of carrots or green beans."

You may prefer buying a share at a dairy farm for milk and cheese; some even allow you to milk the cows. Other farms ask or invite their CSA members to volunteer for several hours a month on the farm. Two parents and two kids might easily fulfill that requirement in 30 minutes, working a little on the farm and then taking home their fruits and vegetables.

The risks. As noted, you may pay for a farm share in a year that doesn't have a banner crop. "That's part of the risk of a farm share – paying for the season in advance," Sinusas says. "It could be a blight, poor weather or some other reason beyond the farmer's control that makes them unable to provide all the vegetables they plant."

She admits that after Irene flooded Stoneledge Farm in 2011, she was reluctant to buy another farm share in 2012. But "the other years have been fine, and we've enjoyed the delicious produce," Sinusas says. "However, it made me appreciate that I live in a world where I have multiple choices for my food sources."

There are other minor risks. "No customer wants to end up with 1,000 bushels of corn or 100 gallons of raw milk," Ford says, exaggerating – but making the point that you could wind up with, say, far more kale than you would have ever bought at the store.

[See: 8 Painless Ways to Save Money.]

On the other hand, people who fear having too much produce often buy half shares, lowering the amount of food they get and bringing down their costs. Plus, farmers want to keep their customers happy and recognize that people want variety. Odds are, if you do your homework and understand what you'll be getting, you'll be happy with the outcome.

"Talk to the farmer to familiarize yourself with how the process works. All CSAs are a little bit different," advises Jennifer Reeve, an associate professor of organic and sustainable agriculture at Utah State University. "And if you don’t have a good experience one year, shop around until you find a farm you like and feel you want to support."

Reeve, who runs a USU student organic farm that has a thriving CSA program, explains farm shares as a partnership. "The whole idea is that the customer forms a relationship with the farmer and helps support the risk of small-scale farming," she says. "It isn't a traditional customer-client relationship. I think once people understand that, they are on their way."