10 things to look for when you are choosing a CSA/Farmshare/Veggie Box Program
CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) is basically a farm subscription where you get fresh food direct from a local farmer. Some farms call their CSA programs ‘Veggie Boxes’ or ‘Farm Shares’, but it’s generally all the same idea.
CSA can help you to eat healthier, discover new recipes and foods, and help your kids develop healthy eating habits- all while supporting a local farmer.
Depending where you are on your food journey, CSA could be a real game changer for your over all well being.
However, every farm does CSA a little differently- so you could find that you love one farm’s version of CSA, but that you don’t like the experience at a different farm.
Here are 10 things that you should look for to help you find the farm that is right for you:
1. At least 3 years of growing experience.
Make sure that the farm has at least 3 years of growing experience (selling at farmers’ markets does count).
From the farmer perspective, running a CSA/veggie box program is very complex, and is NOT a good idea for beginner farmers!
There are all kinds of things that can go wrong- you have to have your crop rotations planned for a steady supply of vegetables. You have to have pest control plans in place. You’ve got to have good quality.
During the first couple of years running our CSA, we made all kinds of mistakes-
We learned that strawberries can go bad crazy fast. . .
Apples bruise easily. . .
Cucumbers can be very bitter if they don’t get enough water. . .
Spring lettuce varieties can also get super bitter if grown in the summer. . .
Lucky for us, we only had a very few members those first few years- most of what we grew was sold through farmers markets.
And because we filled our members’ orders first, we were able to compensate.
2. The ability to choose your vegetables/customize your box
(UNLESS you know that you will be happy with a pre-determined box of vegetables potentially containing a lot of one thing)
A couple years ago, we considered adding a pre-determined veggie box option. . .
So we sent out a survey to our current CSA members to see what they thought. Well, turns out that the ability to choose what goes into their veggie bag each week was an important feature.
Some people were concerned that we were going to switch over to the pre-determined option.
While only a few people said that they would be interested in it. . .
So make sure that you think about what would work best for you.
If you were to read through our Google reviews, you’d see that flexibility and choice gets mentioned a few times. . .
3. Support from the farmers to help you use your vegetables.
Let me tell you about how support saved our pellet stove. . .
Last fall, we bought a new-to-us pellet stove off fb marketplace for the seedling greenhouse. And we were SO excited, because self-feeding = no more waking up in the middle of the night to keep the stove going so that the seedlings don’t freeze.
We brought it home. Unloaded it. Installed it in the greenhouse.
We had never used a pellet stove before, so we eagerly built a small fire in it to try it out.
Well, the fire went out, and the corn wouldn’t feed.
Linda spent hours trying all sorts of things to get it working. . .but still the self feeding aspect just wouldn’t work, and the fire kept going out.
We were about ready to add it to the scrap heap and go looking for another one. . .
Then she had an idea- why not call the manufacturer and see if they could help us?
Well. Turns out that it was a smaller local business that made these. And the owner was super helpful. After a couple phone calls, we had our stove up and running. What a relief!
You see, support matters- especially when something is totally new to you.
One of the perks of CSA/veggie box programs is the opportunity to try new and unusual vegetables (like black radishes and purple kohlrabi. . .)
But if you don’t know how to use these they can just end up on your veggie scrap pile . So look for farms that provide recipes with your share.
4. Delivery to your door OR to a pick up point near you OR a farm that is located close by
(UNLESS you want to go for a country drive each week to pick up your veggies)
Have you ever signed up and paid for something, then not followed through with it because it was not convenient or didn’t really work with your routine?
I had one of those experiences two years ago.
After 2021 with the uncertainty around farmers markets, I realised that we needed a marketing strategy for our farm- for the sake of ourselves, our team, and everyone else who had come to rely on us for income, and for food.
But we’re not marketers. Nor did we have a huge budget to spend on paying someone else to do marketing for us.
So I decided to sign up for an online marketing coaching program. It was a few thousand dollars, but I told myself that the skills I’d learn would be with me for years to come. It would be worth it in the end. . .
The coaching calls were all zoom meetings. Even though our internet connection was too slow to allow for my to turn my camera on, I could still hear and see the other participants, so I didn’t think this would be a big deal at the time. . . (what do I need video for, any way)
And the calls were during the day- meaning that I’d have to stop whatever work I was doing outside to actually attend them. . .(I’ll take time out- our staff can cover for me. . .)
In order to get the most of it, we’d have homework each week. . .I’m motivated. I can handle it, I thought.
Well. . .
At first I eagerly attended the coaching calls the best I could- refreshing my screen multiple times when the internet crashed. . .even logging in both on my phone and my computer to get a connection. . .
For the first few weeks, I also did the homework. . .
Then May came around. First veggie box deliveries, planting, harvesting, seedling sale, the farmers market.
I just didn’t have the bandwidth to spend time on coaching calls during the day, or to watch the re-runs in the evening.
The timing was not convenient for me. And the internet connection made attending a hassle and irritating process.
So at the end, everything kinda went back to what it was pre- expensive coaching.
I essentially wasted thousands of dollars.
Was it the coaching program’s fault?? Absolutely not!
They more than delivered on everything they said they would. They gave me the resources that I signed up for, the access to experts for advice, the group interaction.
I hate to say it, but it was totally on me. I over committed and didn’t count the cost of what I thought that I’d be able and motivated to get done.
Don’t make the same mistake that I made.
When you sign up for a CSA /veggie box program, make sure that you find out about delivery options and pick up points so that you can accurately count the cost. Ask yourself if you are realistically going to be able to make it out to pick up your vegetables each week, if the timing is going to work for you.
If something is easier, it’s more likely that you are going to do it.
So unless you know for sure that you are going to be happy going out to the farm or to a pick up point, I’d recommend looking for a CSA/veggie box program that offers delivery to your door.
Out of the 56 reviews on our google page, delivery got mentioned 26 times- so I’d say it’s pretty important to our farm members.
5. Opportunities to visit the farm
Visiting the farm can give you the opportunity to appreciate all of the work that goes into producing your food, to see that it’s the ‘real deal’, and to meet your farmers and other CSA members in person.
This could be in the form of having the option to pick up your veggies at the farm, or being invited to on farm events such as seedling sales and open houses.
6. Clear terms and conditions or FAQ’s (Before you buy!)
Have you ever committed to something, then wondered what you got yourself into?
That was me the first Sunday after I signed up to help set up for church.
I like to sleep in on Sunday mornings, because it’s my day off.
So when my alarm went off at 6:30am that first day, I rolled over and hit the sleep button.
I was just about to go back to sleep when it hit me. Church!
Wait. . .what? CHURCH! And it’s 6:30!! Groan. . .
I leapt out of bed. Threw my clothes on. Why did I sign up for this again?
They had told me that team rally is at 8:30am in waterloo. Great, I can do 8:30am I had thought- it only takes half an hour to get there, so if I get up at 8:00am I’ll be fine.
SO I signed up for host team. . .
Then I found out that team really happens AFTER everything is set up. . .and I had actually committed to being there to help set up at 7:00am on a SUNDAY.
I wouldn’t have signed up if I had known then. . .
But once I get there, it’s fine. I enjoy helping set up and it’s fun to greet people coming in each Sunday. Plus getting up earlier does add a few more hours to my day off.
Just don’t ask me how I feel about that until after 8.
Signing up to help with church was based on a false assumption. Even though it worked out for me in the end, I wouldn’t recommend making the same mistake I made .
In the future, I’ll be more careful to clarify just what I’m committing to.
With CSA, this is especially important, since each farm does it differently.
Here are the things you should look for:
- Billing- is everything paid up front at the beginning of the season? Are there payment plans? Are payment plans automatically billed?
- Cancellation policy– not all CSA’s will allow you to cancel your membership part way through the season because the farm is relying on the income from your membership to purchase seeds and other inputs in the spring.
- What happens if you miss a pick up- most CSA’s will donate your produce to a local foodbank if you miss your pick up time.
- Volunteering- some CSA’s require you to work on the farm
- Refund policy- what happens if there are quality issues- can you get a refund?
- Risk- What happens if a crop gets wiped out? Will you still get vegetables?
- Skipping weeks– How do you take a week off? What happens to your vegetables?
7. At least a few reviews somewhere
Reading reviews is probably the best way to get insights into whatever you are buying.
You know how cars sometimes make strange and disturbing sounds?
Well, last summer, mine was howling.
And the more I drove, the louder it got.
I could barely hear myself think as I drove down the highway.
I cringed. Now what? My car had just had the CV axle, muffler, and clutch line replaced. I was so done with working on it!
I may have briefly considered the option of donning earmuffs while driving. . .
But quickly discarded it after further consideration and some mental images of flying wheels. Guess that’s neither a safe or long term solution.
After a drive to a birthday party with my cousin and brother, we determined that the sound was coming from the front passenger side (favourite past time while driving older vehicles is to ask your passengers ‘where do you think that sound is coming from?’) Definitely the bearing.
So off to amazon I went.
One after another I read the bearing reviews. One person would say ‘it fit great’. . .the next ‘it made horrible sounds after 1 month’.
After a while I just gave up and bought one that was on the low end of the mid price range.
I should have spent just a few more minutes reading.
Because if I did, I would have learned that the bearing I ordered did not come with the safety clip to hold it into the hub. Most of the time, when you replace the bearing, you should replace the clip as well.
And the clip was an additional $20. It wouldn’t arrive for at least another week (sigh of frustration)
I would have saved both time and $$ had I just taken a few more minutes to actually read the reviews that were there.
So please don’t make the mistake I made with my car when you are looking for a CSA/farmshare/veggie box program to join.
A few more minutes spent reading reviews can give you some insights that you might otherwise not get. And these insights might just help you make the decision that is right for you.
8. A phone number or email address to contact for help
Being able to contact someone for help can save you so much time and frustration.
Earlier last year, I went to check our website.
And was met with a blank screen.
There was NOTHING there. I mean NOTHING- not even an error message.
My heart practically stopped beating for a moment.
Everything is on our website. Our customers order through our website. That’s how people find our farm. Our csa/veggie box members choose their veggies through our website.
It is a crucial part of our farm!
I took a few deep breaths.
Then opened the chat box on my web host dashboard.
And asked for help on the live chat. A real human answered me.
Within an hour, our farm website was back up and running.
I was SO relieved and grateful.
All because I was able to contact a real person who could help me when something went wrong.
Now, farmers generally don’t have live chat because we’re also trying to grow food, so don’t expect an immediate reply.
But you should have their contact info (email address or phone #, unless they are actually active on fb) so that you can get help when you need it. And hopefully have a great experience with your CSA membership like I had with our website host.
9. Their physical address should be posted somewhere on their website
With the internet, the farm you are looking at could be ANYWHERE!
Near the beginning of our market gardening career, I heard about a farmers market running in Wellesley (only 15 min away), and thought that it would be a good place to become a vendor . . .so I did what every normal person would do. . .
Google’d (or more concisely, DuckDuckGo’d) ‘wellesley Farmers market, ontario’ . Up popped a beautiful website with pictures of a bustling market (Wow! This is quite the place, I thought) I was getting kinda excited.
Checked the address on the bottom. . .Wellesley, ON CA. . .should be good
Then I was looking deeper into the website when something just didn’t line up. . .
And I took a closer look. . .
Turns out that Wellesley ON CA stood for Wellesley Ontario California NOT Canada!
Wow! I was SO close to filling out that application form! Unfortunately I don’t have an American citizenship. . .
Moral of the story- double check those addresses! Can you imagine accidentally paying for a CSA membership from a farm not even in the same country??
10. Pictures of what could come in your box.
You won’t be happy if you don’t like any of the veggies that the farm produces! Pictures can give you an idea of just what to expect.
During COVID, we used a lot of those thin produce bags on a roll (I know, not ideal, but we needed plastic bags to keep our greens from dehydrating).
SO we ran out. And I had to order more. . .
using a sku number from a table. . .there was no picture of that exact product. . .
I was pretty sure I had what I wanted. . .so I didn’t think any more of it.
Then a few days later, I opened the box to unpack our new bags.
What was in that box was TOTALLY different from what I had thought that I ordered. I wanted the super thin, large bags on a roll like what you see in the produce section of the grocery store.
But these were THICK, small, heavy duty bags on a very large roll. And our bok choi just didn’t fit in them. We still have that roll of bags today. . .
Somehow, I had ordered the wrong ones . I had purchased a huge roll of bags that we couldn’t use.
Don’t make the mistake I made with my bags.
Look for pictures or examples of what you could get in your veggie share so that you don’t end up purchasing a whole bunch of vegetables that you won’t use. If there aren’t pictures, look for a list of what the farm is growing, or a harvest chart.