March 31, 2011

Tips for Choosing A CSA

Choosing a CSA can be an experience fraught with indecision and fear.  You're plonking down a not-insignificant amount of money for a product you have yet to see while getting collared into a long term contract.  It's worse than buying a car or a house.  At least there you know what you're getting into.  However, this is where the internet becomes your best friend, almost your only friend, unless you can get a personal recommendation from someone whose had experience with a CSA.

Here are some of the techniques I used to arrive at my decision this year.

Tip #1:  Local Harvest is a great starting point in your CSA search.  A website dedicated to local and organic food, they are a wealth of information on local CSAs, farms, and other food-related activities nation-wide.  They feature a searchable registry of CSAs (and farms and co-ops, etc) that you can narrow by location and/or keyword.  Each listing also has reviews for the CSA, but the numbers of reviews are pretty low and sometimes out-dated.  This is a great place to start, but as any savvy shopper should know, we'll need to dig a little deeper.

Tip #2:  Each year, The Washington Post publishes a list of local CSAs with contact information and prices.  This year's (2011) list was published on February 22, which is really a little late to be signing up since popular CSAs will sell out very quickly.  So go ahead make use of previous years' lists as well.  Use the Post's own search engine or Google to find lists from previous years.

Tip #3:  Google!  Or Bing if you're a Microsoft lover.  If you're still looking for CSA lists or recommendations, then search terms like, "CSA dc," will pull up some links for you (most likely the links I already gave you above), but if you've narrowed down your selections to a few likely CSAs, then I suggest searching for each CSA by name, also adding the word "review," and most importantly, try using Google Image search.  Be wary of clicking on links with strange website names, but Google Image search is a great way to find pictures of CSA boxes, which will give you a good idea what you might be receiving in the coming months.

Tip #4:  If the CSA has a website, use it!  Read their "about" section, see how long they've been around.  The more experienced a CSA is, the more likely they've worked out their kinks and can deliver a smooth service.  They may have pictures, and will most likely list what kind of produce they grow.  Call them or e-mail them about their CSA service.  Make sure to include into your price calculations any extra fees for boxes or crates (some CSAs will charge a one time box fee) or taxes.  Potomac Vegetable Farm charges a registration fees, a delivery fee, and taxes, which was not included in the main price listing on their website.

Tip #5:  Visit the farm.  Unfortunately, this was not a viable option for me.  I didn't have the time nor, honestly, the inclination to visit all the farms on my short list.  However, if you live near the farm you're considering or if you're passing through the area, most farms involved in the local and/or sustainable food movement are usually willing to allow a farm visit if arranged in advance.

Tip #6:  Check with your produce vendors at your local farmers' market.  You never know if they have a CSA program in place, and if you're a regular with them, you already know the quality of the produce you'll be receiving.  I did not use this method as my farmers' market is pretty small and I'm of the internet generation.  Google was my first and essentially only stop.  However, farmers' markets are a excellent resource.  Of course, if you're already a farmers' market regular, you probably don't need a CSA unless you like the challenge of not choosing your own produce each week and wish to invest the farm, which is a thrill in itself.

I hope these tips give you the start you need to start exploring CSAs!  For me, I am eagerly anticipating my first CSA delivery.  I'm looking forward to figuring out how to use the vegetables I'll be receiving and possibly even pickling any extra.  It's going to be such an adventure.

March 29, 2011

Lancaster Farm Fresh: First Impressions


Details for summer 2011
Full share: $700
Half share: $425
Duration: 25 weeks
Notes: Fruit share and flower share available.  Offers a Community Supported Medicine (herbal supplements) program and a Four Season Harvest program (other foods and goods available for purchase, to be delivered with CSA box).

Overall, the website is easy to navigate and nice to look at, which is all one can really ask of a website.  They have descriptions of what they provided in a full share last year, which is very useful when making a decision, although pictures or links to a customer's pictures would be even better.  They are also all fully certified organic, which is over all a good thing, although I have been skeptical of the label having read horror stories of less-than-scrupulous farmers following the letter but not the spirit of the law.  Nevertheless, I prefer to believe that trust is not a bad word, and so although I have not gone to visit any of these farms in person - the ideal situation - I am going to trust these are farmers who are following the spirit of the law.

Although there were other CSAs who made the short list, we decided to go with Lancaster because I found a lot of reviews online, either from Local Harvest or from independent blogs who featured  pictures of weekly boxes.  The pictures were especially useful because it gave me a sense of how much produce I could expect in a full size share and of the variety of produce I would potentially receiving. 

Another aspect of Lancaster that appealed to me is its co-op nature.  As a cooperative of 75 farmers, I expect that they will be able to provide a greater variety of produce since they have a group of 75 different farms from which to draw.  Of course, most CSAs will list on their website what their harvest schedule is like and what vegetables they grow, so if you find that a single farm CSA grows what you like, there's no reason not to go with a single farm CSA.

Finally, Lancaster has been quite good in the customer service department.  Their e-mails are friendly and informative, and not incessant.  Furthermore, they're very prompt in answering questions.  There was a typo in an e-mail I received from them, which stated that I had a half share although I had signed up for the full share.  A quick exchange cleared that up, and I'm so far quite satisfied with the level of communication from Lancaster.

Below are a few links to independent blogs and websites I've found that have pictures of Lancaster's CSA boxes.  Hopefully, you'll find them as useful as I have! - Full and half shares from 2010.  Full shares are called pantry shares, and half shares are renamed full shares. - one customer's flickr photoset of her shares. - Pictures from 2010 deliveries, also has pictures of other CSAs.

March 1, 2011


It's been a few years now that I've been talking about joining a CSA.  As a typical East Coast liberal yuppie type, I read Omnivore's Dilemma, shook my head over the practices of the industrial farming complex, and promptly went about shopping for my food in exactly the same way I did before.  Whole Foods is wonderful, but the place does nothing for my pocketbook except drain it.  It was easier (and still is) to pop in a Giant for my bagged salad leaves and a pre-packaged lump of ground meat, and call it a day.  Oh sure, I occasionally went to the farmers' market and ooh'ed and ahh'ed over the produce, while critically eyeing the price of it all and coming home with 2 apples.   However, I never truly made the effort and commitment to local eating and supporting farmers with practices that treat the Earth and animals better.

It's about time I put my money where my mouth is (quite literally).  This year, I joined a CSA and am splitting a full share with a friend.   I started at the same place any young tech-savvy person would, and googled "CSA dc."  This turned up some useful links to lists printed by the Washington Post every year of local CSAs, and the website,  Local Harvest is an excellent resource and I recommend it to anyone as a starting point when looking for a CSA.  However, being of the Yelp generation, the reviews at Local Harvest were sorely lacking for me.  There were few reviews, some of which were several years old, and there were no pictures.  There was even a disconcerting review that appear to be about an extramarital affair and nothing to do with the CSA itself.  Titillating, I'm sure, but hardly useful. 

Of course, many of the CSAs have their own websites, which describe what they include in each box and what their harvest schedule is.  Some even have pictures of their boxes!  I could also call the CSA and inquire, but I am generally skeptical of that method.  Not that I think they would lie to me, but that any business will sell itself in the best light.  In the end, I decided to go with Lancaster Farm Fresh, not only because their price was affordable, but also because I found the most independent reviews of their CSA online, via other blogs and websites who also posted pictures of what they received in their box. 

I am starting this website with the hope that I can provide a more comprehensive review of my CSA experience with Lancaster Farm Fresh, so that future CSA seekers will find the information useful.  I am also hoping that I can expand upon it to include other people's experiences with their CSAs in the local DC area, so if you're a member of CSA, please send your pictures and your comments.  I will give you complete credit and your own entry.  I would love for this to be a database of information for everyone to share and use. 

While I'm about this, I want to note that farmers and their crops are bound to the weather and other environmental conditions for their success.  This highly affects what they're able to provide in their CSA boxes, and where I can, I will note this when I post a review.  As with any reviews, mine or anyone else, please take it all with a grain of salt, understanding that different people have different expectations of things. 

And with all that said, let us begin!  My CSA does not begin delivery until mid May, but I will be posting (though not frequently) and describing my experience with their customer service in terms of communication with their customers in the time leading up to delivery.

I have a good feeling about Lancaster Farm Fresh.  I'm excited, I hope you are too.