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: www.localharvest.org 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: www.washingtonpost.com 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.