Winter isn’t long departed, and Iowa’s vegetable farmers are already digging into preparations for summer’s bounty of fresh greens and juicy tomatoes. Many of these farmers run Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) businesses that let you subscribe for a regular (usually weekly) share of fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit. With spring in the air, now is the perfect time to join a CSA near you.
Visit www.localharvest.org/csa to search for CSA farms in your area, or read the 2014 Iowa CSA Farms guide prepared by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, available online at http://bit.ly/Iowa_CSA_Farm_Guide. The guide contains a map of CSAs by Iowa county, contact details for CSA farms and links to other resources, while localharvest.org has more detailed information on each CSA farm.
How do CSAs work? Details can differ between farms, but the basics of a CSA vegetable subscription are the same. You pay a set price at the start of the season to purchase a "share" of the farm’s harvest. In return, you receive a box of local, in-season produce each week throughout the growing season.
Why Join a CSA?
This system benefits both farmers and consumers. Farmers receive financial support and stability at the start of the season, when it’s needed most. Customers ensure they have a steady supply of the freshest produce possible. And because they get to interact with the farmer growing their food, they also know exactly how that food is grown. For parents, an added benefit is they often find that their children favor food from "their" CSA farm, and are more enthusiastic about eating fruits and vegetables.
Mercedes Ivener, an attorney in the Sioux City area, can personally attest to that. She subscribes to shares of The Cornucopia Farm and CSA, run by John and Janna Wesselius near Sioux Center, and says her two children love the colors, diversity and the unique names of vegetable varieties they have access to through the CSA.
"The color thing for kids is huge. The purple carrots, they have to have them," Mercedes says of her two children, ages 6 and 11. "They love to pick their colors, and they love the names that go along with them. If you tell your kids these aren’t just radishes, these are Easter egg radishes, they want to eat them. And when you have a few different varieties of spinach, I let them pick. They like having choice and variety."
Mercedes says that beyond the benefit of getting her children more excited about vegetables, she likes the cost savings and convenience of subscribing to a CSA. "It doesn’t seem like it when you’re paying up front, but when you calculate it out it’s cheaper. That’s one of the reasons I choose a CSA," she says. "I also like the ease of it. I pick up once a week at the local farmers market, and I don’t even have to bring cash with me.
Forging Community Ties
Beyond these benefits, Mercedes says she likes supporting a local farmer and thinks this ripples throughout the local economy. "I’ve become friends with the family and want to support them. I wouldn’t go to anyone else – and when they’re doing well, the whole local economy benefits," she says, adding that vegetables straight from a local farm taste better too. "The simple fact is that fresh produce tastes better than grocery story produce."
The CSA experience also offers customers a window into the broader food system. Most CSA farmers are eager to know their customers on a personal level, and the relationship is a chance to learn more about how food is grown, new vegetable varieties and cooking methods, and even tour the farm or learn about sustainable agriculture.
CSAs are growing in number across Iowa, so there are more opportunities to find a CSA that fits your needs. Before purchasing a share, ask a few questions to help you decide if that farm’s set-up will work for you:
• Is the delivery point and time convenient?
• Are the growing practices acceptable (organic, chemical-free or conventional)?
• What crops are available?
• Are there add-on options such as a winter extension or an egg share?
For more tips on what to ask or expect when signing up for a CSA, visit www.localharvest.org/csa.