I remember taking my graduate student, ChoEun, to Ralph’s, my closest grocery store in downtown Los Angeles. It was one of our “culture” lessons.
I tutored international graduate students who needed a bit of help with English and integrating into American life.
(Ironic, isn’t it? Considering I am not American but was teaching others the American way of life.)
I guided her to the peanut butter aisle. On cue, she gasped.
“This is all peanut butter?” she asked.
“Yep, welcome to America. The land of free choice,” I replied.
I had the same experience myself only three years before.
When I first walked into the peanut butter aisle, fresh off the proverbial boat, I was shocked by the variety and choice of peanut butter in American grocery stores.
Crunchy or smooth. Salted or unsalted. Roasted or raw. Organic or 100% natural.
I knew there was nothing like this in South Korean supermarkets. Rows and rows of peanut butter. Every combination you can think of.
And similarly, when you first decide to sign up for a CSA box, you too will be hit with many choices. How do you choose a service?
Recently, Alex's lab mate Chas (Hi Chas!) asked which CSA box he should get. Someone knocked on Chas' door asking whether he might be interested in subscribing to their box. I’m dedicating this article to Chas and hope it helps you too.
In this article, we’re covering 2 ideas:
- Choices you need to make before picking which service to subscribe to
- The actual mechanics of signing up for a CSA box
Deciding what you want from a CSA box
There are a lot of CSA farms out there. As a result, there are a lot of choices to make when figuring out what service to subscribe to. Here are the factors to think about before you sign up to reduce the chances of a nasty experience.
Some of the choices are flexible within a service.
For example, most CSA farms allow you to choose whether you want a delivery weekly or every second week. But other choices like delivery versus pickup are strictly based on the CSA service. So, I’m dividing up this list into two parts:
- Choosing a CSA service
- After choosing your service, tweaking your box preferences
Pickup versus Delivery
Do you want the CSA box delivered to your doorstep? Are you OK with picking it up from a central drop-off location?
If you are OK with picking it up, does your preferred location and the date of drop off work for you?
We’ve covered our story of how we pick up our CSA box in this article.
U-Pick versus They-Pick
Most CSA farms will decide for you what is in the box. This gives them the freedom to switch based on what is ripe and ready in the field. They-pick means that sometimes I get arugula and radishes, which I detest. (Don’t worry! They’re not wasted. I offer ‘em to our neighbors.)
I get a weekly newsletter from one of my boxes where the farm picks the produce. They always share a list of what might be in the box that week with the following apt caveat:
The field has the final say!
That’s why I also subscribe to another service that lets me choose each item in my box. This gives me ultimate control. But I’m less creative week-to-week because I don’t take risks to try quirky and uncommon fruits and vegetables.
You might think that choosing your own produce sounds like it will always be the superior decision.
That’s what I used to think too.
However, I have really enjoyed giving up control over my weekly produce pick. I'm pleasantly surprised by what I find in my boxes every week. It removes another choice to make in daily life, leaving me more energy to tackle important tasks like writing useful content on this blog.
Farmers versus Distributors
Many of the CSA boxes are packed and delivered by the farms themselves. This means the farmers and CSA managers are harvesting their own crops, handling packing lists and driving your food across town.
On the other hand, there are distributors who don’t grow food themselves. Instead, they partner with multiple farmers to offer a larger variety of produce. These distributors can also sell non-produce items.
For example, in the CSA boxes from the last month, the farmer-run ones sent me 1-2 fruits each week. This week, I received apples and grapes.
On the other hand, the distributor-organized CSA box offered me much more variety. This week, I got to choose between Bosc and Bartlett pears, Granny Smith and Fuji apples, Autumn Royale and Thomcord grapes, Navel and Valencia oranges, and Fuyu and Hachiya permissions.
I paint this as a black-and-white contrast. But in reality, all the farms partner with other farms.
Because a farm cannot grow everything.
For example, Greenhearts Family Farm is located in Half Moon Bay where the climate makes it ideal for brussels sprouts and other brassicas. To provide me with ripe and juicy grapes and tomatoes, they get produce from partner farms in Hollister and San Juan Bautista where the climate is warmer.
Related to the variety of produce is the option to buy non-produce items.
Produce Only versus Add-Ons
Some CSA farms partner with other farmers to supplement their offerings. These run from meat, poultry and fish options to premade foods, jams, and olive oils. The closer a CSA box is to a distributor model, the more choices you tend to have.
I'm surprised to find some of my CSA services offer the following goodies:
- pickled beets
- tofu nuggets
I love getting a box of pasture-raised eggs every two weeks. I’ve also subscribed to weekly flowers as I was curious what kinds of flowers I would get.
Seasonal versus All Year
Some CSA farms skip winter boxes because the farming conditions are too difficult to reliably grow crops in the winter.
One CSA farm that I look forward to joining doesn’t deliver to my closest drop-off location because my neighbor, understandably, is not able to handle the workload involved with winter deliveries.
Some CSA farms offer flower bouquets. If you care to purchase the organic, often wild, flowers, then selecting the farm based on whether they offer flowers will be important.
CSA farms often host a harvest festival at their farms where you can pick produce, meet the farmers, and go on tractor rides. Since I want to attend these events, I chose not to join some CSA farms far North in Marin County where it would be too far for me to drive for an event that lasts an hour or so.
Instead, I chose the farms in Half Moon Bay and Pescadero where it would be more reasonable for me to visit.
Again, the location doesn’t only mean farm location.
It also covers the pickup location. Most CSA farms have interactive maps on their website to show which days and which pickup locations they offer.
Subscription versus One-time
Some CSA boxes are subscription only. They may allow for a one-month trial period but one-time purchases are out of the question.
Other CSA boxes allow a one-time purchase or “by demand” purchases following a model that’s closer to a grocery store.
Once you choose your CSA farm based on the factors above, it’s time to figure out what size box to get and how frequently you want it.
Some farms allow you to choose different sizes. Usually, there are 4 options:
- Small: Feeds 2 people who eat a moderate diet of fruits and vegetables (about 6 items)
- Medium: Feeds 2 big veggie eaters or 4 small veggie eaters (8-10 items)
- Large: Feeds 4 big veggie eaters (12 items)
- Extra Large: Feeds 4+ big veggie eaters (16 items)
Note: Sometimes the order is extra small, small, medium, and large.
Weekly and biweekly are the most common options. (Biweekly, in this case, means twice a month, not twice a week.) Some farms let you buy a one-time box but those are uncommon.
One of my CSA services offers “By Demand” box where you can choose single items and pay per item like Good Eggs. Then you have to pick up at the designated pickup location.
Where do you sign up for a CSA box?
So, you read the choices above. You know about the prepay commitment. And you’re still game.
Now, you're curious about the process of signing up for a box.
Well, it is really easy to subscribe to a CSA box. It happens online, and you never have to talk to a human being. Ideal shopping for Millennials. It's like Amazon Prime or Google Express.
The steps are straightforward.
You go to the CSA farm’s website. They ask you to create an account and pick a plan if relevant. Choose your frequency and location (if it’s pickup). Choose any add-ons.
Provide your credit card information. And that’s it!
Before you subscribe to a CSA box, think about what you want from the box. I know the choices I gave you might be overwhelming.
Forget all the options.
Choose the 2 most important factors for you. It could be pickup versus delivery or U-pick versus They-pick.
Then look at the farms that offer those choices and which one is closest to you (location). If the price is right, then go for it. Don't get stuck like I did the first time I shopped for peanut butter in an American grocery store.
Instead, just start.
Once you’re in the process of subscribing, you’ll easily decide on other factors like frequency and add-ons. You can always choose a one-time box or cancel after a season if you want to switch to a different service.
If you have any tips for others looking at subscribing to a CSA box, leave a comment below.
If you want to know which boxes I subscribe to and why, let me know. I'll publish a post about which boxes I chose and why.