Farmer’s Markets and CSAs: Finding the Right Fit

Bri DeRosa (Red, Round or Green)

Bri DeRosa (Red, Round or Green) › I like to think of myself as a young, cool, urban fringe locavore, but the reality ...

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Anybody who’s read this blog for more than half a post–or spoken to me in real life for more than 20 seconds–knows that I am a passionate and devoted farmer’s market and CSA shopper. Heck, indulging my inner locavore was part of what got me deeply involved in cooking, and eventually blogging, in the first place.

It’s such a big part of my life that I actually started up a Winter Market for my neighborhood last year, just so I never had to say goodbye to my local food ways for even a few months of the year.

I’m a farm-loving, seasonal produce-worshiping kind of girl, and nothing will ever change that.

I’d love nothing more than to help others feel comfortable with shopping more at their own local farms, and less at their big chain groceries, so everyone can experience the joys of being a market groupie like me. But I think it’s important to not just buy local; you should ENJOY buying local. It should, ideally, be an experience that enriches your life, not just something that ticks a box on your to-do list.

Part of the allure of local eating is that you get to feel calm and confident about your choices, while knowing that you’re supporting someone who needs your dollars far more than Stop N Shop, Wal-Mart, Publix, or Price Chopper do. But to get that satisfaction from the experience, I think you’ve got to find a farmer’s market or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program that matches up with your values, expectations, and needs.

I’d love nothing more than to help others feel comfortable with shopping more at their own local farms, and less at their big chain groceries, so everyone can experience the joys of being a market groupie like me. But I think it’s important to not just buy local; you should ENJOY buying local.

Here are some of the most important things I recommend considering before you commit to a market or CSA program, so you can be sure your relationship to your local food producers is as rewarding as it can be:

Location

How far are you willing to go for local food? Technically, many food authorities define “local” as being within 100 miles or less of your home, but for an individual to travel 100 miles just to get some salad greens seems less than practical. For most of us, in fact, a farmer’s market or CSA pickup point would honestly have to be much, much closer than that; how much closer, exactly, depends on your individual preferences. I find that having a farmer’s market that’s only about a mile from my house–one where I can also pick up a CSA box if I choose to buy a share–is ideal, because I can either walk or drive depending on my schedule, it doesn’t cut into my day too deeply, and I have more time to spend there chatting with vendors and choosing my produce because I didn’t waste precious minutes in the commute.

The bottom line is that you need a location you’ll actually visit frequently, without feeling stressed or resentful.  If heading to the farmer’s market is a major “event,” you may want to think about looking for something that’s closer to home.

Designation

Farms will designate their growing practices to consumers–that is, they should, if they’re proud of what they’re doing. Any farmer that won’t tell you outright what his or her methodology includes is not a farmer you want to do business with. Once you understand the terms that are commonly used at farmer’s markets, you’ll know better what types of farms and CSAs are a good match for your values.

Typically, you’ll find that farms are labeled in one of four common ways:

Conventional: Conventional farms are the ones we probably know best from our grocery-aisle days. While their practices are regulated by the EPA for safety purposes, they do employ the use of various fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals in growing their crops. There are hundreds of thousands of registered pesticides and agricultural chemicals on the books in the United States, some of which are in current use, others of which have been removed from activity in farming because of later discoveries that they were potentially harmful to human health. Safefruitsandveggies.com has a description of the regulations in place for conventional farming if you’d like to learn more.

Integrated Pest Management: IPM is probably one of the least well-understood methods of farming, but it’s one that’s growing in popularity; the likelihood that you’ll find an IPM farm at your market or offering a local CSA program is fairy high these days. IPM is not the same as organic farming, but it is a more sustainable, environmentally-motivated way of growing food and caring for the land than conventional farming. IPM farmers tend to avoid the use of chemicals on their crops unless all other known techniques have failed to resolve an issue. Natural practices like the use of predatory insects to kill pests are more common on farms using IPM, while natural or synthetic pesticides would only ever be used in sparing doses, as a last resort. Knowing your farmer is crucial when you’re considering purchasing IPM produce; asking specific questions about what types of pest management strategies a particular farm relies on is the only way to know what’s on the food you’re eating.

Chemical Free Farming: In “chemical free” or “pesticide free” farming, the idea is that quite simply, the farmer pledges to never use synthetic chemicals or pesticides of any kind in treating crops. It’s not as much a strict designation as it is a philosophy that farmers may follow, which leaves it open to interpretation; as with IPM, it’s often a good idea to ask questions of “chemical-free” farmers so you can fully understand how they interpret the term. Some may carry it as far as not using a number of the “natural” pesticides that are legally allowed even in organic farming, while others may not consider “natural” pesticides to be chemicals and may use them more freely. Because the term isn’t regulated in any way, having trust in your farmer is crucial.

Organic Farming: “Organic” may be the perceived gold standard in agriculture, but you’re not likely to find a large number of organic farms and CSAs near you. The process of becoming certified through the government as an organic farm is complex and often costly; it’s commonly out of reach for small farmers who rely on farmer’s market business to survive. Rather than insist on produce that’s labeled “organic” if you can’t easily find it, invest some time and energy into learning more about any of the chemical-free or IPM farms that are available to you. Often, they’re nearly equivalent to “organic” farms, without the expensive and cumbersome licensing requirements. It’s also worth remembering that as much as we throw the term “organic” around, we may not fully understand what it means. Organic is not pesticide-free; it’s simply far more regulated as to the types of pesticides that are allowable (no synthetics), and sets controls on the types of seeds that can be used and the land on which crops can be grown. Those conditions are often met or exceeded by chemical-free farmers who are conscientious about their work.

Specialties and Shares

No two farms are alike–at least, they shouldn’t be. Even at a small farmer’s market where you might find just a few vendors, all selling tomatoes, zucchini, and corn, if you look closely, you’ll probably find some differences between them. Different farmers often favor different varieties of crops; for example, one of my favorite chemical-free farms prides itself on growing uncommon heirloom tomato varieties, while a farm run by a southeast Asian family favors particular kinds of herbs and more exotic vegetables like Japanese sweet potatoes, bok choy, and various radishes. You may also want to ask farmers about their seeds. Organic and heirloom seeds are a good sign, since they’re unlikely to contain GMO material. If you can find a farm that grows heirloom corn varieties, you’ve found a real gem.

If you’re buying your produce at the farmer’s market, then you won’t have to worry much about the different specialties grown by various farms; you’ll just choose what looks best to you. But if you’re signing up for a CSA, make sure that you’re highly familiar with both the farm’s typical crop profiles and their description of their typical CSA share. If you’re going to be receiving box after box of exotic herbs, you’d better know how to use them or preserve them. And if you’re buying a share of a farm with a relatively small variety of products, be aware that you absolutely will end up with endless boxes of zucchini at the height of the season–if you don’t think you could stomach that, either look for a farm with a more diversified yield, or consider sharing your CSA membership with a friend who can take half the burden off your shoulders.

In general, the farmer’s market or CSA program you choose should be able to provide you with a very close replica of your current shopping habits, as far as produce goes–just in a strictly seasonal form. Finding one that allows you to easily buy and cook familiar favorites, while also providing you with the opportunity to stretch your boundaries with a few more nontraditional items, is a good way to make sure you feel fulfilled by your local food experience.

Personality

There’s a definite personality to every farmer’s market, and you’ll want to find one that makes you feel welcome. Some expand upon their offerings with plenty of local artisans, making the farmer’s market experience a bit like a craft fair. Others have musicians, food trucks, and activities for children, which can be fun but also add crowds and noise to the farmer’s market–something you may or may not enjoy.

Personality in a market can also be felt more subtly; look for cues like whether or not your market encourages lower-income families to use their SNAP benefits at the market stalls (and possibly helps with a matching program), whether farmers are willing to barter and offer better deals to loyal customers, and whether or not special requests for items like “seconds” or B-grade produce for preservation are honored.

In a CSA program, you may or may not have as much opportunity to get a feel for personality, but you can certainly find out some subtle things ahead of time. For example, does your CSA allow for any kind of substitutions (extra eggs instead of the bread for a gluten-free family, or choosing spinach over swiss chard)? Is it a program that encourages splitting shares or provides flexible hours or locations for pickups, so that members find it easier to participate? Also, some CSAs either require members to help out at the farm for a certain number of designated hours in order to continue receiving shares, or will make that type of arrangement in exchange for a discount on the cost of a share in some instances. These may not be necessary aspects of a CSA program, but depending on your individual situation, they could be important differentiators if you’re trying to figure out which CSA to join.

Pricing

I can’t leave this post without mentioning price. This is probably one of the most important factors to many shoppers, but in a farmers market setting, it may actually be one of the least tangible measurements of a successful match.

Because there are so many factors that go into determining what the real value of the products you’re buying might be–the type of pest management used by the farm, the quality and flavor of the products, the reduction in carbon footprint, the reduced food waste that you may experience when you’re bringing home freshly picked items rather than ones that have languished in a grocery store–it’s not always true that farmer’s market produce is, or should be, cheaper than what you’re used to buying. It often can be, but it’s not always.

You can, however, try using a few tricks to keep prices in line with your budget. Joining a CSA is one clear way to keep costs down; since CSAs provide you with a weekly “share” that’s based on the farm’s production rather than a strict fee-for-product arrangement, you’re likely to get a much larger amount of produce for your money at the height of CSA season. If you’re not buying a CSA share, you may have to test a few other possible techniques for getting a good deal at your market. Asking farmers to bring you B-grade produce (which is typically still very high-quality) is one way to get a deep discount on farm-fresh local food. Another technique is to wait until later in the market to arrive; while you may have to give up some variety and the privilege of “first picks” by doing this, you’re also probably going to be able to score better deals from some farmers who don’t want to load everything up into their trucks and would rather get some money for their last wares than lug them home. You might also, once you’ve got a good relationship with a farmer or two, ask about bulk discounting. Meat vendors in particular might give you an excellent deal if you’re willing to pre-arrange a large order, and even produce vendors, in some circumstances, might shave a bit off the prices if you take a significant quantity of something off their hands.

As the season to sign up for CSAs and find local farmer’s markets rapidly approaches, it’s time to make sure that you’re equipped to find a local food buying experience that best meets your needs. Feeling comfortable with your farmers and vendors, and believing that you’ve found the right ones for your family, can go a long way toward making sustainable, locally centered eating a long-term habit.

How will you buy your groceries this year?

Photo Credit: Staci Strauss