box of produce labeled "eat local"

Where To Find The Cheapest Organic Produce

Hint: It's not the farmers' market.

September 17, 2015

The many downsides to our highly industrialized food supply chain have most of us running to our closest farmers' markets. A few reminders why it's so important to go local: The average food item travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate. The average farmer gets only nine cents of your food dollar, while grocery stores, marketers, processors, and middlemen get the other 91 cents. And large industrial farms employ just three full-time workers per $1 million in revenue, while local farms employ 13.

All these reasons have tripled the number of farmers' markets over the past 15 years. Organic types want to meet the people who grow the food they eat and support a food system that has long-term, local benefits. But let’s face it, farmers’ markets, great as they are, can be inconveniently located, scheduled at odd hours, or sold out of all the good stuff unless you get there within an hour of opening.


Luckily, there's another option. Community-supported agriculture farms (CSAs, for short) put you in direct contact with a single farmer who supplies you with a box of fresh produce once a week throughout the entire growing season, which, depending on where you live, usually lasts about 6 months. You’re essentially buying a share of the farm’s harvest, similar to stock-market shares in a company, and you can buy any number of shares to fit your personal diet or that of a big family.

There are more than 12,500 farms in the US that sponsor CSA programs, compared to approximately 7,000 farmers’ markets. Before you get overwhelmed, review the following checklist to see whether it makes sense for you to sign up.

Do They Sell What You Like?

Probably the most important question to ask of any CSA is whether the share you purchase will include the vegetables you like best. Not all farms grow the same varieties of produce. Some stick to supermarket basics—tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, corn—while others branch out into heirloom varieties, like black radishes and purple tomatillos. Some farms grow a huge variety of all types of crops, while other farmers limit their selection to the most popular ones. If you’ve got picky family members, you may be better off with the latter, while more adventurous eaters might prefer the former.

Related: What's A Whole Diet CSA?

Do You Like To Cook?

If you do, then you’ll love a CSA. The weekly boxes provide a constant variety of foods you may or may not be familiar with, along with constant inspiration to come up with new dishes. CSAs often provide recipes to accompany their weekly boxes, and some farms have Facebook pages where CSA members and the farmer can swap cooking tips and ideas.


Are You A Quick Learner?

The top reason people list for not renewing a CSA share is that they feel guilty about all the food that gets wasted, either because they can’t eat it fast enough or they don’t know how to cook what they get. If you’ve taken a cooking class, you won’t have to worry about that second part, but if your share is loading you down with too many tomatoes or a massive crop of celery you can’t eat in a week, you'll have to be honest with yourself about your spare time. Are you willing to take a few hours on the weekend to preserve your veggies? You don’t have to do much, but there is a little bit of a learning curve involved for figuring out which vegetables freeze best or how to can things like tomatoes and green beans. If you're up for the challenge, bookmark the National Center for Home Preservation on your computer, which provides crop-by-crop instructions for freezing, canning, and, if you’re really adventurous, even fermenting your food. Another alternative is to ask the farmers whether they offer half-shares—smaller shares that provide just a few vegetables each week and are less intimidating for less frequent cooks.

Related: The Tastiest Way To Preserve Sweet Corn

Can You Share Your Share?

Another, perhaps easier, solution is to share your share. For example, split the cost—and the produce—with a friend or coworker, or find a neighbor, a relative, or a local food bank or soup kitchen that can take surplus food off your hands.


How Does The CSA Operate?

Cost is a given—depending on the size of the share you get, you’ll be asked to pay between $200 and $600 at the beginning of the growing season. The good news is that you won’t have to pay for fresh vegetables at the grocery store for at least six months. Some CSAs provide boxes of food at a single drop-off point each week, while others allow you to come to the farm and choose from a variety of what’s available that week. In either case, make sure the farm or drop-off location is convenient, or else you may never make it to pick up all that food you’ve already paid for.

How Involved Can Or Will You Need To Be?

Some CSAs ask their members to help out on the farm. That could be a pro or a con depending on your schedule. In some cases, you can pay a lower up-front cost if you agree to do extra work. Just make sure to ask what, if any, time commitment might be expected of you before signing up.

What Pesticides Are They Using?

Sure, locally grown food is fresher than food shipped from 1,000 miles away, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s pesticide-free. Considering that pesticides are being linked to every ailment from obesity to overactive children, it’s important to avoid them locally, where pesticides can infiltrate your air and water supply. Ideally, you’ll find a local farmer that is USDA Organic certified, but if not, ask which pesticides, if any, the farmer uses. Farmers that use organic practices but aren’t certified are eager to share their methods with you. If a farmer acts cagey when pressed about pesticide use, though, find another one.

Related: Why You Should Never Eat Nonorganic Green Beans

Are You Willing To Cut Your Losses?

When you sign up for a CSA, you’re essentially making an investment in a farm so that the farmers have the money they need to grow healthy, organic, food all season. When they succeed, you get lots of food. When disaster hits, you share in the burden. Heavy rains, droughts, pests, and any manner of other natural disasters can ruin part of the harvest, and you won’t get a refund. In those cases, farmers do work to fulfill their commitment—by trading with other area farmers, for example. But it’s worth asking your farmer what his or her plans are in the event of bad weather before you take the plunge.

What Else Can You Get?

CSAs aren’t limited to vegetables. Some offer fruit, meat, dairy products, and eggs, providing you with a one-stop-shop for most of your grocery needs.

Are you sold yet? If so, then check out Local Harvest or one of these other local-food websites to find a CSA near you. In addition to listings for farmers, Local Harvest also allows customers to rate their CSAs so you can find the farmers with the best reputations in your area.