You may have heard the acronym CSA before, but if you’re like many people, you may not be certain what it is. Over the past two decades, community supported agriculture has gained in popularity — and for good reason. Find out all about CSAs and how you can sign up for this way to buy local, fresh, heirloom, unusual and seasonal produce.

You may have heard the acronym CSA before, but if you’re like many people, you may not be certain what it is. Over the past two decades, community supported agriculture has gained in popularity — and for good reason. Find out all about CSAs and how you can sign up for this way to buy local, fresh, heirloom, unusual and seasonal produce.

How to get CSA shares

Many areas across the country offer local CSAs. Visit the LocalHarvest website for information about what CSAs are local to you. The farms near you may or may not be taking subscriptions. A limited amount of shares are offered in a given year. Be sure to check early in the growing season for the best choice.

Once you’ve selected a CSA farm you like, you may need to visit its website and download an enrollment form. Additional contact information is usually available for inquiries and more information. Each CSA is different in what it offers and how much it will cost. Do your due diligence ahead of time to avoid unwelcome surprises. Once a CSA member, boxes of goodies will be available at a pickup spot about once a week. Some CSAs offer half shares, which is a great way to be a part of the fun at a lesser expense. You can expect prices to range in the low to mid-hundreds, depending upon your location in the country. Growing seasons will differ depending upon climate.

How does a CSA work? LocalHarvest.org explains CSAs this way: A farmer offers a number of shares of his harvests to the public. The shares of CSA are, in actuality, a box of abundant, varied, fresh and local produce. Anyone can purchase a subscription or share to a local CSA. It is a delightful and nourishing, weekly (or so) gift for the whole family.

Is a CSA a good thing? Community supported agriculture is an idea that benefits both farmer and consumer:

Good for farmers: Farmers receive upfront money early in the season, freeing up precious cash flow. Farmers get to spend time marketing their produce early in the season and not during their busy time, when they’re working long days in the field. Another undervalued benefit is the deepening connection of the farmer to the community her or she supports.

Good for the rest of us: Without the work of cultivating your own garden, a myriad fresh produce can be yours. The produce from a CSA is picked when it’s ripe, flavorful and ready. Additionally, a trip to the farm can be a fun adventure for the entire family. Seeing where the food comes from can encourage kids to sample fruits and vegetables they normally would eschew.

Choosing a CSA

Consumer Supported Agriculture has boomed in the past 20 years. More people are discovering the benefits to buying food locally. Choosing a CSA sometimes can be confusing, though. Keep in mind these five factors when thinking about joining one.

1 Location and sources. Finding your nearest CSA farm is as easy as visiting LocalHarvest.org and entering your ZIP code. You can pick from the list of the nearest farms that offer CSA. Some regions have more CSA opportunities than others. Many CSAs will drop off the food box at a common location or deliver to your home. Others allow for pick-up at the farm, which can be fun for kids. A heartfelt side benefit is that it is nice to get to know your local farmers, and vice versa. Make sure, though, to ask plenty of questions when choosing among the many options: How long have you been farming and participating with CSA? Are the items in my share from your farm or others as well? How were last season’s crops? Can you refer me to current members for references? These questions will assist in finding a good CSA.

2 Product selection. The typical share provides a big box of various produce, depending upon where you are in the growing season. CSAs in the Northeast typically offer subscriptions starting in April and running through October. Warmer climates offer selections all year. Can you imagine a fresh avocado in winter? How about a sweet and juicy mango in the fall? Florida and other warm-climate CSAs have that advantage. What comes in each box may vary from week to week and year to year. That’s the fun of a real, local farm.

3 Additional products. A lot more than fresh produce is available at some CSAs. Knowing what kinds of things will be in your share is helpful in choosing a CSA. Depending upon the farm and the climate, local farmers and their families have been known to include many interesting things in a share. You may find herbs, nuts, fruit, coffee, tea, dairy products, eggs, meat, herbal remedies, crafts, dried fruit, honey, flowers, seeds, handmade soap, syrups and maybe even wool. Local Harvest also offers a store with many farm-produced items that may not be available in your area but can be shipped to you.

4 Frequency of boxes. How often you receive a share will depend upon the CSA you choose. Most farms have websites to answer this and other frequently asked questions. Usually, boxes will be available once a week, but this can vary depending upon the crops, weather and your subscription details.

5 Price per share. CSA prices are varied depending on the type of share you buy. A full share of the longest subscription length may cost upwards of $200. Breakdowns of a half share of a season or partial season will cost less. Because each farm is unique, visit Local Harvest online or the farm website for your exact outlay.