C H I C A G O L A N D' S L O C A L F A R M C O A L I T I O N
Frequently Asked Questions
Because the life and vitality of our network of farms hinges on each farm’s individuality and unique farm operation, the answer to “how it works” is as many and varied as farms in Band of Farmers. That being said, we can offer some basic background on the core concepts and provide answers our frequently asked questions to help you narrow down your search and find the right farm for you, your family or your workplace.
What is CSA?
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and is a partnership between farms and consumers that usually takes the form of a weekly box of vegetables during the growing season. That partnership keeps small-scale farms thriving, helps families eat fresh, seasonal, local produce, and charges farmers and consumers with the responsibility of building a strong, equitable food system. CSA is much more than a weekly delivery of food; it's a powerful investment in your health, community, and local economy. Learn more here about the history of CSA.
How does it work?
In general, CSA farms sign up members from late Fall through late Spring (or until a farm's CSA membership fills up) for the coming growing season, paying for their share of vegetables up front (some farms offer installment payment plans, but many require full payment at enrollment). Members (often called subscribers or shareholders) receive a weekly or bi-weekly delivery of farm goods through a specified portion of the growing season, which is usually from June through October, though some farms offer seasons that are shorter or longer.
Most farms write newsletters, blogs, or Facebook posts for their membership to keep them connected to life on the farm, introduce new veggies, and provide recipes for the contents of your weekly box. Opportunities usually exist to engage with your farm, to interact with your farmers, and to truly become a part of the farm community through on-farm events and special activities. You’ve made the commitment to buy from a local farm and eat the freshest food available; we encourage you to engage in your greater farm community and bring your commitment full circle.
How can I tell if CSA is a good choice for me and my family?
Do you enjoy cooking at home, or want to learn? Do you like the idea of committing to farmers in your food shed? Do you want to receive fresh, nutritious, seasonal food? Do you recognize that by receiving vegetables (or meats, etc.) from a local farm you are doing more than buying food? Then CSA could be a great fit for you!
Do I get to choose the vegetables that are included in a CSA share?
With most vegetable CSA programs, you get what the farmer provides in your box, as produce is seasonally available and ready for harvest. That said, some farms offer a degree of customization, or a “swap box” at pickup, or the opportunity to add on more of what you like. Think of it as a culinary adventure. You will probably learn to like new veggies via your CSA share, even items you thought you disliked because you had never had them so fresh. Most farms include recipes in their newsletters to help you make use of your veggies, and other preparation methods are merely a Google search away.
What types of shares are available?
For vegetables, depending on the farm, you may have the option for a “full” share, a “half” or “every-other-week” share (either a weekly delivery of a smaller quantity of food, or a full box that comes less frequently), or other variations in quantity and frequency of delivery. Each farm uses its own designation for their share sizes, and many will quantify them by a portion of a bushel or by how many brown paper grocery bags it fills. So be sure to compare apples to apples with respect to share sizes.
Those offering other than vegetables offer unique arrangements for meat, flowers, cheese, etc. Additional products such as eggs, honey, cheese, etc., may be available through your farm or through their partnership with neighboring farms. The key to happiness with your CSA is your commitment to purchase and utilize fresh food. Pay attention to your cooking and eating habits and sign up for a share size that is right for your household.
In addition to their main season shares, many farms employ season extension practices such as hoop houses, on-farm processing kitchens, or root cellars to offer early or late season--or even nearly year-round--shares. The longevity, content and delivery schedule for early and late season shares often varies significantly from farm to farm, so be sure to check the details of your farm’s offerings to know what you’ve signed up for!
Keep in mind that the options available to you may be limited by which farms serve your area, or an area convenient to your home or office.
I'm afraid I won't be able to keep up with all the veggies. Is there an option for me?
You'll probably be pleasantly surprised by how many farms offer more than one size CSA share and other flexible options. Some farms offer "half" shares, or even "solo" shares for single households, or every-other-week options. Of course, sharing a large box with another household is an option, too. Look at photos of various sizes of CSA shares to visualize how you might use a weeks' worth of produce. And keep in mind that you might want to freeze, can, ferment, or otherwise preserve some of your bounty to enjoy during the off-season.
Can I sign up on this website for a CSA?
No. This website represents a coalition of CSA farms that serve the greater Chicagoland area, and provides resources on how to select a CSA, but ultimately you will make your commitment with and create your relationship with a specific farm. Use our Find a CSA resources and when you've honed in a few farms that meet your criteria, visit their websites and other listings, call or email them if you have questions, and get on board!
Why should I choose a Band of Farmers farm for my CSA?
Band of Farmers member CSA farms have completed an extensive application for membership and all of that information is provided to you via the farm's profile on the CSA Directory. This offers you both transparency and an easy and searchable format for honing in on the CSA that works best for you. In addition, by collaborating with other CSA farms through membership in Band of Farmers, our member CSA farms have indicated an interest in joining forces to promote local foods and rural communities--not merely their own CSA offerings.
Are all of the farms in Band of Farmers organic?
While all Band of Farmers member farms are small- or family-scale farms, not all are certified organic. Each farm determines its own farming practices and you are encouraged to access that information by reviewing their profiles via the CSA Directory, reviewing their websites, and speaking with the farmer(s).
The term “organic” is regulated by U.S. law and managed by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), which maintains the right to impose significant fines on farms using the term (or its derivatives like “grown using organic methods” or “beyond organic”) if the farm is not USDA Certified Organic or exempt (only farms growing under NOP regulations that sell less than $5,000 in organically labeled product are exempt from certification). Farms that receive organic certification undergo rigorous verification of their practices by an independent third-party certifier, which includes extensive review of practices, records and receipts for all inputs (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.).
While organic certification provides both farmers and consumers a measure of consistency and confidence, a farm does not need to be certified organic to be growing in a way that might satisfy an educated consumer. Some farms are certified or monitored by a non-USDA organization which subjects them to some oversight. Regardless of how a farm describes its growing practices, if organic certification is important to you, make that inquiry part of your search for the CSA that works for you.
How do I select a farm?
Start by thinking about what is important to you about joining a CSA. Everyone wants nutritious, fresh food, but do you want primarily veggies? Or a farm that provides eggs or meat? Do you want to attend farm events with your children or grandchildren? If so, how far away are your prospective farms?
If you are choosing a CSA for the first time, be sure to read our factors to consider when choosing your farm to determine which farm will best meet your needs and expectations. Then use the CSA Directory to search for geographic areas, CSA types, production methods, or other factors that are important to you. Check out the websites (and/or Facebook or Local Harvest listings) of farms that you are considering to learn more about, well, everything you’d want to know about your farm, including production methods, photos, crop calendar, pickup/delivery sites, prices, sizes, types of shares, and signup and payment options.
I found a farm that might be a good match. What’s the next step?
Call or email the farm directly to confirm pickup locations, share prices and availability, payment options, or to ask additional questions about their farm and farming practices. In addition to what you learn, the farm’s responsiveness to your call or email, and ability to answer your concerns, can tell you a lot about how it will be to develop a relationship with that farm.
I’ve heard something about health insurance rebates for CSA. What’s that?
Health insurance providers are recognizing and rewarding their members for proactive healthy choices, one being eating a healthy diet full of fresh vegetables. While this option is currently available only in Wisconsin through FairShare CSA Coalition, this is something that Band of Farmers will be actively pursuing for the benefit of Chicagoland consumers and the CSA farms that serve them. We don’t anticipate this being an option via Band of Farmers for 2015; however, you can help by asking your employer’s human resources/benefits department to ask your insurance provider to consider this option. In some instances, an employer might consider instituting a rebate as an incentive to its employees regardless of insurance company involvement. Please contact us if we can offer any assistance in conveying the benefits of CSAs on health to your employer or insurance provider.
I’m on a limited income. Do you provide financial assistance?
Again, following the lead of Wisconsin’s FairShare CSA Coalition, we hope to undertake some fundraising efforts to assist low-income consumers to CSA shares. Additionally, we will stay on top of efforts to offer CSAs using SNAP/Link benefits; that’s currently not an option for those CSAs that require upfront payment for their shares.
I can’t find any CSAs that deliver to my area. Can you help me?
Despite the number of CSAs serving Chicagoland and their broad reach, there are still pockets unserved by CSA farms. Most CSA farms are glad to set up a new delivery/pickup site if a critical mass of customers will materialize; for some farms, this is 5 new members, while others will require 20 or more. Make an honest assessment of the interest in your area. Are you a member of a faith community, book club, or babysitting co-op where a number of potential customers come together or otherwise share interests? Do others at your workplace have an interest in receiving a CSA? Hosting a drop-off site generally requires at least one person to coordinate and troubleshoot. Are you that person? Go to Create a Pickup Site page for tips and feel free to contact us at email@example.com to see if we can find a CSA farm that might be able to serve your area.
CSA seems kind of expensive. Why should I pay a farmer up front of instead of shopping at a grocery store?
CSA is so much more than a bag of groceries! When you think about the value of a CSA share, there’s a lot to consider. Buying directly from the farm means you are buying the very freshest, tastiest food. Vegetable varieties are grown for quality, flavor and diversity--not shelf life and the ability to withstand weeks and hundreds of transport miles. CSA helps you learn where your food comes from, how it’s grown, and how to prepare it. When you join a CSA, you keep your food dollars local and support a small-scale farm and its rural community. Becoming a CSA member means you’re joining a community of conscious eaters. Invest in good, clean food and the creation of a safe, community-based food system in the greater Chicago area!
If CSA doesn’t work out for me, can I get my money back?
The basic tenets of CSA generally involve sharing with the farmer the risks and rewards of farming; thus, it is the norm for there to be no refund for undelivered shares if you find that it doesn’t work out for whatever reason. There are exceptions to this and you should research or inquire of each farm about their policies and practices before you commit. If you should find that you have a problem with quality, quantity, variety, service, etc., it’s best to let your farmer know as soon as possible so there can be an opportunity for the farmer to resolve your issues or explain the circumstances. It is not fair to your farmer to hold in your complaints and then parlay them through online reviews or other word of mouth without giving a realistic opportunity for your concerns to be addressed. As often as not, customer concerns arise from a misunderstanding of the CSA concept or not reading the information sent out by the farm.
It is important at the outset of your CSA experience to align your expectations with the realities of farming in the Midwest. To that end, the more time you can spend researching, talking with farmers, and talking with other people, the more likely that your understanding of your CSA will be realistic. Keep in mind that CSA is not merely a purchase of a commodity!
How can I make the most of my share? What if I get a veggie I’m not familiar with?
We highly recommend looking to your farmer for recipes, searching online through the many wonderful recipe
sites, and purchasing a seasonal or “farmers market” cookbook. The following cookbooks are available at bookstores or from FairShare CSA Coalition: