What is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and how does it work?

Since 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 the CSA Coalition. 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 is MUCH MORE than just a weekly delivery of food or food products. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a powerful investment in your health, community, and local economy. It’s a partnership between farms and consumers that keeps independent businesses thriving, helps families eat seasonal, local produce, and charges farmers and consumers with the responsibility of building a strong, equitable food system. Learn more about the history of CSA.

How does it work?

In general, CSA farms sign up members from December-April (or until a farm fills up…which can often happen as early as March!)  for the coming growing season. New members pay for their share of vegetables up front (some farms offer installment payment plans, but many require full payment at enrollment) and receive a weekly or bi-weekly delivery of vegetables through the 20-28 week high growing season from May-October.

Once you’re enrolled in your farm, the real fun begins as the weekly box of freshly picked, seasonal goodies arrive in your neighborhood.

Most farms write newsletters or blogs for their membership to keep folks connected to life on the farm, introduce new veggies, and inspire new recipes and culinary adventures using all the contents of your weekly box. Opportunities abound 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 flavors and challenges of seasonal eating and the idea of committing to your food producers? Then CSA could be great for you!

Do I get to choose the veggies that are included in a CSA share?

At some farms with on-farm pick up, you do get to select your veggies, but at most, you get what the farmer provides in your box. Pick-up sites often have “swap boxes” where you can leave a vegetable you don’t like and take home the veggies someone else has given away.  Think of it as a culinary adventure. You will probably learn to like new veggies via your CSA share. Most farms include recipes in their newsletters.

This is an example of a bountiful early October delivery from Primrose Community Farm

What types of shares are available?

Depending on your farm, you may have the option for a “Standard” share (feeds 4 healthy vegetable eaters every week), a “Half” or “Every-other-week” share (either a weekly delivery of a smaller quantity of food, or a Standard box that comes less frequently), or other variations on quantity and frequency of delivery. Non-vegetable farms offer unique bundles and arrangement for meat, flower, or canned good delivery. Additional products may be available through your farm or their partnership with their neighboring farms (eggs, honey, cheese, etc). 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 family.

In addition to their high season shares, many farms employ season extension practices such as hoop houses or root cellars to offer early and late season 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!

Why should I choose a FairShare farm?

Given the amazing quantity of high quality farms serving our communities, finding YOUR farm can be daunting. FairShare-endorsed vegetable farms must grow or produce the vast majority of their products on farm, and be certified organic or in transition to organic certification. Our meat farmers must raise their animals in humane conditions.  ALL farms must demonstrate an ability to provide a high level of customer service.

clover feed

Pasture-raised chickens feed on fresh green grass.

How do I  select a farm?

Start by thinking deeply about what is important to you about joining a CSA. Everyone wants good, fresh food, but do you want primarily veggies? Or a farm that provides eggs, too, or meat? Do you want to attend farm events with your children or grandchildren? If yes, how far away are your prospective farms?

If you are choosing a CSA for the first time, be sure to read our tips on choosing a CSA farm to determine which farm will best meet your needs and expectations.

Consider the following:

  • Location of Pick-Up Site – With more than 175 delivery sites in the Madison area and countless others throughout Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa, there are plenty of options. Check out our interactive pick-up location map to find a convenient location.
  • Length of Delivery Season – The “regular” CSA season begins in May or early June, and ends anywhere from October to December. Many farms offer additional early season or late season share options.
  • Price of Share –  A direct comparison of share prices can be misleading as farms have a different number of deliveries, crops, size, and delivery options. In general, a standard vegetable share (feeding ~2 adults, 2 kids) for 20 weeks costs approximately $550-$650; half shares cost about $300. Visit the individual farm websites to find CSA brochures and share prices. Divide the total share cost by the number of weeks to get a per-week cost as you compare shares.
Vermont Valley Worker shares

Vermont Valley Worker Share members work together with full time crew members to pick fresh greens.

  • Specialty Items – Coalition farms offer a wide variety of seasonal produce, eggs, or meats. Additional specialty items may include fruit, flowers, honey, cheese, canned goods, large or bulk shares, u-picks and more!
  • Worker Shares – Some farms allow CSA members to pay for their weekly share by committing to work a specified number of hours each week on the farm.
  • Produce Variety – Do you eat with a sense of adventure? Some CSAs offer a wide array of produce with many different varieties of vegetables. Others offer a more tried-and-true selection of popular produce. Ask the farmer what you can expect in your boxes throughout the season.
Once you’ve decided what’s important to you, it’s time to start searching for YOUR farm.
  • Visit the Full Farm List for profiles of all of our wonderful farms.
  • Use the Custom Farm Search to find a farmer by share type, farm features, pick-up days and more.
  • The Pick-Up Locations Map is an awesome tool and can help you find farms that deliver near your home, workplace, gym, school, etc. You can also search the map by farm location.

Driftless Organics Farmers

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. Many farms also have a website where you can sign up online or download an application form. Check out the farm’s online calendar to see if there are opportunities to tour the farm, meet the crew, or sample some veggies. Also, the farm’s Facebook page can give you an idea of how they interact with members and what their a typical share look like.

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. Now the Coalition has several Health Plan Partners that are providing cash rebates to their members for purchasing CSA vegetable shares from a Coalition farm. GHC-SCW, Physicians Plus, and Unity Health offer $100-$200 cash rebates for purchasing fruit or vegetable CSA shares. Learn more about FairShare’s CSA Healthy Rebate Program.

I’m on a limited income. Do you provide financial assistance?

FairShare’s Partner Shares Program works to reduce the barriers of CSA membership in our community by providing cost-sharing opportunities, and accepting payment plans and Quest card payments. Low-income households can get up to a $300 grant toward the cost of joining a farm.

CSA seems kind of pricey. 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 your 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. 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 family farm. 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 Southern Wisconsin!

How can I make the most of my share? What if I get a veggie I’m not familiar with?

We highly recommend purchasing one of our cookbooks:

 “From Asparagus to Zucchini” is an indispensable, nationally renowned resource for people who want to make the most of local and seasonal produce. It’s packed with more than 400 recipes, and cooking and storage tips for over 50 vegetables and herbs – all in alphabetical order! Celeriac, parsnip, burdock root, fennel? No problemo! Order Now!

Farm-Fresh and Fast Cookbook Cover Photo“Farm-Fresh and Fast”  (FairShare’s new cookbook) is bursting with strategies, techniques and over 300 new recipes for both seasoned and beginning CSA members and farmer’s market shoppers. Farm-Fresh highlights similarities among ingredients, helping CSA members adapt recipes to fit what they have on hand, and teaches local food lovers of all skill levels how to make the most out of fresh, seasonal produce. Order Now!


Need help?

For more information on how to choose a farm, or for assistance in using the tools on this website, please contact FairShare at info@csacoalition.org or call (608) 226-0300.

FairShare CSA Coalition

FairShare CSA Coalition