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Save cash and eat well: Buy into a farm
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Some top-tier restaurants get food from community-supported agriculture farms, so chefs can see exactly how the produce is grown and ensure that it's of the quality they want for their dishes.

Laura Brown, coordinator for the Madison Area CSA Coalition in Wisconsin, adds that most CSAs offer events at the farm, where members can meet the farmers and see how their food is grown. "It's an investment in the community," she says. You may also take pride in knowing you're helping to support a small, local farm and helping preserve open space.

The health benefits of organic food are debatable, but at least one health-care insurer is providing a financial incentive for its members to join a CSA. Those insured by Wisconsin's Physicians Plus can receive a cash rebate of up to $200 for buying a share at a CSA farm.

Lass emphasizes the noneconomic benefits: "You get to support a farmer for doing something great in a community, and you're getting your food from a person you know and trust."

Shareholders not only share the produce from the farm, but also share the risk. If there is a complete crop failure, the shareholders take the loss with the farmer.

Even CSA proponents acknowledge that becoming a member may not be for everyone. Here are a few important questions to ask yourself to see if you're ready to take the plunge.

  • Can you manage the lifestyle change? If you eat out a lot or are accustomed to throwing a frozen dinner in the oven most days, joining a CSA may be a considerable change. "A lot of people are overwhelmed by it," says David Hougen-Eitzman, a farmer at Big Woods Farm in Nerstrand, Minn. "People have to change their cooking perspective a bit."
  • Do you want to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables? Not only do you need to be willing to cook the produce, you have to be willing do eat a lot of it. For those just starting out, Brown recommends splitting a share with another family. The savings that Lass touts only make sense if you're actually eating the food you receive every week.

Members can expect dozens of different kinds of produce, from onions, salad greens, carrots, asparagus, sugar snap peas, and parsley in the spring, to summer squash, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, and peppers in the summer. Fall and winter crops may include winter squash, potatoes, pumpkins, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. Depending on where you live, you may also get a variety of berries, apples and other fruits.

  • Are you willing to eat seasonally? If you want to eat a salad with peas and tomatoes, you'll have to supplement your share with grocery-bought produce. The spring harvest includes leafy greens and peas, but squash and tomatoes don't come until later in the season. CSA farmers often provide recipes with each weekly offering so that members can use what they're given.

Sarah Maxwell, a CSA farm member who lives in Des Moines, says this was a difficult adjustment when she first joined. "I didn't want to buy produce from the store while I was getting it from the CSA, but a limited growing season meant only getting certain vegetables, such as tomatoes and potatoes, a few weeks out of the summer."

Next: "Will you try new things?"
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