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Save cash and eat well: Buy into a farm
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  • Will you try new things? "If you get okra one week and you don't know what to do with it, it may just become compost in your fridge," says Lass. Some CSAs sell cookbooks that are organized by ingredient so you can find out exactly what to do with that veggie you've never seen before.

Kathy Stackhouse, who lives in Pittsburgh, says she's expanded her palate in the 15 years that she's been a CSA member. "I would never buy fennel on my own," she says, "but I've learned to appreciate it. We also get heirloom tomatoes and apples throughout the season and all kinds of exotic greens that aren't available."

  • Can you pay for the share upfront? Though there are programs run by individual farms to help low-income families afford shares, you generally have to pay for the share in advance. That upfront money helps farmers plan for the season.
  • Are you willing to get your hands dirty? Some farms will offer a discount or even a free share if you're willing to work on the farm for a few hours a week. If cost is an issue, this may be one way to save some money. "Farmers usually encourage people to come out and visit and take part in the growing of your food," says Hougen-Eitzman.
  • Is there a CSA farm near you? When CSAs first were introduced into the United States in the mid-1980s, the concept was picked up by fewer than 100 farms across the country. Today you can find a CSA farm, in every state, with more than 1,000 in the nation. Perhaps surprisingly, most serve urban and suburban areas, since farms usually have drop-off sites in several locations.
  • What sort of products are you looking for? Some CSAs offer only fruits and vegetables, while others offer specialty items such as flowers, cheese, jam and bread. Farmers should be able to give you an idea of what they've offered to members in years past. Hougen-Eitzman, for example, says his farm grows about 45 different fruits and vegetables each year. Matching your interests with those of a CSA is important to ensure that your experience is a good one.
  • Are you willing to share risk? By paying upfront, you'll be paying even if a crop fails or the yield that year isn't as high as anticipated. On the other hand, you'll also reap the benefits if there's a bumper crop in a given year.

Stackhouse admits that she's had to weather bad harvests along with the farmers, which has meant smaller sacks of fresh food each week.

While any of these questions may seem a bit scary for the uninitiated CSA member, Hougen-Eitzman says that he -- along with most other farmers -- are more than willing to talk potential members through the process. "If you like what the farmers say and if you feel comfortable with them, it's worth trying out," he says.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Updated: July 21, 2008
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