What is a Farm Share?
Updated: Sep 17, 2022
A farm share is a popular way to get the best of seasonal food into your kitchen and, at the same time, give direct support to your local farms.
Also referred to as CSA programs (for Community Supported Agriculture) or AMAP (for something french I don't know how to translate), the original concept was that you could buy a share of the harvest season before the season begins and a portion of the harvest throughout the season is reserved for you. The early cash infusion helps farms pay for things like seed, equipment maintenance, and labor without resorting to bank loans that are detrimental to their financial health.
And what do you receive for your incredibly commendable forward-thinking? A weekly box of vegetables, fruit, dairy, or a combination of all three, of a quality you won't find in the grocery store (there are meat shares as well, but that's another post). The farmer curates the box from that week's harvest, often picking the day before boxing. Even farmer's markets can't compare to the freshness of a CSA box.
All of this said, the original idea has been expanded upon in many ways. Some co-operatives now pool together local farms and manage the logistics of marketing, sign-ups, and deliveries. Other companies offer select-what-you-want and allow add-ons of pantry and other items to give customers a more grocery-store feel. Not everyone is happy with these new models. Farmers get less of a cut in these scenarios and, at least according to one NY Times article, could be losing their direct customers. But there is another way to look at it. The old model is not something most people can manage. I am one of those people; for me, these services offer a way to support local farms when they otherwise would not be able to.
My go-to is the Fresh Direct CSA program. Fresh Direct is a grocery delivery service that, at least in the New York area, offers CSA (aka farm share) boxes ordered ala carte and delivered to your door. It is my go-to program because it allows me to skip it when I go away or when it takes me longer than a week to finish a box, and it doesn't mean I'm schlepping a box of vegetables across town and over a river to get it to my apartment. Fresh Direct offers two boxes in the NY area at the time of this writing: Hepworth Farms and Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative.
When I started, I took the Fresh Direct approach because I was not yet ready to commit to an entire season, which turned out to be a good call. As you may have read from my Farm Share Challenge post, the beginning of my journey was rough. I'm in a different place now, but I still buy my boxes this way. I love supporting the Lancaster Farms Cooperative, partly for sentimental reasons (I grew up in the Lancaster area) but mostly because I can rely on the freshness and quality of the veggies in the box (and the fresh eggs are a world apart from store bought eggs). Lancaster Farms Cooperative also works with local farmers to organize a more traditional CSA (via a subscription). However, since I cannot pick up in Pennsylvania and they don't deliver directly to the NY area, I buy through Fresh Direct. I'm still supporting the farmers, perhaps in a more minor way, but that's better than no way. Disclaimer: I am not sponsored or in any way compensated by Fresh Direct or Lancaster Farms. I'm just telling my story.
If I could get a traditional CSA to my apartment in a workable way, I would absolutely sign up for one. I encourage anyone who can manage a weekly pickup to begin or remain in their direct CSA relationship. I also encourage more farmers to find creative ways to offer delivery since that is probably the significant barrier for most people. But for anyone who has never bought a box and wants to try it out before committing, there are options. An ala-carte box is an excellent way to figure out if a program works for you. Regardless, the website LocalHarvest is one resource that can help you find what's available to you.
Farm Shares are mutually beneficial. I stand by the CSA concept, but I know there is a lot of murkiness in the market. Still, I think some support is better than no support, and I encourage everyone reading this to give a CSA program a try. I also know the idea of a massive box of vegetables can be intimidating. If not knowing what to do with a box of vegetables is your barrier to buying a box or subscribing to a program, take a look at my post on how I eventually conquered my self-imposed farm share challenge. It turned out to be far more manageable than I thought, and the quality of the food I eat, its benefits to my health, and the benefits to the local farming industry are all very much worth the effort.