Step aside, grocery stores and online shopping. The CSA is here!
You may already be familiar with the acronym CSA as it relates to fruits and vegetables. CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture,” and it is a way for folks to buy shares of a local farm’s harvest.
Think of it as everyday people helping farmers buy seeds, maintain equipment, pay employees, and cover farm-running expenses that need to be paid before plants even begin to grow. Once the farmer has used CSA pre-payments to get crops growing, CSA members can come pick up boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables every week or so during harvest season—and experience an edible return on their investment.
I have fond memories of my first CSA when I lived in Berkeley, California: my friends and I had shares from Full Belly Farm that we picked up in our neighborhood; my friends got theirs off the front porch of a house a few streets from them, and my pick-up spot was a synagogue up the hill. There were always standard items in our boxes that changed as the growing seasons went on (e.g., carrots, lettuce, oranges, radishes, etc.), as well as less-common items—like verdologa[i]—that challenged us to try new recipes.
But produce isn’t the only way to do CSA. There are CSA shares for flowers, wool fibers, honey, and mushrooms. Most importantly, there are even cheese CSAs.
Cheese CSAs run just like produce CSAs: a cheese lover such as yourself finds a local creamery and pays for a CSA share. The cheesemaker uses your money to buy feed for the animals, to hire and train employees, to fund utilities like electricity and water, and to pay rent on the facility where those cheese wheels are aging until they are ready for sale. The cheesemaker may still sell her cheese at the farmers market or to a distributor, but she first sets aside a selection of cheeses—sometimes even making special cheeses just for the CSA program—for CSA members to come pick up on their assigned basis.
(Most CSAs offer “pick-up on the farm” or “pick-up at a central location.” A select few offer home delivery, but that is tedious and expensive to do in populous areas.)
Cheese CSAs are seasonal, based on when the animals are producing milk or when cheeses are ready for pick-up. Lost Peacock Creamery in Olympia, Washington, has theirs in the early spring when they first begin making cheese and before retail sales pick up with warmer weather. Harmony Fields in Bow, Washington, has a 12-week summer CSA beginning in June with pick-ups every other week.[ii] Fantello Farmstead Creamery in Enumclaw, Washington, offers a 16-week CSA that runs from June until “first frost” with weekly pick-ups.[iii]
Searching the internet is a great way to find a CSA near you (literally: search for “CSA near me”), but there may also be local or regional resources you can consult. Farmers Market and regional business associations, county and city governments, and even Yelp have CSA listings. Your state’s cheese guild might be another place to look. The Washington State Cheesemakers Association has a “where to buy local cheese” file listing its members and where they sell their cheeses.
There may also be a local organization in your state that compiles a variety of resources to connect consumers with farmers and producers. In Washington, the Tilth Alliance has banded together with other regional groups to create Eat Local First and the Food & Farm Finder, a database of farmers and producers who have signed up for free listings. You can narrow your search to see what producers are nearby, or you can search by what they are offering—such as dairy, eggs, or baked goods. The site also has a dedicated CSA Finder.
You can reach out to your favorite creamery to see if they offer a CSA or know of someone who does. Sometimes smaller creameries will pool resources with nearby farms to offer a CSA of cheeses and other items from their neighborhood. When I was recently searching for a produce CSA, I found one that offered add-on shares of their neighboring farms’ cheese and meat.[iv]
While you are getting excited about all the cheese and butter and carrots and plums and bacon you will find yourself eating in three months, the up-front cost of a CSA can seem daunting—several hundred dollars, if not over a thousand. There are several ways you can think about the cost of a CSA share that make it seem less expensive:
- As an investment that will earn you something you can eat in the future without paying for it then—like buying something when it’s on sale and freezing it for later, except it’s fresh food without freezer burn.
- Broken down into how much the share costs per week, and then compare that to how much you already spend on food. For example, a $400 cheese CSA share that lasts for 16 weeks breaks down to $25 per week for four products that normally cost about $8 each. Or a three-month CSA for $98 puts you at $32 a month for three cheeses and two yogurts—or $6.40 per item.
- As something you can share with your friends or co-workers.
My boss recently suggested a group of us get together to buy CSA shares from a local creamery. The goal was to support the farmer, but also to have an excuse to go to a farm and see cute baby animals.
Five people signed up for four shares, and we decided to take turns driving out to the farm, which is about an hour and a half from where we work. Since our program is a three-month CSA with monthly pick-up windows, only three people have to drive. That makes the time commitment of going to get the cheese less daunting.
I used my first pick-up window as an excuse to take my mom on a mini road trip. Our CSA is through Lost Peacock Creamery,[v] so we got to go see their farm and the baby goats, adult goats, grouses, peacocks, chickens, pigs, and horses on their grounds. We also checked out downtown Olympia, saw the Washington State Capitol, went for a walk on the historic waterfront boardwalk, and visited a friend at work at the Olympia Food Co-Op (and checked out her cheese case, of course!). Since it was a one-off trip, we were able to make a day of it.
The CSA box included cheeses we sell at my store, like Chèvre and Feta, as well as special treats just for CSA members: drinkable honey yogurt, plain goat yogurt, and the option to add-on cheese curds.
We’ve been living through this pandemic for a year now, and even though sales may be up for large grocers, small farms and farmers are still struggling (as are restaurants and many other small businesses).
With so many suffering for so long, it can seem daunting to even think about wanting to help. Buying into a CSA is one way you can make the struggle less difficult for a local food producer. Providing that bit of guaranteed income might make all the difference in ensuring their business can continue to contribute to the community for another year. Plus, who doesn’t love getting the freshest possible food?
Here are some places you can look for CSAs:
Depending on where you live, there may be many CSA options. Shared Legacy Farms in Elmore, Ohio, has a great blog post on how to choose the right CSA.
If you live in Washington, these creameries have cheese CSAs:
- Fantello Farmstead Creamery (cow) – Enumclaw (through Hell or High Water Farm)
- Harmony Fields (sheep) – Bow
- Lost Peacock Creamery (goat) – Olympia
- Pine Stump Farms (goat) – Omak
- Venison Valley Farm & Creamery (cow) – Vashon Island
[ii] Harmony Fields Summer Sheep CSA: see https://harmonyfields.com/shop/2021-summer-sheep-cheese-csa/.