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Food

Should You Subscribe To A Weekly Farm Box? We Break It Down

Market boxes will get you weekly fresh fruits and veggies, straight from the farm. They can also save you money—but only if you make the most of them. Here’s how.
The interior of a market farm box, with asparagus, tomatoes, salad leaves, berries and more (Photo: Rochon Garden)

Juicy heirloom tomatoes, buttery corn on the cob and sweet strawberries still warm from the sun: It sounds like the perfect summer menu, but for a growing number of Canadians, it’s also the contents of their weekly CSA farm box. So is a subscription to a weekly haul of farm-fresh fruit and veg worth it? Here’s what you need to know.

What is a CSA box?

CSA stands for community-supported agriculture and, for the people behind it, the community part always comes first. CSA subscriptions are much more than a grocery service. They are weekly or biweekly deliveries of seasonal produce from a local farm. While most often a mix of fruits and veggies, some CSA subscriptions include eggs, preserves, honey, meat and even flowers. Some subscriptions last for just the peak summer months, while others run from early spring to late fall. Those weekly boxes represent a commitment between the farmer and the customer—no matter what Mother Nature might have in store. As Gema Villavicencio, co-founder of Pure Conscience Farm in Shawville, Que., explains: “Members should expect to have a direct relationship with their food and the farmer who grows their food…We do CSA because it not only helps us to sell a portion of our produce to dedicated clients that believe in eating truly fresh, organic and nutritious food but also because we love to be part of that community of people who share our same values.”

What do you get in a market box?

More than food—it’s a relationship, which, for the farmer, includes advocacy and education. “Food is such a global commodity these days that a connection to the farmer and being local is so important,” says Ann Marie Rochon of Ottawa’s Rochon Garden, adding that many people don’t realize where their food comes from. Rochon Garden’s CSA program runs for 24 weeks and includes a number of fruit (like apples, haskap berries, melons, and strawberries) and a wide array of vegetables (including several varieties of tomato, pepper, squash, greens, root vegetables and more).

“Our baskets mostly include our favourite Canadian staples such as tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce but we also occasionally include some ‘discovery’ vegetables such as kohlrabi," says Cynthia Case, co-owner and farm manager of Le Domaine de la Belle & le Gentleman in Bristol, Que. "Education is part of our mission and it can range from [sharing] nutritional value to ways to cook it or a bit of history.”

A spring market box from Thames River Melons filledd with green onions, a cabbage, and potted basil A spring market box from Thames River Melons.

What’s the best way to use up a farm box—and avoid waste?

Helping people make the most of their CSA box is something that growers take pride in. Alex Chesney, a registered dietician and farmer at Thames River Melons in Innerkip, Ont., encourages customers to establish a routine to minimize waste. She recommends unpacking your box right away and doing some prep to ensure everything lasts as long as possible. “Place your asparagus upright in water in a jar or round dish, transfer berries out of quarts and into shallow dishes lined with paper towel, and quickly chop up things like peppers or carrots for easy additions to meals later in the week,” she suggests.

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Chesney also recommends a flexible approach to meal planning, one that can easily incorporate a variety of veggies. “It helps to have some ‘no-recipe recipes’ on hand—salads, soups and stir-fries, or egg dishes like frittatas—that you can easily sub a variety of veggies into, for example.” She adds that you don’t have to use all produce at once. “Can you freeze it? If freezing it in its natural state doesn’t work so well, can you make it into a dish and then freeze it? Is there another way you can save it up for later? Dehydrate or pickle, perhaps? Your winter self will thank you!”

A cardboard box filled with leeks and tomatoes A summer box from Thames River Melons.

What kind of subscription should I get—and how much does it cost?

Choosing the right subscription can help you stay motivated and avoid being swamped by too much produce. At Pure Conscience Farm, their CSA uses a prepaid card option that members apply at their boutique, choosing from fruits, veggies, eggs, yak meat, chicken, honey and more. Meanwhile, at Le Domaine de la Belle & le Gentleman, flex baskets offer people a choice of five or 10 baskets out of the 14-week season. “It's a great way to try (the program) and a great way to commit for someone that is away frequently,” say Case. Other farms offer half-sized baskets, small, medium and large-sized baskets, biweekly pick-ups, vacation flexibility and even the option to pre-select some of your box contents. Price points vary from about $25 a week for a light share (suitable for small families or two people) to $40 (best for a family of four or more) but may be less for smaller farms or more for those which offer specialty products.

Which CSA should I pick?

If you’re debating what CSA is right for you, a look on social media might help. Most growers post photos of their weekly boxes online. While the precise contents can change year to year, it’s a helpful representation of what you can expect on any given week. Perhaps you’ll be attracted to a style of farm that includes pickles and jam in their CSA program, or maybe you’d rather stick with all fresh ingredients. Some companies offer a short, summer-only subscription, while others deliver from May to October. Regardless of your choice, you can expect delicious, in-season fruits and vegetables. "We take pride in what we put in those baskets,” say Case.

Ultimately, while there are many benefits, the CSA model isn’t right for everyone—and farmers are okay with that. Rochon says that she and her team always aim to exceed the monetary level of their subscription plans so that customers enjoy exceptional value for their commitment. However, she knows that price isn’t the only consideration for consumers and notes that some people prefer choosing their produce directly at the market, filling up on tried-and-true favourites and having fewer surprises. Everyone has their preferences and different models represent different value propositions. "Community is really important for us because we're a multi-generational family farm,” she says. “We need that connection in order for us to sustain what we're doing.” Above all, whether you buy a farm box or from a market, you’re supporting a local farmer and buying farm-fresh produce—always a win-win.

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