CSA Boxes Are Better Than They've Ever Been

How the pandemic made farm share boxes more sophisticated and accessible.

I've always appreciated, in theory, the idea of farm share boxes, formally known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). After all, who doesn't want to support local farmers and get fresh produce direct from the source? But until recently, my experience with them was limited. As it turns out, I had a lot to learn about just how useful they can be.

About a decade ago, when I was working at WBEZ public radio in Chicago, I shared a CSA subscription with my desk mate Niala Boodhoo (now host of the Axios Today podcast) and another coworker. We would split a small box of produce each week from a local farm; the small box turned out to be a little too small for three people, and we sometimes had to negotiate (in an amiable way, of course) over who got what.

The continuous supply of carrots and onions didn't make me want to cook more—it only made me tire of carrots and onions. I also didn't like having to commit to a weekly delivery, especially because I often hadn't finished using the veggies from the previous week yet. After I left Chicago, I filed my CSA interest in the "been there, done that" category. The farm box model just didn't work for me.

During the pandemic, though, I was cooking more, and I began checking out the options available to me in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was then living. I wasn't alone. Argus Farm Stop, a grocery that specializes in local farmers' produce, saw so much demand for its boxes in 2020 that it had to cap the number available each week (it has since expanded one of its stores, allowing it more space to prepare them).

My interest in CSAs was reignited, and once I arrived in New Orleans earlier this spring, people began telling me about the boxes available from Covey Rise Farms. I'd seen its fruit and vegetables in the grocery section at Coffee Science, a hangout in the Mid-City neighborhood, and thought a box might save me a search for grocery stores with good produce, so I decided to check out their boxes online.

Wow, what a surprise. I quickly realized that farm share boxes have come a long way since I had written them off several years ago. Grady Seale, farm manager and co-owner of Covey Rise, says many of the changes are due to farmers' embrace of Harvie, a Pittsburgh-based web platform that manages CSA subscriptions and offers its own boxes.

"Before, we had a produce club, and this is what you got," Seale says. "The boxes really never took off until Harvie."

CSA boxes aren’t one-size-fits-all anymore

Now, Covey Rise offers five sizes of boxes, ranging from the mini, at $23, to a medium at $45, and the family size at $109. Unlike old-school farm shares, where you shelled out for the full season upfront, you are billed by the box. While you are signing up for a season, you can pause your subscription or skip a week's delivery, an option many farms and stores now offer.

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For $23, I get a generous amount of produce. The selection might include a quart of blueberries, a pound of peaches, a bag of eight cucumbers, four big ears of corn, and a box of cherry tomatoes. While the fruit and corn need to be eaten quickly, the cucumbers and tomatoes keep nicely, meaning I can space out my home-prepared dishes without feeling like it's a race against the clock.

In the Pittsburgh area, Harvie offers two sizes of boxes, at $35 and $99, and a staggering 450 choices, including the items that customers can add onto their boxes (more on that in a minute). Along with its traditional produce box, Argus Farm also offers a flower box, for $20 a week.

Customize farm boxes to your preferences

Before I started my Covey farm share, I filled out a questionnaire asking me for my favorite fruits and vegetables, a feature from the Harvie platform. When possible, the farm promised to send me only things I said I wanted to eat. I was startled to find out I didn't simply have to accept whatever the farm offered me. Three days before my box is ready, I get an email telling me that I can swap out the items in my box.

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For instance, I was wallowing in blueberries one week—I'd bought some at the farmers market, not realizing they'd also be in that week's farm share box. I deselected blueberries and asked for peaches instead, which were just coming into season. Likewise, even though I eat bell peppers, I haven't needed any lately, so I've exchanged those for more cucumbers.

"People get a little burned out on eggplant and red peppers," Seale admits. Meanwhile, he's able to offer box customers limited items like oyster mushrooms that his restaurant customers can't use, since they require designing a dish for multiple people. By contrast, home cooks can incorporate a limited amount of an item into that night's dinner, and once Seale's supply is all ordered, he removes it from the website.

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Home delivery is widely available

Many CSAs in the past have delivered to offices and central locations, but usually, customers had to go to pickup spots where the boxes are assembled or dropped off. That changed during the pandemic, when so many offices closed, prompting a number of farms to begin delivery direct to customers' homes. Argus Farm Stop offers home delivery for a $5 charge, and Covey will bring your box to your house for $6.

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Be aware, however, that delivery prices can fluctuate based on gasoline prices. And if the weather is bad you might be better off collecting your box from a place where it's safely stored inside. I've opted to pick up my box at a nearby poke place that's one of the two closest locations to my house.

CSAs have moved beyond fruits and vegetables

A number of farms are now partnering with local food producers, allowing customers to tack on dairy, grains, and nonperishable wares for an additional charge. I was scrolling through Covey Rise's list when I came upon goat cheese cheesecake from Huckleberry's Creamery, a business in Franklinton, Louisiana, that specializes in goat milk.

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It was $4 extra, but I figured I'd treat myself. The cheesecake was delicious, and was a nice introduction to Huckleberry's stand at the Crescent City Farmer's Market, where I've since bought several kinds of chevre (and more cheesecake).

Covey's selection of extras varies, but it most recently offered bread, coffee beans, rice, and honey from a local apiary. "I used to have people get one box," Seale says. "Now they get the biggest possible box, and add onto it." In the Pittsburgh area, Harvie offers its customers everything from doughnuts and salsa to spices, pita chips, and different kinds of meat, as well as frozen food.

In Ann Arbor, Tantre Farms offers an Immune Booster box with a wide variety of prepared foods from local producers and restaurants. A recent breakfast box included kombucha, pierogi, pancake mix, bread, and eggs. Area popups like Basil Babe, known for dumplings and Thai food, also have provided dishes, according to the season.

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Farm boxes help fill a void

Before the pandemic hit, about 70% of Covey's business was with restaurants in New Orleans and southern Louisiana, and 30% was produce boxes. Now, with many restaurants closing and produce purchases at other restaurants lower than before, the split is more like 60-40, he says.

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These boxes are filling a void that customers have experienced as independent restaurants and others specializing in farm-to-table cuisine have closed. Thanks to the boxes, diners who are used to getting local produce when they go out to eat can enjoy the same quality at home, even though the boxes mean a bit more work than just sitting down to order.

If you miss a favorite place that disappeared during the pandemic, or one that couldn't withstand the inflation and staffing shortages that have enveloped the industry, you can still support the farmers that supplied them. Just like patronizing independently owned restaurants, a farm box is a great way to connect with your community.

 

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