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Farmers used to drop off boxes of kale, root vegetables, maybe even a bottle of cow's milk on front porches and drive off in their Ford Econolines or trucks.

In the not-so-distant 1990s, this was the glorious meeting between local patron and small farms, an early version of the subscription food system known as community supported agriculture (CSA).

"[CSAs] were a completely new arrangement. It was kind of underground," said Ryan Pesch, a University of Minnesota Extension educator who runs Lida Farm, an organic vegetable CSA east of Pelican Rapids. "Over the 2000s, 2010, you had soccer-mom-icization of local foods and, to me, that's a net benefit."

By 2024, of course, the ubiquity of subscriptions has dulled some of the luster. Netflix. Ramen. Even fancy clothes for that conference cocktail party. All can come directly to consumers with just a click or tap on a website.

As we rapidly approach those early summer months — when the sidewalks will be clear of snow, and the Twins pitching will have thoroughly soured — farmers living just beyond the suburban sprawl of the Twin Cities metro will soon load up tables, tents and crates of Swiss chard and twined bundles of asparagus into trusty vehicles. They'll ramble into town to drop off a cornucopia of farmed goods to hopeful CSA subscribers, and you could be one of them.

Here's a practical look at whether it's time for you to switch from your supermarket or even farmers market to a CSA sign-up.

What's a CSA?

Practitioners generally point to two farms in New England in the mid-1980s that started the CSA model. But the roots herald from the biodynamic food movement and Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who sought "mutual interests" between farmers and eaters.

"The idea is that farmers make a lot of investment in the early spring. We buy seeds. We buy compost," said Eleanor Babcock-Jensen, who runs StrongHeart Farms with her husband, Pearce, on an acre in Marine on St. Croix and shuttles veggies to the Twin Cities in her red van. "Especially in Minnesota, there's no growing season right now."

The CSA box of pre-selected produce has stood the test of time as an efficient, direct way to receive locally raised food from bona fide farmers. But it's not for everybody. It might not even save you money. And you better be ready to creatively cook with whatever is in that box, from bok choy to rutabagas.

"You can certainly do a vegetables-only CSA," said Natalia Mendez, director of marketing and communications at Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis, which throws its 23rd annual CSA Fair next month. "Some places will do a summer or a fall CSA. Some people do CSAs year-round. Some will do a honey share or bread or meat or cheese."

Cheap and convenient?

A (small) summer subscription costs around $400 to $500 and lasts roughly four months. Larger shares (feeding a family of four or more) can stretch toward $800. But for comparison, the average American family spends $270 at the grocery store per week.

So, you may need to pay a little more, at least up front. But advocates say it's worth it.

"You know why?" asked Mendez, whose Mexican grandfather organized migrant farm laborers from Texas to Wisconsin. "That's the real cost of food."

Moreover, the farmer will keep the money. Unlike, say, at the grocery store, where a farmer keeps roughly 15 cents of every $1 spent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In a CSA, farmers pocket the price for their carrots or zucchinis and put that right back into their farming operation, buying the high-tunnel greenhouse or repairing the fencing a wayward hog knocked off-kilter.

It's hard to compete with the giant big-box retailers open 24 hours just off the interstate. But for keeping menus local this summer, a consumer's best options are either a CSA or a farmers market. And often those farmers markets require you to be in town on a Saturday or Sunday morning while fending off golden retrievers and nonstop bluegrass music.

For a CSA, the farmer will mostly come to you, offering drop-off spots throughout the week at a church parking lot or outside a community center. Babcock-Jensen drops off at a family member's house in south Minneapolis. Some places, including Pesch's Lida Farm, offer on-farm pick-up.

The selection

Spoiler: You won't get Washington cherries or Georgia peanuts. The food will typically mirror our northland growing season.

"There's the spring greens kind of season, the high season — sweet corns and peppers and tomatoes — and then the fall season, so think squash," Pesch said. "I've done a winter CSA, too."

But many CSAs offer add-ons for pork or beef, cheese or eggs, even coffee, rounding out a trip to the village market. And for those who are culinarily creative, the farmers generally have a chef's eye when preparing the weekly share.

"We'll do one leafy green, one hardy green, one fruiting vegetable, one root vegetable and one random vegetable," Babcock-Jensen said. "We want to give people a nice variety."

Chef's hats on

If this direct-to-consumer food shopping sounds appealing to you, be forewarned, experts say. You'll receive lots of food, often without much input. If you don't watch the Food Network, you might need to Google some items. If you do watch the Food Network, think "Chopped."

Tangletown Gardens' CSA members last year might have wondered what that ruddy, white bulb in their box was.

"That'd be kohlrabi," farmer Dean Engelmann said. "It should've been mentioned in our weekly email."

Which is another touch of the CSA: weekly communication from the farmer, often replete with recipes and a glossy photo-guide to your incoming (potentially mystery) produce.

But, seriously, the people who "fail" at CSAs, said Pesch, are the ones who want to eat more vegetables but find themselves, halfway through the summer, on a "forced-veggie diet."

"I've had a mom sign up as a family of five and they can't get through the veggies on an every-other-week share," Pesch said. "And I've got a 70-year-old lady who has a weekly share, and she could eat more."

The difference with the older woman? She's consistently cooking, Pesch said.

A worthy cause

Not everyone wants to spend the bright, brief, lush summer nights of Minnesota inside a kitchen scrutinizing a turnip and paging through thick cookbooks. But, hey, some do.

Moreover, there's mounting energy around eating locally and sustainably.

When Babcock-Jensen and her husband graduated with college degrees in environmental studies, they had a desire to engage with the climate change-warped world and alter the monolithic U.S. food system, which can prioritize convenience above nutrition or local impact. So they started their own farm, renting land now. Their CSA's first year notched a modest 12 members, but this year, they're shooting for 80.

"I tell people that the CSA is not for everybody," Babcock-Jensen said. "It really is designed for people who want access to local veggies but are OK with the mystery of it."

Don't let all the observed fun at your local farmers market fool you, though: In truth, CSAs are a lot of hard work, and farmers selling directly to consumers represent a sliver of the farming population in Minnesota.

According to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture census, a once-every-five-years voluntary survey of cucumber farmers to big row-crop harvesters, the number of farmers in Minnesota selling directly to consumers fell by around 200 to 3,339 producers in 2022.

At the same time, however, the number of farmers selling to food hubs and directly to retail doubled to 1,026. Moreover, in Minnesota the number of farms between 10 and 49 acres actually increased by 600 producers at a time when the state saw a decline in farms overall.

"Anecdotally, we're seeing a lot of new farmers," said Rachel Wandrei, marketing manager for Minnesota Grown, a partnership between the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and growers that yearly puts out a CSA directory. "[CSAs] are a great way for the small-to-medium-sized farmer to get started because it's so directly connected to the consumer."

So if you care about these farmers having customers and funding no matter the weather pitfalls of growing season, then CSAs offer some consumer peace-of-mind.

They also beget boxes of food, from unique squashes to scrumptious sweet corn. And that will be a luxurious delight come August, when winter's chilling breath will once again breathe down our necks.