CSAs: Beyond That Four-Pound Bag Of Kale

Signing up for Community Supported Agriculture (commonly known as CSAs) not only helps small farmers and the local food system in general, but also can make you feel a lot better about food shopping. Yet, sometimes you just don't need that extra three-pound bag of turnips or bok choy. To be clear, we're not hating on turnips or bok choy! CSAs can just be a little overkill, even to the most hardcore home cooks. But we have some good news—you can still support local agriculture and get a box of something more unusual (even decadent), like oysters or even wine.

For those of you new to the world of CSAs, here's how it works: the consumer (you) pays a local farmer a flat fee at the beginning of the growing season, and in turn every week (usually for 12-14 weeks) you return to a designated pick-up location to get a box full of seasonal vegetables. Many CSAs also provide fruit, dairy and meat shares.

Unlike shopping at the grocery store, there's an inherent risk with buying a CSA share — you're only guaranteed to receive whatever the farmer is able to grow that season. So if there's poor weather (i.e. Hurricane Irene) and the crops are ruined, you share the farmer's loss. But the benefits make up for any inconveniences — you get to interact with your local farmers and other consumers. You support local agriculture, and you are rewarded with extremely fresh seasonal produce. Plus, there's a bit of adventure in receiving a "mystery bag" each week. It's like your own little Iron Chef compeition. Allez cuisine!

CSAs were first introduced in America in the 1980s and have since become an increasingly popular way to purchase local fruits and vegetables. In 2007, the USDA estimated that there were over 12,500 CSAs in the United States alone. In some cities, demand for CSAs are so high that spaces quickly become snatched up (last season I ended up on a waiting list, as all my neighborhood CSAs were at capacity). But this growing interest in CSAs is spurring farmers to seek out more products that can fit the model. Here are six specialty CSA offerings worth seeking out around the country:

1. Flowers

Love N' Fresh Flower CSA, based in Philadelphia, proves that CSAs don't have to stick to edible goods. Members are offered one-month, two-month, or full season (June-September) shares which includes a weekly three-gallon bucket full of flowers and foliage. Another flower-power CSA, Devon Point Farm in Vermont, offers a cut flower share as an option along with their standard vegetable and beef shares.

2. Oysters

We all know that oysters are really best eaten in the "R" months (September, October, November, December). So when Rhode Island based farmers Jules Opton-Himmel and Sean Patch had 3,000 oysters ready to be harvested in those months, they decided to sell them CSA-style through Brooklyn Kitchen. Whole shares go for $100 for 100 oysters, with the option of half or quarter shares as well.

3. Seeds

For those who want to grow their own plants and vegetables, there are seed CSAs like the Sierra Seed Cooperative. As a member of Sierra Seeds, shareholders receive four seasonal seed installments for vegetables like eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes for $160 a year.

4. Fish

Buying seafood sustainably without consulting your iPhone is one of the trickier parts of grocery shopping. Seafood CSAs, like Iliamana Fish Co.'s, offer a simple solution to the fish counter confusion by ensuring the full transparency of the seafood you're purchasing. With locations based in Portland, OR and Brooklyn, NY, shareholders are offered 12 pounds of salmon for a little under $200 — on five pick-up dates in August and September.

5. Coffee

CoffeeCSA.org connects coffee fans directly to small-scale, organic farmers around the world. Despite the fact that this CSA does not require you to be local, it does retain the basic principle of CSAs — to cut out the middle man between producers and consumers. Share options for CoffeeCSA.org range from one-month to year-long commitments, depending on what farmer you sign up with.

6. Wine

We knew it'd only be a matter of time before someone paired CSA culture and booze. CSAs are fun! Wild even. Wine CSA's, which offer shares of wine from local vineyards, can vary in their distribution from a share of six bottles picked up four times during the year for $550 to one bottle each month for five months that costs $100. Supporting local food and regional wine? That's something we can get behind.

How to help: Support your local farmers by signing up for a CSA.