Maximum taste, minimum waste: A guide to Atlanta's community-supported agriculture  

CSA stands for "community supported agriculture," and for those that appreciate its health and financial benefits, it really stands for"consider something awesome." 

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The concept, where customers pay ahead of time and then farms provide them with a share of the harvest all season, has really caught on in the Atlanta area in the past few years. The Local Harvest CSA clearinghouse links to 46 options in metro Atlanta (or a few miles further out), for example. And this April's inaugural Atlanta CSA Fair and Farmer Mixer, sponsored by the Atlanta Farmers Coalition and Wholesome Wave Georgia, featured at least 20 CSAs.

The advantages of CSAs include getting to eat ultra-fresh, sometimes organic, food even in areas that are considered "food deserts" and sharing new ways of cooking and a relationship with the person who furthers your food's journey from dirt to fork.

The typical CSA share helps a small local grower sustain the business until the crops are ready, at which time all the shareholders get a portion of the produce. (Contribued by the AJC)

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But like any dreamy food concepts, a CSA membership can misfire, due to folks signing up on a whim. Instead of reaping the benefits, they're faced with a fridge full of rotting radishes and mustard greens or a surly farm-to-table provider.

It's pretty simple to skip the disappointment and move right to the awesome aspects of CSA alliances, though. Here's the dirt on how to choose a CSA in Atlanta, from Local Harvest and other clean food experts:

Pick the best pickup: Local Harvest provides a search option for CSAs in the Atlanta area, including locations and drop-off points. Look for a CSA that will deliver to your home, office or somewhere equally convenient, advised the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture blog.

Strike a balance between great price and flexible choices: In a typical CSA, members pay up front, which provides the grower with income during the season of planting and preparation. If that's a turnoff, seek a farm that offers a payment plan, advised CISA, although you may pay more for the privilege.

Also, some CSA seekers consider it an adventure to share the risk of farming, which means you may receive more of one veggie you don't need and less of something you adore as the crops come in. If you share their view, by all means, opt for the classic CSA structure, with pre-packed take-what-you-get boxes.

If that doesn't seem so swell, consider the more recent alternatives, mix-and-match or market-style CSAs, where you select what to put in a bag from the multiple offerings they have that week. To find them, LH recommended using these keywords in your search on CSA listings: "market shares" or "free choice."

An Atlanta-area example: East Point, Georgia-based Truly Living Well's CSA members still sustain the season by paying for subscriptions ahead, but they can select which foods they receive at various market locations.

Find out what they'll grow: Particularly if you're a picky eater, or really adore a certain ingredient, check out the grower's list and ask questions. Even if it's the ubiquitous heirloom tomatoes or yellow squash, don't commit to a CSA until you know your favorites will be planted.

If you're a newbie cook or not used to a flood of vegetables, you'll need less from a CSA than people who make green smoothies every morning and who prep vegetarian foods for the whole week. Look for a CSA that offers half-shares or one of the farms that will help you find a partner to split a full share with.

Seek out souped-up CSAs, if that's your thing. Since you're already scheduling a pickup, you may want to consider a CSA that provides farm-fresh foods and goods far beyond what grows in the ground.

A short list of what farmers might include within a CSA: eggs, homemade bread, meat, cheese, fruit, flowers or other farm products, like homemade jams. "Sometimes several farmers will offer their products together to offer the widest variety to their members," LH noted. Or you might want to consider a regional CSA that sells some other farm product.

An Atlanta-area example:Meat purchases via CSA have really caught on in the Atlanta area. Some of the options include more traditional CSA offerings of fruit and vegetables along with the ham or ground beef. Others, like the Ranger, Georgia-based Riverview Farms, offer a CSA that only sells shares of meat and poultry produced on the farm.

Plan to share and share alike. If surprises annoy you, you may prefer to buy from a farm's booth at the farmer's market instead of taking the risk involved in a CSA. CSAs foster a "we're in this together" feeling, LH noted, that might result in an unexpected bounty of, say, wild honey or blackberries. Or the shared fate could be a loss, like when hail takes out the ghost pepper crop. 

Apples are displayed inside at RHS (Royal Horticultural Show) London Harvest Festival Show on October 7, 2014 in London, England. Growers from across the UK come together for the show at the RHS Horticultural Halls in Westminster to exhibit their seasonable bounty in the annual fruit and vegetable competition. (Photo by (Dan Kitwood)/Getty Images) (Dan Kitwood)

Pay as you like: As CSA options have grown, so have their payment possibilities. Payment plans and CSAs that accept SNAP/EBT are increasingly common.

An Atlanta area example: The nonprofit South West Atlanta Growers Cooperative, also known as the SWAG Co-op, offers such unusual arrangements as a hot sauce share and a Caribbean Sorrel, spices and teas share, along with the more typical fruit and veggie shares in spring/summer or fall. It's particularly good for those seeking fresh food through EBT/SNAP since its CSA Program is one of those that offers half-price shares to SNAP/ EBT recipients through Wholesome Wave Georgia's "Georgia Fresh For Less" program.

Consider the community. Many worthy CSAs are super-sociable and even have community-building as part of their mission. Just as many are simple fresh-grown food providers. Before you commit to a CSA, if bonding is important to you, ask potential providers whether they offer potlucks, workshops, pick-your-own, work days, farm dinners or other activities you and your family might enjoy.

A CSA membership to Freewell Farm in the heart of Atlanta sustains urban growers while they provide fresh food to "Food Desert" neighborhoods. (Contributed by Freewheel Farm/For the AJC)

An Atlanta-area example: Freewheel Farm, a three-site diversified urban farm in Atlanta, grows an abundance of herbs, mushrooms, vegetables and specialty cut flowers (in partnership with Chattahoochee Queen). It also offers members an enhanced variety of fruit and vegetables like potatoes that are grown by associated local farms and orchards. It shares its urban growing methods like composting through tours and community volunteer opportunities.

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