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Will a Co-Op or CSA Save You More Money? Stewarding Local Resources 

Learn how to save money and find the best options for your family, when you learn the differences between co-ops and CSAs (community-supported agriculture).

Do you want to invest in your health by getting local meat, dairy, and produce? How do you find the best deal?  

We all want to provide our families with nourishing food, but we don’t want to break the bank. Beyond local farmers markets, co-ops and CSAs have become popular ways to get ultra fresh food and support production costs of the farm. They’re a great way to support your local economy. 

We’ve moved five times in the last decade due to graduate school and jobs. Each time, I had to research to find local food sources. I made some mistakes along the way, but I’ll share what I’ve learned so you don’t lose your hard-earned money or waste your precious time!

You can’t beat the flavor of freshly picked cucumbers and lettuce. I’ve also loved trying new vegetables and expanding our family’s palate.

farmer's market produce

Did you know that this is the time of year to buy into these more sustainable food systems? Even though farmers’ markets may only run from April or May to October or November, now is the time to put your money down early, especially for CSAs. This can lead to big discounts for you! 

Let’s look at what a CSA and co-op are and then walk through how to pick which options might be best for your family. You’ll learn how to find what’s most cost-effective for you! 

What Is a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)? 

CSA stands for: 

  • Community 
  • Supported
  • Agriculture 

A CSA is when a customer pays a farmer before the season in order to reap a share of the harvest. The share may also be called a subscription or membership box. 

Typically these are weekly shares (but if you are in a colder climate, it may be less frequent in the winter). 

This can help the farm’s cash flow by investing when they’re buying seeds and preparing the land for the coming year’s harvest. 

It is a way to pledge support for a particular farm operation. Most CSAs support a single farm. 

Typically they sell the extras as a farmers’ market vendor at least one day a week. (The two closest to me are Wednesdays and Sundays.) 

CSA box of produce

One of the cons I’ve come across with CSAs is occasionally some of our family’s favorite crops will fail for one reason or another. For example, my son’s favorite food this past year, spaghetti squash, didn’t take at our CSA’s farm, so we had to get it from another source. 

It’s not necessarily a con, but with a CSA the upfront investment can feel expensive. The first year we did this, we ended up dipping into our emergency fund to pay for it because I hadn’t learned to save up throughout the year before. 

So what else can you try to get healthier, fresh foods at a discount? A co op! 

What Is a Co-Op?

On the other hand, a co-op is a community of individuals who make group buys directly from farmers (and potentially other vendors). 

A co-op may or may not be at your local farmers market. The co-op I am a part of now runs out of someone’s garage. The first one I ever joined was a storefront on someone’s farm. It felt like a little general store. 

In contrast to a CSA, which is typically a box from one farm, a co-op works with multiple farms (and even small, local businesses.) 

The first co-op I was part of got extra produce from local health food stores that we got at a discount before they expired. 

The co-op I’m a part of now has A2 dairy options. I used to have casein intolerance, and A2 milk is lower casein. I pay a monthly fee to guarantee that I get milk every week. Plus, I get the option to buy A2 milk-derived butter, cheese, cream, and more at a discount. 

fresh berries

CSA vs Co-Op 

Here are some of the differences between the two to help you discern the best ways to save money and spend your time wisely

First, a CSA tends to be more limited with only one farmer’s vegetables (and maybe fruit!). Some CSAs may offer fresh eggs. You may have the option to purchase other add-ons like pasture-raised meats. 

On the other hand, a co-op typically not only has vegetables, fruits, and eggs, but also meat shares, specialty breads, homemade jams and jellies, maple syrup, and even natural personal care products like soap at a discount. 

Second, a CSA typically only offers a full or half share based on what the farmer is growing (and raising). A co-op typically has more flexible options for you to pick what products you want from the group buy.

Third, a CSA is typically run by a for-profit farm while a co-op is a non-profit organization

Now that we’ve defined what both are, let’s break down what questions you should ask so you know what you are getting yourself into and so you don’t waste money! 

CSA produce box

What to Ask at Both a CSA and Co-Op 

Katie has already written a great blog post on what to ask your farmer from organic farming techniques to their experiences. 

Here’s what else you’ll want to ask whether you’re considering joining a CSA or a co-op. These will help you discern what’s the best fit for your family’s situation. 

Where is pick up? And what are the hours? 

It’s important to know where you’ll be expected to pick up your box and/or order, and the hours that it’s available.

Is the price you pay in gas worth what money you might save? 

In my experience, the CSA pickup is usually at the farmer’s market or you can pick it up directly at the farm. I ended up purchasing a folding wagon that I could keep in my trunk to carry my CSA box items because I kept ripping reusable bags. 

On the other hand, co-ops vary wildly on where and when pick-up might be. The first co-op I was a part of had pick-up at one farm where other vendors dropped off their products. Another had the option of either picking up at the co-op coordinator’s kid’s school or at the co-op coordinator’s house.

One of my frustrations with the co-op is that the hours are sometimes unpredictable depending on who was driving for the delivery. I would try to schedule work meetings around when I anticipated the pick-up time to be, and it wasn’t always at that time. I’ve had to block off a 3-hour time slot with no meetings. 

All of that to say, be sure to ask about how consistent times are

If the time is inconvenient for you, you might ask the farmer or co-op coordinator if there’s anyone who lives by you who might be willing to do an every-other-week exchange. 

What happens if I go on vacation?

Are you still responsible for paying for your box or weekly share? Will the farmer give you extra the week afterward?

For one CSA I was a part of, there were no skip weeks allowed. If you were going to be out of town they told you to have a friend come pick up your box. There wasn’t much grace for vacation times.

At one co-op, when I was out of town I didn’t have to pay anything for that week. At another, you were expected to trade. So I gave my share to a friend in the co-op and she gave me hers when she was gone. 

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Can we visit the farm(s)?

The farmer’s reaction will tell you a lot about their integrity and openness. Some will tell you to pop by anytime and offer to let you collect your own eggs at a discount. 

I’ve never been told no when I’ve asked this. Some farms even offer field trips for school and homeschool groups

If you homeschool, be sure to check out the Kids Cook Real Food Homeschool Curriculum here!

What payment methods are accepted?

Many farms charge an extra 3% for using a credit card. Do you have cash readily available

Most places won’t accept transactions through apps like Venmo or Paypal, because they get flagged for taxes when they hit a certain amount of transactions. 

Many farms will accept checks but know that if you have farmers who are Amish or Mennonite, they tend to bank by mail so there may be a two to three-month delay on when your checks clear. 

What are the ways to get a discount?

For a co-op, the discount comes from eliminating the store as the middleman. Some will offer price sheets, but others have prices that vary too much based on how many farms are in the co-op.

One farm that I support has a shoppers card option as well. You pay up front like a CSA, but it’s like purchasing a gift card toward the farm. They have the option to buy $220 at the end of February to get $250 worth of farm products or $440 to get $500. This is a 12% savings and you get to hand-pick your own options instead of the predetermined CSA box. Be sure to ask about buy-ahead options like this at both CSAs and co-ops. 

For a CSA, you’ll want to do the math for how big the box is and how many weeks you get it.

For example, I put down $550 for 26 weeks of boxes which comes out to $21.15 per box. The farmer estimates that I’ll get about $26 worth of produce each week. This is a 19% savings. 

Another way to get discounts is to put deposits down on meat. This also can be a general farmers market stand with or without a CSA or co-op. It depends on the animal for what time of year farmers accept down payments. It can be as small as putting down $10 for a chicken or rabbit or as much as $1000 for an entire cow. Here are some of the animals you can ask about: 

  • Chicken 
  • Rabbit 
  • Duck
  • Turkey  
  • Lamb 
  • Pig 
  • Cow 

Just be warned that farmers will only include the meat prices on their sites. You’ll typically also pay butchering and processing fees. For example, I got half a pig. I put down a $50 deposit earlier this year. I paid $648.75 total for the meat and $190.98 for the processor. This came out to $4.85 per pound of pork (including the bones from the hanging weight.) 

Are any products excluded?

Because of the financial strain in 2021, the farm above that has the shopper’s card excluded meat, eggs, and dairy products from the shopper’s card discount. They did communicate this in small print ahead of time but it was a disappointment.

Some will also exclude special products like honey or eggs from their discounted programs. It’s important to ask what’s excluded and to read the fine print

farmer harvesting CSA box

What to Ask at a CSA 

If you are looking to join a CSA where you get a regular box of food from the farm, here’s what to ask. 

How long is the season? 

Where I’ve been in the midwest, both CSAs that I have been a part of had a 26-week long season.

Depending on your climate, your CSA could be year-round or as short as 10 weeks

Don’t assume. Always ask the length of the season. 

Can I see a sample year of inventory? 

You’ll want to know what you’re getting in addition to your box of vegetables

You don’t want to pay for flowers if that’s not one of your priorities right now. 

I also like to know if I’m going to get a good variety. I want weird vegetables like kohlrabi and rutabaga. I enjoy exploring new ways of cooking. 

Just be prepared for some influxes of seasonal produce. Kitchen Stewardship® already has some tasty recipes and great tips on how to preserve these foods with these recipe ideas: 

Plus learn how to use up your CSA box. 

I have been bummed that there aren’t as many fresh fruits available here in the Midwest. 

If you have food sensitivities or intolerances, this will help you discern if enough of the foods fit your diet to make a CSA worth it or not. If you do have any food limitations, be sure to ask the next question. 

Are swaps available? 

In the last decade, I’ve not seen any CSAs that offer swap options for those with food sensitivities or intolerances. When I asked the farmers about this, they advised me to trade food with others or to give it away. That wasn’t a feasible solution for me when I had over 50 food sensitivities. 

It wasn’t until I started addressing my root causes and used NAET to reduce my reactions that having a CSA was worth it for me and my family. 

If you eat lower carb, you’ll want to make sure that you aren’t getting too much corn or potatoes every week

Are work hours required?

Some farms may require work. I haven’t seen this in either state I’ve lived in. I’ve seen some farms exchange work hours for a minimum wage discount. 

Others ask for volunteers. Some will simply advertise that they’ll put teens to work who need service project hours. 

Be sure to read the fine print to make sure you’re not committing to something you don’t want to do. 


Do you have diet-specific boxes? 

I’ve only seen this once. The farmer’s wife was low FODMAP so there was a low FODMAP box. Again, if you have multiple food sensitivities or intolerances, continue reading the next section on co ops to see if that might be a better fit for you. 

How much time do I have to decide to join?

CSAs tend to be limited by the amount of farmland and labor that a farmer has available. I’ve had friends not act soon enough and not get to participate in the CSA because the community’s farm filled up quickly. 

Where I live now, CSAs tend to open in mid-January and close at the end of February

If a CSA isn’t a good fit for you, maybe a co op would be better

Because CSAs and co ops have some differences, here’s what you should ask if you’re looking into a co op

Need More Baby Steps?

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Here at Kitchen Stewardship, we’ve always been all about the baby steps. But if you’re just starting your real food and natural living journey, sifting through all that we’ve shared here over the years can be totally overwhelming.

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What to Ask at a Co-Op 

Here’s what to ask in addition to share prices to make sure that you’re getting the best deal for your family. 

How are orders made? 

Some have an email chain that you reply to. Others send a mass text that you reply to. The one I’m a part of now has a private Facebook group. Many of these are first come first serve

I’ve had to set calendar alerts so I don’t miss the order postings

For one farm, I set the farmer’s email to be one of the only emails that shows up on the home screen of my phone. 

I’ve only seen one farm with a sophisticated storefront on their website. 

Other co-ops have deliveries of regular items like milk and butter every week

How often are orders? 

During the growing season, it’s common to have orders made every week. But during the school year, some co-ops will back off to bi-weekly or once-a-month pickups.

With meat, the times can vary. Some farmers will only send out pork and beef once a year. So you have to act when they have a group buy. 

Is there a yearly membership fee or other payments beyond the food? 

Some co-ops have an annual membership fee. These can help cover transportation and storage costs. 

Thankfully, the co-op I’m a part of now has had people donate fridges and coolers, which has saved all the members money. 

Are tips expected?

This is especially important to ask if there isn’t an annual membership fee. I was caught off guard when I was expected to pay a 10-15% tip on a dairy co-op. 

I wrongly assumed that the monthly fees covered all costs. I didn’t realize that went only to the farmers. 

You’ll want to make sure you budget for the tips as well

Are co-op service/work hours expected?

While I was caught off guard by the tip system at first, I’m happy to shell out a few extra bucks for someone else to drive to the farms to pick up the milk and produce for the co-op instead of having to be assigned a date to drive there myself.

I’m still working on overcoming mold poisoning and the chronic pain would make it really difficult for me to load dozens of gallons of milk. 

Now that we’ve asked the important questions, would a CSA or co-op be a better fit for your family’s situation

CSA or Co-Op? 

I’ve done both to nourish our family. So how can you find the best ones near you

The best way to learn about co-ops and CSAs is through word of mouth. But if you’re new to an area, that can be difficult. You can ask around at a local farmers market

You can use your favorite search engine to look up your city or county’s name. You can also post in local Facebook groups to ask around

Just know that you won’t find everything online. Some of the best organic sources are some Amish and Mennonite farmers who may not use technology. 

You can also use these websites to find a CSA or co op near you: 

If you live near Katie in West Michigan, here are her Grand Rapids resources.

Through our co-op, I was able to cook our Thanksgiving Turkey the day after it was slaughtered. It hadn’t even been frozen yet! 

We’ve loved the abundance of fresh foods and finding the best discounts

How else do you save money with CSA and co-ops? Share your best tips in the comments below! 

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

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