What is a CSA? CSA is an acronym for Community Supported Agriculture, which refers to a relationship-based approach to the business of growing, selling, and distributing produce and other locally produced foods. While conventional food production systems are extremely efficient at the point of production, they forfeit most of this efficiency (not to mention freshness, taste, and nutritional value) by shipping produce thousands of miles, and ultimately by throwing much of it away because it goes bad before being sold at grocery stores. Food delivered in this system is relatively inexpensive because the two main players—namely farmers and the environment—are not sufficiently valued and compensated. The waste inherent in this system is roughly equal to the extent to which farmers and the environment are compromised and undervalued. As a result, the conventional system is not sustainable. Over the last two decades or so, CSAs have become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farm. A more familiar way to think of a CSA might be as an investment. In short, a farm offers a certain number of “shares” to the public in exchange for an upfront payment, and the farm pays the shareholder “dividends” during the growing season in the form of a weekly box of vegetables. Shares of a CSA are also often referred to as a “membership” or “subscription.”
This arrangement creates several rewards for both the farmer and the consumer.
- Get to spend time marketing the food early in the year,before their long days in the field begin
- Receive payment early in the season (literally, "seed money"), which helps with the farm's cash flow
- Have an opportunity to get to know the people who eat the food they grow or produce
- Eat ultra-fresh food, with all the flavor and vitamin benefits
- Get exposed to new vegetables and new ways of cooking
- May get to visit the farm during the season
- Find that kids typically favor food from "their" farm – even veggies they've never been known to eat
- Develop a relationship with the farmer who grows their food and learn more about how food is grown.
(adapted from localharvest.org)
How does Tomato Mountain's CSA work?
Like most CSAs, Tomato Mountain receives payment from you for the season -- select which of our Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall seasons you would like (or sign up for the Full Year!). With that investment, we provide you with produce for each week during your chosen season (bi-weekly during Winter).
The sign-up process goes like this:
Can I sign up and pay online? Yep! Head on over to our sign-up area to get started.Why home delivery? We focus on direct home delivery for several reasons: (1) one vehicle delivering 10 boxes has a smaller carbon footprint than 10 cars driving to the nearest drop-off and then home; (2) we know you're getting your produce in the best condition possible and you can store it in optimal conditions sooner; and (3) you won't have to remember the day and time for pickup, which results in less waste from unretrieved boxes. Your time has value--and you'll be freeing up more time with the convenience of home delivery.
But home delivery adds so much to the cost of your CSA, doesn't it?
Not really. Every product you purchase—whether a television or a lamp or a CSA—has transportation costs associated with it. Unlike most products you purchase, we break down our pricing into our “share price” and our “delivery fee.” The share price includes everything it takes to get the produce into your box—including seeds, soil amendments, and labor for planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, washing, and packing. We attribute a specific value to each crop based on those factors, and strive to meet or exceed the stated value of each size share based on our given value. (Read more about how we value our crops below.) Our delivery fee includes everything it takes to get the box from the farm to your home; first, getting it from the farm to a central distribution area, then driving it to your home. This includes “non-farm” costs like vehicles, fuel, and drivers for both trips. In fact, at least $3 of the delivery fee would be included in your price even if we did a different type of pickup system. By all means, you should comparison shop for a CSA that fits your needs and budget. Some good resources are The Local Beet, Family Farmed, and Local Harvest. Ours is neither the least nor the most expensive CSA in the Chicagoland area. As you’re comparing apples to apples (better yet, tomatoes to tomatoes!), be sure to take into account the value of your time.
When can I expect my home delivery?
You would be getting your box on either Tuesday or Thursday, depending on your location. In 2014, we're introducing overnight/early-morning deliveries which are much more efficient than the evening deliveries we've done in the past. We also know that some folks won't be able to accept boxes delivered overnight (or would prefer to see the driver face-to-face), so we're continuing to offer "primetime" evening deliveries on Tuesday evenings for a majority of our customers, at a flat rate of $9. See our delivery day information to determine your delivery zone, day, and rate. Where there’s ambiguity about which area you fall in, we can let you know as we’re developing the route and before the first share is delivered.
What are your delivery boundaries?
We hope to serve all of Chicago and much of the collar counties with direct home delivery. That said, we can assure delivery to all of Cook County and DuPage County, and the southern half of Lake County. If you’re in Kane, Will, or McHenry County or the remainder of Lake County, our ability to deliver to you will depend on a critical mass of subscribers in the area and/or proximity to highway exits. We urge you to encourage your friends and neighbors to consider our CSA and stay in touch with us to see how our outer areas are shaping up. See our delivery day information for which areas we deliver to on which days, and what the charge would be for delivery to you.
What if several friends get together for drop-off at one home? Would that require only one delivery charge?
No. As explained above, the delivery fee covers all of the transportation costs of getting each box from the farm. So each box bears some of the costs of the vehicle(s), fuel, and drivers. That said, we’d be glad to chat with you about reductions in the delivery fee for multiple deliveries for those who know each other, share one drop-off location, and arrange amongst themselves how to split the reduced delivery charges. At a minimum, delivery of each box would include the $3 cost of transportation mentioned above.
What’s the right size for me/my household?
Take a look at our share size information here.
In an effort to provide sufficient choice, we offer 4 distinct sizes during our Spring, Summer and Fall seasons, and 3 sizes during our Winter season. Our Solo Share is not available in Winter, as the "small" share, delivered on a bi-weekly basis, will likely work for most Solo Share customers. Since Winter shares are delivered on a bi-weekly basis, it's a good idea to increase your share size during those weeks.
Following are the box sizes and our approximation of how many adults each will provide for:
Solo Share = 2/5 bushel - for 1 adult or 2 light veggie eaters
(Not available in Winter season)
Small Share = 5/9 bushel - for 1 to 3 adults
Medium Share = 3/4 bushel - for 2 to 4 adults
Large Share = 1-1/9 bushel - for 3 to 6 adults and sharing households
The ranges are broad because everyone likes different veggies and each household’s cooking/eating/shopping habits differ. We work to deliver an appropriate balance of the 40+ crops we grow that will provide variety within each box and over the season. If you realize after a few weeks that you would like to increase (or decrease) your share size, just contact us and we’ll be happy to help you get the share that's just right for you. In general, each size share receives a proportionate share of the same produce each week.What do the shares look like?
You can also visit out our archives to see more photos.
I’d really like one-stop shopping. Do you offer eggs, milk, and other items?We focused in our first two years on fulfilling most—but not all—of our customers’ fresh vegetable needs rather than becoming a distribution center for items you can get elsewhere. While we strongly encourage you to frequent farmers markets and small, local stores like Green Grocer Chicago, Dill Pickle Food Co-op, Belli's Chicago, and Olivia's Market for many of your other food needs, we offer our CSA customers the opportunity to add on to their deliveries extra produce and jars from our farm, as well as a few items from other farms. Some items include eggs, cheddar cheese, sunflower oil, maple syrup, honey, and flour. We’re not out to offer everything you might need or want; rather, we have relationships with some farms that we know and trust, and we’ll plan to offer their products throughout the season. And we’ll make it easy by listing available extras online every week and taking payment online via credit/debit card. You can purchase an Egg Share if you know you'd like a regular delivery each week with your box. If your CSA deliveries have already started, can I still join? Yes. We anticipate being able to add subscribers on a prorated basis throughout each season, and quite possibly into the fall. You can sign up online anytime, and our system will automatically prorate for weeks that you have missed. Please get in touch if you have any questions.Is Tomato Mountain new to CSA? Yes and no. We offered a home delivery CSA in 2004-2005 but discontinued it to focus on our on-farm kitchen. We feel that we have that end of the business pretty well under control and, to be honest, we missed growing a wider diversity of crops. So we reintroduced our CSA in 2010 and found a responsive audience. As expected, we experienced a bit of a learning curve growing crops we hadn’t grown in a while. Since then, shareholders have benefited from the improvements we implemented, and we figure we’ll be learning and improving as long as we’ll be farming! How does Tomato Mountain grow so much on 12 acres?Actually, our property is 15 acres, with close to 12 of those acres in production. The reason we can feed so many people on such a small space is (1) our farming practices facilitate very healthy soil life; (2) we plant and grow intensively; and (3) we use human labor to plant, weed, and harvest our produce, so we don’t need space for oversize equipment. In addition to several acres of field crops, we use 22 hoophouses to produce our sweetest tomatoes, and use successive plantings to take advantage of that protected space early and late in the season for crops that prefer the cooler weather.
What if I want to switch an item I don't want for something I do want? One of the basic tenets of CSA is that you share in what is being grown and harvested at the time, so we hope you’ll try things you haven’t had before (we’ll supply recipes as we go) or find an appreciative home for things you don’t like. One thing we’ve learned is that for every person who doesn’t like radishes or eggplant there are others who crave more than we give them. So we hope to maintain enough balance that you’ll find plenty of what you love throughout the season. That said, we will accommodate those with a severe allergy to a particular item. In any event, please let us know what you love and don't love, and we'll work together in the long term to create boxes that anyone could love. Can I purchase some jars or cases of Tomato Mountain products with my box? Absolutely. On our website, go to the CSA Members tab and click on Add to Your Box. There you'll have options to add jars, excess produce from our farm, and products from other farms. For our jars, we offer a coupon for you to apply a discount for purchase of 3 of our jars or more, which replicates the discounts we offer at farmers markets. For case orders, we will want you to contact us; for larger purchases, we’ll offer you our wholesale pricing. Can’t I just purchase your produce at farmers' markets?
We love farmers markets! They’re a lot of fun, and give us that face-to-face interaction with our customers. But as a food distribution system, farmers’ markets are severely lacking—a crap shoot, not unlike gambling or playing the lottery. Customers may or may not show up, it might rain, the market might be cancelled, customers might be out of town or busy that day, and they may decide not to buy from us if they don’t feel like carrying stuff around all day, to work, on the bus, or wherever. It’s not uncommon for farmers with fresh produce to take home nearly as much as they brought, most of which is perishable and needs to be thrown away. By pre-selling produce via a CSA, a farmer has a more secure income. Think of it this way: farmers often don’t have (can’t afford) health insurance, but at least with a secure and predictable sale of the produce they grow, they can achieve “income insurance,” which paves the way for an improved standard of living, including healthcare when needed. All that said, we’ll have produce from time to time at select markets during the outdoor market season—but not usually a wide variety in a given week, and with no certainty as to quantity. That’s because we are growing the bulk of our produce for our CSA customers, who have provided us with some of that “income insurance” by paying for our produce upfront. With the exception of tomatoes—which we have long brought to a few of our bigger markets—any produce we are able to bring to markets is simply excess of what was in the CSA box that week. And you can expect to see fewer tomatoes at markets as our CSA membership grows. In addition to the assured income, the CSA selling model is a lot more stable for us as a farm as it provides income earlier in the season when we're buying a lot of supplies. Our produce availability at markets in a given week will depend on what we have that can't effectively be incorporated in our CSA box, so if you’d like to be sure to get our luscious lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, and the rest of our high-quality produce, we'd encourage you to consider our CSA. How do you value the produce that goes into the CSA? We’re glad you asked! We are striving for a high level of transparency (hence the separation of the share price and the delivery fee). See our Weekly Box values to see how the value of each week's box breaks down. We assign a specific value for each item we pack and make sure every box gets at least the value you pay for. The cost we take on to produce a given crop might ebb and flow from week to week, but on average we fully expect to meet or exceed the stated weekly value for each share. We do our best to price and value crops as fairly and consistently as possible considering everything from seed costs to labor costs to time spent growing in the field. For example, field-grown spinach is generally valued at $4/lb, whereas hoop house spinach in December is valued at $8/lb or more because we have much higher growing costs in the hoops, and it takes a lot longer to grow and harvest crops in the cool weather of late fall/early spring. Though the exact value of what's packed into the boxes may vary slightly from week to week, we work to balance the values so that you see your whole investment's worth of produce. What if I don't like being a member of a CSA or don’t like the produce being offered? Please talk to us! We really mean it when we say that we want your feedback. That said, if you just don’t like green peppers (for example) and want fewer of them, please review the FAQs and understand the balance of produce we give so you better understand the purpose of a CSA. While we urge you to determine in advance if a CSA is for you (it’s not for everyone), we don’t want your beautiful produce going to waste or to have you stressing out over too much going unused. Similarly, if you have concerns about the quality or quantity of produce, let us know. If a different share size would make sense, we’d be glad to make the adjustment. But if you find that you can’t continue for any reason, please let us know and we will refund you the balance of the season on a prorated basis.