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How to Save on Organic Groceries: Our Guide to Farm Co-Ops

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Earth Day isn’t just about planting trees and pledging to eschew bottled water. This year, consider making your diet a little more environmentally friendly by signing up for a farm share. Done right, it can be good for your wallet, too.

Farm shares, or community supported agriculture programs (CSAs), allow consumers to invest in a local farm by purchasing a stake in its harvest. The farmer gets cash upfront to cover his operating budget and a little volunteer labor. You get regular shipments over the growing season of the farm’s bounty, which can include vegetables, fruit, eggs and meat, plus products such as yogurt and honey.

From a “green” perspective, farm shares let you eat local food grown using sustainable practices (i.e., ones that won’t harm the environment), says David Becker, founder of slow food blog Friend of the Farmer. Many small farms also use organic standards, although they may not pursue USDA organic certification due to the time and expense involved in the certification process, he says.

Looking at the total cost to participate, farm shares seem prohibitively expensive, with a single vegetable share ranging from $250 to $1,000. But break that down into 22 weeks of deliveries with 10 to 12 pounds of vegetables each time, and it’s a more affordable $11 to $45 per week. “You’re getting better pricing than if you went to the farmer’s market week after week,” Becker says.

Shares aren’t without risk, however. Bad weather, pests and other problems that impact the farmer’s crops affect what you’ll see in your weekly basket. (See below for creative ways to use farm share staples like kale.) Shares involving meat have unique challenges, too, depending on the extent of the butchering. San Francisco Mint.com user Stephanie Lawrence discovered the whole organic chickens in her farm share arrived with their heads and feet attached. “I had to figure out how to chop them off,” she says.

Still interested? Here’s how to cut your farm share costs and use the subscription to lower the rest of your grocery bill:

Shop around

Prices vary widely, so find and compare farm shares near you through LocalHarvest.org. Also factor in the time cost if there are volunteer hours or you’re driving out of the way for pickup.

Divide your share

“If [my husband and I] didn’t share our items each week we would have too much food to finish,” says Kristin McNab of Monterey, Calif. So the newlyweds split the food and the cost of the $900 share with another couple. Now each pays a manageable $450 for 40 weeks of delivery — just $11.25 per week. A recent box included fava bean leaves, leeks, dandelion greens, yellow beets, celery, parsley and spinach.

Scale back deliveries

If a weekly box of food seems too daunting, hunt for a farm that offers a choice of delivery options. Some are willing to deliver semi-monthly or monthly; others let you place orders when you want them. Even some weekly farm shares offer a refund for missed weeks if you notify them in advance that you won’t be around.

Plan veggie-focused meals

Look at your farm share delivery as a supermarket shopping replacement instead of a supplement. Mint.com user Jeannette La-Thompson of Seattle says switching to a $40 semi-monthly farm share saves her money because it limits impulse supermarket buys. “Now I plan all of my meals around my delivery to ensure that none of the vegetables are wasted,” she says. “It makes it so much easier to budget my grocery bill.” Most weeks, she’s just buying meat and a few other staples.

Review promotions

Farms may offer specials to entice in new customers. La-Thompson got her first share box for half-price. Some farms offer a discount for paying in full early in the season; others, for increasing the number of hours you volunteer. There may be added benefits, too. Stillman’s Farm in New Braintree, Mass., offers a 20% discount at the farmer’s market to participants in its meat CSA.

Pick your produce

Most farm shares let you weed out items you’re allergic to, but some offer the added benefit of letting you pick what you do and don’t want. Wendy Guarisco of Atlanta belongs to a farm share that offers a choice of $20 for a box of whatever the farmer picks, or a $24 custom order. “I like this set-up much better than a typical CSA because I can choose what I want and when I want it,” she says.

Using Farm-Share Produce

A wide variety of fresh, in-season produce is an advantage of farm shares, but it can also be a disadvantage for cooks unused to handling oddballs like sunchokes, kholrabi and kale. “This food share has certainly made me venture out of my cooking comfort zone to look up recipes, try new ways of cooking, and eat different things,” McNab says. “I’ve never tried dandelion greens until now.” (Her verdict: great cooked down and pureed with spinach and stock into soup.) Consider a few of these other suggestions:

* Prepare a quiche. “It’s a great way to disguise any vegetable, or give it a new taste,” Lawrence says.

* Mix up an exciting salad using a selection of greens and chopped veggies and fruits from your weekly box. Two of Frugal Foodie’s favorite combinations: strawberries and avocado, and jicama and tomatoes.

* Bake kale chips into a potato chip substitute. Yes, really. La-Thompson’s husband deemed the kale “inedible” until she discovered the trick of topping the greens with salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil and then baking them until crisp. “It’s better than potato chips,” she says.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner.