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A different kind of CSA? Maybe.


Arganica delivers local produce and specialty products to your door. (Arganica)

Every year about this time I start to experience a guilt trip about not joining a CSA. The idea is appealing: Pay the farmer a set fee in advance, and each week, you get a box of whatever is freshest from farm that week. (Click here for a list of local CSAs.)

What I appreciate in theory doesn't work in practice, not for me. Some weekends, I plan a dinner party and there's not enough to feed my guests. Some weekends I get out of town and my haul rots in the fridge. And, if I'm completely honest, some weeks I just don't feel like eating zucchini – high season or no.

A new local delivery service, Arganica Farm Club, tries to smooth out a CSA's rough edges. You order as much or as little as you want, when you want it. Pulling from the capital-area foodshed, Arganica offers fruits and vegetables plus fresh seafood, grass-fed meat, small-batch roasted coffee, bread and pastries, pasta, even locally made beer, wine and seltzer. In its efforts to outshine the traditional CSA, Arganica uses recyclable, handmade wooden crates, picks up your compost and hands out free local food magazines (Flavor, Edible Blue Ridge, etc).

Arganica is not alone in trying to develop a more flexible model. Star Hollow Farms lets members pay up front, then order boxes on the weeks they want them. (They still need to pick up at the designated drop-off.) And there are several other delivery services such as Local Flavor that round up fresh-from-the-farm food and deliver to city drop-offs. Arganica stands out based on the breadth of its offerings and the fact that it delivers right to your door every Thursday.

Arganica is the brainchild of Dominique Kostelac, a former Washington real estate broker who moved his family to Advance Mills, Va., after the economic crash. A passionate forager, he began making unusual specialty products: wild cherry syrup, hickory bark ice cream and persimmon vinegars. "It's all fascinating stuff that no one else has that I'm crazy about. But you don’t sell a lot of it because people don't know what they are," he said. "So we decided to sell other farmers' products. We became very familiar with the problems of CSAs. Our goal is to reinvent them."

Arganica's selection is impressive. There are free-range eggs and produce, of course. But also Amish honey with comb ($7.20 for a 22-ounce bottle); shelled black walnuts ($12.32 for 8 ounces); and great homemade chicken stock ($6.25 per quart).

There are fruit butters, jams, cider, wild mushrooms, bread, heavy cream, oysters, raw milk cheeses, locally roasted coffee, bison, pork, handmade pasta and sauces, locally made tofu plus wine and beer. Arganica even offers animal shares with an added benefit. If, say, you order a side of beef, you don't have to buy a new freezer and store it yourself. Simply pay up front. Arganica will deliver the cuts you want when you want them.

For the most part, the prices are reasonable. Portobello mushrooms are $5.63 per pound – a lot less than you pay at area farmers markets. Trickling Springs ice cream is $3.95, the same price you'd pay for a pint at the supermarket. Oysters are $10 a dozen, less than at most fish markets.

Among the most expensive stuff are Kostelac's specialty items. The raspberry sorbet, made with foraged wild fruit and earthy hickory bark syrup, is $11 for a half pint. Worth it for a special treat but pricey for everyday.

There's a free initial 30-day membership. After that, you must buy a three-, six- or 12-month membership, which ranges from $80 to $250 and covers the cost of delivery. With the exception of discounted pricing if you join for a year, the membership fee doesn't cover the cost of the food you order, so it encourages members to order often. (A more affordable option is the partner plan, in which one person signs up for a membership of any length, and additional partners pay just $20 apiece to have their deliveries dropped off at the primary member's home.)

I love the idea of Arganica, but the service is still a little rough around the edges. I ordered about a dozen items for March 4. The local rockfish was beautiful: clear-eyed with bright red gills, though it was a bit larger than I had anticipated. The produce was of good quality, too. The carrots were sweet and crunchy, the radishes plentiful and fresh. But my kale ($3.99) and bibb lettuce ($2.99) were not much larger than my fist, forcing me to make that trip to the store Arganica was supposed to save me to make the dinner I had planned. Two items – a pound of cremini mushrooms and a loaf of walnut levain from my favorite Albamarle Bakery in Charlottesville -- were missing.

I emailed Arganica to alert them to the missing items. They offered to redeliver them Friday, which I declined. Instead, Arganica promptly adjusted my bill.

Still not the perfect CSA. But so far, it's one heck of an improvement.

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  March 18, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Sustainable Food  | Tags: CSA, Jane Black  
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Comments

What an excellent post. i will try them. I have the same problem with traditional CSAs that you do. But if I can control how much and what I get, then it is just the perfect solution.

Thanks!

Posted by: mbhide | March 18, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

I understand your intentions, but aren't you expecting a CSA to be something most of them aren't intended to be? You want predictability and consistency and that's not the way any CSA I know operates.

It's Community-Supported Agriculture in which you share the risks and rewards farmers experience in trying to work with Mother Nature. If you want organic onyour terms and in the quantities you want them, that's the business proposition of Whole Foods.

Posted by: jcindy | March 19, 2010 7:17 AM | Report abuse

I would love to order from them. However, they do not deliver to Fairfax, VA. They told me that I would have to find others before it was an acceptable expense. Why should I bother my neighbors for a business that I have never used? (I was willing to pay the full $250 membership fee instead of taking the free 30 day trial) I wish they would post a list of places they do deliver to on their website or at least take names of folks who are interested instead of just saying "sorry, check back later." I understand it's a new business and costs are probably high, but you can't get new customers this way.

Posted by: fairfax123 | March 19, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

So far (3 weeks, 3 deliveries), I've had a good experience with Arganica. I plan to sign up for a paying membership once my free trial period is over next week. The food is generally very high-quality, and I've been satisfied with the delivery portions (in most cases, you specify your precise poundage, so if I get too few mushrooms, it's because I underestimated their weight). It is more expensive than Whole Foods, especially considering the membership fee, but Whole Foods doesn't deliver to my door. Similar to the author, we experienced a minor glitch (someone else's food was delivered in addition to our own food). We reported it by email around 9 p.m. on the Thursday of our delivery, and they responded immediately with their plan to pick up the other customer's crate the following day. All in all, I'm a satisfied customer who is eating better food, without having to figure out what to do with 3 pounds of kale for 4 weeks running.

Posted by: KitCC | March 23, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse

Another new model that offers a huge variety of truly local farm food year round is www.farmergirls.net. Membership is really reasonable $25 for 6 mos and $40 a year. Food prices very reasonable. You order what you want for pick-up on Thursdays. In Burke, Washington DC N.W. and coming soon Whole Foods Fair Lakes.

Posted by: gallentina | March 23, 2010 9:20 PM | Report abuse

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