What is Community Supported Agriculture?
CSA reflects an innovative and resourceful strategy to connect local farmers with local consumers, develop a regional food supply and strong local economy, maintain a sense of community, encourage land stewardship, and honor the knowledge and experience of growers and producers working with small to medium farms. CSA is a unique model of local agriculture whose roots reach back 30 years to Japan where a group of women concerned about the increase in food imports and the corresponding decrease in the farming population initiated a direct growing and purchasing relationship between their group and local farms. This arrangement, called “teikei” in Japanese, translates to “putting the farmers’ face on food.” This concept traveled to Europe and was adapted to the U.S. and given the name “Community Supported Agriculture” at Indian Line Farm, Massachusetts, in 1985. As of January 2005, there are over 1500 CSA farms across the US and Canada.
CSA is a partnership of mutual commitment between a farm or farms and a community of supporters which provides a direct link between the production and consumption of food. Supporters cover a farm’s yearly operating budget by purchasing a share of the season’s harvest. CSA members make a commitment to support the farm throughout the season, and assume the costs, risks and bounty of growing food along with the farmer or grower. Members help pay for seeds, fertilizer, water, equipment maintenance, labor, etc. In return, the farm provides, to the best of its ability, a healthy supply of seasonal fresh produce throughout the growing season. Becoming a member creates a responsible relationship between people and the food they eat, the land on which it is grown and those who grow it.
This mutually supportive relationship between local farmers, growers and community members helps create an economically stable farm operation in which members are assured the highest quality produce, often at below retail prices. In return, farmers and growers are guaranteed a reliable market for a diverse selection of crops.
How Does CSA Work?
Money, Members and Management
A core group draws up a budget reflecting the operating costs for the year. This includes all growers earnings, distribution costs, investments for seeds and tools, land payments, machinery maintenance, etc. The budget is then divided by the number of people for which the farm will provide and this determines the cost of each share of the harvest. One share is usually designed to provide the weekly vegetable needs for a family of four. Some CSAs also provide flowers, fruit, meat, honey, eggs and dairy products. Community members sign up and purchase their shares, either in one lump sum before the seeds are sown in early spring, or in installments through-out the growing season. Production expenses are thereby guaranteed and the farmer or grower starts receiving income as soon as work begins.
In return for their investment, CSA members receive a bag of fresh, locally-grown, typically organic produce once a week from late spring through early fall. A wide variety of vegetables and herbs should be available, which encourages integrated cropping and companion planting. These practices help reduce risk factors and give multiple benefits to the soil. Crops are planted in succession in order to provide a continuous weekly supply of mixed vegetables. As crops rotate throughout the season, weekly shares vary by size and types of produce, reflecting local growing seasons and conditions.
Memberships should include a variety of community members including low-income families, homeless people, senior citizens, and differently-abled individuals. Shares that are not picked up are often donated to local food pantries. Working shares are an option in some CSAs, whereby a member commits to three or four hours a week to help a farm in exchange for a discount or complete membership cost.
Every CSA strives over time for a truly sustainable operation, both economically and environmentally. Networks of CSAs have been forming to develop associative economies by growing and providing a greater range of products in a cooperative fashion.
Distribution and Decision-Making
Once the growers’ produce is harvested, the entire amount is weighed and the number of pounds or items (e.g. heads of lettuce, ears of corn) to be received by each share is determined. Member volunteers distribute the bags to shareholders at a designated pickup time.
Several advantages to the direct marketing approach of CSA, in addition to shared risk and pre-payment of farm costs, are the minimal loss and waste of harvested farm produce, little or reduced need for long-term storage, excellent freshness (produce is usually harvested the morning of pickup) and a willingness by members to accept produce with natural cosmetic imperfections.
A core group made up of the farmers or growers, distributors and other key administrators and several CSA members are often the decision-making body for a CSA that determines short and long-range goals, prepares the budget, conducts publicity and outreach, organizes events, etc. Annual meetings, a member newsletter, and occasional surveys are some basic means of communication between the farms and its members.
Why Is Community Supported Agriculture Important?
CSA’s direct marketing gives farmers and growers the fairest return on their products.
CSA keeps food dollars in the local community and contributes to the maintenance and establishment of regional food production.
CSA encourages communication and cooperation among farmers.
With a “guaranteed market” for their produce, farmers can invest their time in doing the best job they can rather than looking for buyers.
CSA supports the biodiversity of a given area and the diversity of agriculture through the preservation of small farms producing a wide variety of crops.
CSA creates opportunity for dialogue between farmers and consumers.
CSA creates a sense of social responsibility and stewardship of local land.
CSA puts “the farmers face on food” and increases understanding of how, where, and by whom our food is grown.