The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement grew out of a desire to see small farms thrive and create a market for local, healthy, and organic produce. A CSA creates a direct partnership between farmers and consumers, based on a mutual commitment: Consumers support the farm financially, usually through advance payments or a subscription, and farmers provide the consumers with a share of the produce.
The "members" or "subscribers" to a CSA share the farmers' risk. When a member makes an advance payment on a season's produce, that member shares the risk that the crop will be damaged by disease, frost, pests, or floods.
Benefits of CSAs
Members of a CSA benefit by receiving fresh produce and herbs (sometimes for less than they would pay in a store); having an opportunity to participate in farming; learning about growing food; helping the local economy; building community with other sharers; helping preserve farmland and open spaces; budgeting food costs in advance; and learning about food growing and cooking.
CSAs benefit farmers by linking a farm with people who are personally and financially invested in the farm's success. The CSA model is a great way to provide startup funding to a farm and foster stable operations, because it provides an advance cash flow. A CSA is a form of direct marketing, which is also a benefit to farmers. It takes out the middleman (the distributors) and gives the farmer a better return on produce. The farmer receives direct support and payments from consumers, and doesn't need to worry about market-related concerns. Farmers can develop a personal relationship with consumers, teach about farming, and take pride in what they do. CSAs can also grow the market for small farms and create jobs in organic agriculture.
CSAs benefit the earth by helping to preserve farmland, promote sustainable farming practice, and reduce long-distance transport of food. CSAs can reduce the risk of crop disease, because members usually encourage farmers to produce highly diversified crops and grow a little of everything—fruits, grains, vegetables, and herbs.
Different Kinds of CSAs
There are different CSA models. In some, farmers do all the farming and deliver a weekly box or bag of produce to members. In other CSAs, members do some work as part of their payment—either on the farm or in distribution. Some farms invite members to come to the farm and pick their own food.
Some CSAs dedicate all of their produce to members, who decide what to do with any excess. In this type of CSA, members can take as much produce as they need and donate the surplus to a charity or shelter, for example. In some CSA programs, the farmer creates a relationship of complete transparency with members, showing them the annual farm budget—including salaries, land lease, equipment, and so on—and a summary of the annual farm produce. From these numbers, the CSA can determine the approximate cost of a share of the produce. Often, a single share entitles a member to the approximate amount of vegetables required to feed a family of four.
Most CSA farms practice organic and sustainable farming. Being organic is not part of the definition of a CSA, but most are. CSAs don't just provide vegetables; a CSA can arrange for bulk purchasing of other farm products—wine, cheese, bread, eggs, meat, syrup, honey, and so on.
Join a CSA
There are more than 2,000 CSAs in the United States. To find one near you, ask around at the local farmers market or check online; one good place to start is www.localharvest.org/csa.
Starting a Simple CSA
You can start a CSA by gathering a few people and "adopting a farm." Survey neighboring families to find some who would like to collaborate with you. Find a small local farm that you want to support. Offer to buy produce in advance in exchange for regular vegetable deliveries, or come up with another plan based on other models of CSAs.
If the farm doesn't grow certain items that you want, ask them to. If your group agrees in advance to buy 50 bunches of kale, then you've given the farm a good incentive to grow kale.
If CSA members will be helping out on the farm, it's a good idea for the farmer to purchase "pick your own" insurance, in case anyone gets hurt.