If you’re looking for a good example of a positive trend in farming,
check out the growth of Community Supported Agriculture, known as CSA.
When I started working for Extension nearly fifteen years ago, nobody I
knew had even heard of a CSA, and when they first appeared in my area a
few years later, quite honestly I was skeptical that they would ever be
more than a fringe marketing endeavor. Now, CSAs are relatively plentiful,
and their number is growing every year. What is really striking to me is
that many new vegetable growers are selecting CSA as their main method
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, CSA refers to an arrangement
where consumers purchase a share of a local farm's harvest prior to the
growing season. Sometimes known as subscription farming, CSA is based on
an annual market agreement between a farm and local individuals or households.
In return for the up-front cash and commitment to the whole growing season,
consumers get a weekly variety of farm-fresh produce.
The consumer (or CSA member, or shareholder) usually gets quite a
bit more food than their dollars would otherwise buy. In addition, that
food is exceptionally fresh because it’s harvested that day. CSA members
also get value from having a relationship with the farm and the farmer
– and with that comes first-hand knowledge that the food is safe, and the
land is being cared for.
If you’re a farmer, having a CSA can provide many benefits, too,
especially if you don’t have a roadside stand that already provides you
with a great connection to local customers. Like roadside stands, CSAs
can help a farmer’s bottom line by reducing the need for packaging, storage
and transportation compared to wholesale markets. But CSAs tend to reduce
costs even further by minimizing the need for facilities and sales. CSAs
also help generate early-season operating capital since membership fees
are usually collected in the spring, and this can lessen the need for early
season operating loans.
To start a CSA, you'll need to explain the risks and benefits to
potential members. Although the risk of widespread crop failure is extremely
low, not everybody can be comfortable with the fact that in a given year
some crops will yield less than expected and others will yield more. To
be suited to CSA, a farm must have a wide diversity of crops that spreads
the risk around and keeps members satisfied. In the case where a popular
crop, such as sweet corn, does have production problems, a CSA farmer may
choose to buy it in from another local farmer to keep the shareholders
Successful CSAs usually put together a brochure that describes the
cost and benefits of membership, as well as a list of anticipated crops
and when they will be available. A newsletter, bulletin board, or some
other means of communication is used to keep members informed of farm issues,
recipes for the produce, and plans for the future. Some farmers provide
subscribers with a simple budget that explains the expenses of crop production
that are the basis for the price of a share.
The price of a CSA membership ranges from around three hundred dollars
for an individual "share" in rural areas, to several times that in more
urbanized, up-scale locations. Some CSAs offer several different types
or sizes of memberships, for small or large families, or for different
selection of products, such as produce, fruit, or animal products. In some
cases a CSA will offer a winter share of storage vegetables as a separate
Some CSAs are small, serving just a few neighborhood families, in
cases where the farmer is part-time, or the CSA supplements other marketing
methods used by the farm. Other CSAs are quite large, serving many hundreds
of families. These CSA often have several different distribution days,
and they require a well-organized production plan to maintain a steady
and varied supply of products.
A special aspect of CSA is the opportunity to educate consumers about
what it takes to grow food. The people that join a CSA are usually pretty
interested where their food comes from and how it is grown, but they may
have a poor understanding of farming. They may join primarily because they
want fresh, unpackaged, locally grown food, but you can help them gain
an appreciation for agriculture by exposing them to the positive as well
as the challenging aspects of farming. Of course, the CSA members that
renew year after year are those that really like to eat vegetables. Those
that join in order to make a social statement tend to move on once they
see what accumulates in their refrigerator.
Your CSA members can help your bottom line in many subtle ways. Many
consumers are willing to accept produce that does not meet wholesale or
retail appearance requirements but is still of high quality. I don’t mean
dirty or diseased produce, but rather oversized cabbages, bent carrots
or heirloom tomatoes with a few cracks, for example. Members may also be
happy to ‘Pick Their Own’ crops like peas, beans, cherry tomatoes, and
berries, saving you time and labor. Of course, just like with ‘Pick Your
Own’, you will have to manage how and where people pick with good signage
and instructions. CSA members may also be invited to "glean" fields that
you are done harvesting. That gives them some extra produce and satisfaction
at no cost to you.
The level of member involvement in CSA farms varies from simply picking
up a box of produce once a week, or in some cases having it delivered,
to actually helping with farm work. Members may assist with weeding, harvest
or washing of certain crops, for example. Some CSA farms have member workdays,
either voluntary or required, while others offer discounts to those that
are willing. In many cases these tasks are specific to the CSA, such as
managing the weekly distribution, writing a CSA newsletter, or hosting
new member orientation.
Although the vast majority of CSA farms are organic, that may not
be necessary as long as you are willing to honestly answer member questions
about production practices. Clearly explaining your concern for the environment
and your efforts to minimize chemical use will likely be received positively.
And while many CSAs follow organic production practices, some do not become
certified organic because they feel the close relationship with their customers
makes this process unnecessary (although they have to use alternatives
to the term ‘organic’ if they are not certified.)
There are now more than 1,000 CSAs across the US, including 184 in
New England (listed on the web site noted below). These CSA farms promote
consumption of produce at its nutritional best, they minimize the cost
of retailing and distribution, they sell product that might not meet grading
standards in other markets, and they help keep local dollars within the
community. They're also a good way to ‘grow’ educated consumers and build
support for agriculture. CSAs are not for everybody. But with the right
match of consumers and farmers, they are a positive new marketing option.
To find out more about CSA, a good place to start is the web site, www.csacenter.org.
There is also an excellent 240-page book called Sharing the Harvest, A
Guide to Community-Supported Agriculture, that is available for $25 including
postage from: The Robyn Van En Center, Wilson College, 1015 Philadelphia
Ave, Chambersburg, PA 1720.