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  A Publication of UVM Extension's Vermont Vegetable and Berry Program

Community Supported Agriculture: Connecting Consumers and Farms

by Vern Grubinger
Vegetable and Berry Specialist
University of Vermont Extension

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 of marketing.

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 happy.

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 option, too.

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.

Published: April 2004
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