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What is CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)?

by on March 30, 2012

CSA – Community Supported Agriculture – is a great way to meet and interact with your farmer, know exactly where your food is coming from and how it is grown, and enjoy a whole bunch of fresh, locally grown and seasonal fruit and veggies every week! As a CSA member, you are getting in on the ground floor of the farm, supporting local producers and our effort to give back to the community and the land. We will strive to provide 6- 10 different items each week, as well as recipes.

Sprout starts from Twin Palms Ranch

2012 Arugala Sprouts

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) developed as a way for small farms to fund themselves through the support of a dedicated, local customer base.  A farm would offer “shares” of the farm to its supporters for a predetermined amount and the supporters would, in turn, receive a regular delivery from the farm.  Originally, CSAs were rather inflexible and required members to pay a sum of money initially with the expectation, however not the guarantee, that they would receive produce from the farm.  Ultimately, CSA members were interested in supporting and sustaining their local farms and agriculture, beyond what they would “get out of it” in the short term.  Over time, CSAs evolved and the many farms which adopted the CSA model made their revisions and tweaks to the system.  Now the term CSA can mean a number of things and is typically a reflection of the unique farm that is host to the program.

Families and individuals receive a weekly box of fresh, sustainably grown, seasonal produce. As a result of the committed financial support of the members, CSA growers are able to focus on land stewardship and maintain productive and profitable small farms. Subscribers have a rare opportunity to connect in a meaningful way with their food and farmers who grow it.

Over the last 20 years, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. Here are the basics: a farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share (aka a “membership” or a “subscription”) and in return receive a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.

Advantages for farmers:

  • Get to spend time marketing the food early in the year, before their 16-hour days in the field begin
  • Receive payment early in the season, which helps with the farm’s cash flow
  • Have an opportunity to get to know the people who eat the food they grow

Advantages for consumers:

  • Eat ultra-fresh food, with all the flavor and vitamin benefits
  • Get exposed to new vegetables and new ways of cooking
  • Usually get to visit the farm at least once a season
  • Find that kids typically favor food from “their” farm – even veggies they’ve never been known to eat
  • Develop a relationship with the farmer who grows their food and learn more about how food is grown

It’s a simple enough idea, but its impact has been profound. Tens of thousands of families have joined CSAs, and in some areas of the country there is more demand than there are CSA farms to fill it. The government does not track CSAs, so there is no official count of how many CSAs there are in the U.S. LocalHarvest has the most comprehensive directory of CSA farms, with over 4,000 listed in our grassroots database.

There is an important concept woven into the CSA model that takes the arrangement beyond the usual commercial transaction. That is the notion of shared risk. When originally conceived, the CSA was set up differently than it is now. A group of people pooled their money, bought a farm, hired a farmer, and each took a share of whatever the farm produced for the year. If the farm had a tomato bonanza, everyone put some up for winter. If a plague of locusts ate all the greens, people ate cheese sandwiches. Very few such CSAs exist today, and for most farmers, the CSA is just one of the ways their produce is marketed. They may also go to the farmers market, do some wholesale, sell to restaurants, etc. Still, the idea that “we’re in this together” remains. On some farms it is stronger than others, and CSA members may be asked to sign a policy form indicating that they agree to accept without complaint whatever the farm can produce.

Many times, the idea of shared risk is part of what creates a sense of community among members, and between members and the farmers. If a hailstorm takes out all the peppers, everyone is disappointed together, and together cheer on the winter squash and broccoli. Most CSA farmers feel a great sense of responsibility to their members, and when certain crops are scarce, they make sure the CSA gets served first. Still, it is worth noting that occasionally things go wrong on a farm – like they do in any kind of business – and the expected is not delivered, and members feel shortchanged.

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