GENERAL INFORMATION ABOUT COMMUNITY SUPPORTED AGRICULTURE
What is a CSA?
Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a new idea in farming, one that has been gaining momentum since its introduction to the United States from Europe in the mid-1980's. The CSA concept originated in the 1960s in Switzerland and Japan, where consumers interested in safe food and farmers seeking stable markets for their crops joined together in economic partnerships. Today, CSA farms in the U.S., known as CSA’s, currently number more than 400. Most are located near urban centers in New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, and the Great Lakes region, with growing numbers in other areas, including the West Coast.
In basic terms, CSA consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community's farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. Typically, members or "shareholders" of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer's salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm's bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production. Members also share in the risks of farming, including poor harvests due to unfavorable weather or pests. By direct sales to community members, who have provided the farmer with working capital in advance, growers receive better prices for their crops, gain some financial security, and are relieved of much of the burden of marketing.
How Does a CSA Work?
Money, Members and Management
A farmer or grower, often with the assistance of a core group, draws up a budget reflecting the production costs for the year. This includes all salaries, distribution costs, investments for seeds and tools, land payments, taxes, machinery maintenance, etc. The budget is then divided by the number of people the farm will provide for 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. Share prices reflect many variables and average between $300 and $600. Flowers, fruit, meat, honey, eggs and dairy products are also available through some CSA.
Community members sign up and purchase their shares, either in a lump sum before the seeds are sown in early spring, or in several installments throughout 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, and occasionally throughout the winter in northern climates and year-round in milder zones. Members prefer a wide variety of vegetables and herbs, 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.
CSA vary considerably as they are based on farm or garden location, agricultural practices, and specific farm and community goals and needs. Memberships are known to include a variety of community members including low-income families, homeless people, senior citizens, and differently-abled individuals. If provided, an extra fee typically is charged for home delivery. Most CSA invite members to visit the farm and welcome volunteer assistance. Working shares are an option in some cases, whereby a member commits to working two to four hours a week to help the farm in exchange for a discount on membership cost.
Apprenticeships are growing in popularity on many CSA. For some farms they are an integral component of a successful operation. Apprenticeships offer valuable hands-on education and train America’s future farmers.
Why Is Community Supported Agriculture Important?
- CSA encourage direct communication and cooperation among farmers and consumers.
- CSA provide farmers and growers with a fair return on their labor.
- CSA keep food dollars in the local community and contribute to the development and maintenance of regional food systems.
- With a "guaranteed market" for their produce, farmers can invest their time in doing the best job they can producing food rather than marketing their products.
- CSA support the biodiversity of a given farm and the diversity of agriculture.
- CSA create a sense of social responsibility and stewardship of local land.
- CSA put "the farmers face on food" and increase understanding of how, where, and by whom our food is grown.