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CSA Definition

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3:07

CSA Definition & History

Community-supported agriculture began in the early 1960s in Germany, Switzerland and Japan as a response to concerns about food safety and the urbanization of agricultural land. In the 1960s groups of consumers and farmers in Europe formed cooperative partnerships to fund farming and pay the full costs of ecologically sound and socially equitable agriculture. In Europe, many of the CSA style farms were inspired by the economic ideas of Rudolf Stiener and experiments with community agriculture took place on farms using Biodynamic agriculture. In 1965 mothers in Japan who were concerned about the rise of imported food and the loss of arable land started the first CSA projects called Teikei (提携) in Japanese – most likely unrelated to the developments in Europe.

The idea started to take root in the United States in 1984 when Jan VanderTuin brought the concept of CSA to North America from Europe. At the same time German Biodynamic farmer Trauger Groh and colleagues founded the Temple-Wilton Community Farm in Wilton, New Hampshire.VanderTuin had co-founded a community-supported agricultural project named Topinambur located near Zurich, Switzerland. Coinage of the term “community-supported agriculture” stems from Vander Tuin and the Great Barrington CSA that he co-founded with its proprietor Robyn Van En. Since that time community supported farms have been organized throughout North America — mainly in the Northeast, the Pacific coast, the Upper-Midwest and Canada. North America now has at least 13,000 CSA farms of which 12,549 are in the US according to the US Department of Agriculture in 2007. Some examples of larger and well established CSAs in the US are Angelic Organics and Roxbury Farm. CSA’s have even become popular in urban environments as proven by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger’s own CSA program that maintains locations in all five boroughs of the city. The largest subscription CSA with over 13,000 families is Farm Fresh To You in Capay Valley, California.

The CSA system

CSAs generally focus on the production of high quality foods for a local community, often using organic or biodynamic farming methods, and a shared risk membership–marketing structure. This kind of farming operates with a much greater degree of involvement of consumers and other stakeholders than usual — resulting in a stronger consumer-producer relationship. The core design includes developing a cohesive consumer group that is willing to fund a whole season’s budget in order to get quality foods. The system has many variations on how the farm budget is supported by the consumers and how the producers then deliver the foods. CSA theory purports that the more a farm embraces whole-farm, whole-budget support, the more it can focus on quality and reduce the risk of food waste or financial loss.

Structure

In its most formal and structured European and North American forms CSAs focus on having:

  • A transparent, whole season budget for producing a specified wide array of products for a set number of weeks a year
  • A common-pricing system where producers and consumers agree to pricing
  • A “shared risk and reward” agreement, i.e. that the consumers receive what the farmers grow even with the vagaries of seasonal growing.

Meaning that individuals, families, and/or groups pay for x pounds or kilograms of produce and receive weekly what is seasonally ripe. This approach eliminates the marketing risks, costs for the producer and an enormous amount of time and labor, and allows producers to focus on quality care of the soils, crops, animals and co-workers as well as on serving the customers. There is financial stability in this system which allows for thorough planning on the part of the farmer.

Some farms are dedicated entirely to their CSA while others also sell through on-farm stands, farmers’ markets and other channels. Most CSAs are owned by the farmers while some offer shares in the farm as well as the harvest. Consumers have organized their own CSA projects and have gone as far as leasing land and hiring farmers. Many CSAs have a core group of members that assist with CSA administration. Some require or offer the option of members providing labor as part of the share price.
Some CSAs have evolved into social enterprises employing a number of local staff, improving the lot of local farmers and educating the local community about organic and ecologically responsible farming.

Typically CSA farms are small, independent, labor-intensive family farms. By providing a guaranteed market through prepaid annual sales consumers essentially help finance farming operations. This allows farmers to not only focus on quality growing but can also level the playing field in a food market that favors large-scale, industrialized agriculture over local food.

Vegetables and fruit are the most common CSA crops. Many CSAs practice ecological, organic or biodynamic agriculture by avoiding pesticides and inorganic fertilizers. The cost of a share is usually competitively priced when compared to the same amount of vegetables conventionally grown – partly because the cost of distribution is lowered.

Distribution and marketing methods

A distinctive feature of CSAs is the method of distribution. In the U.S. and Canada shares are usually provided weekly with pick-ups or deliveries occurring on a designated day and time. CSA subscribers often live in towns and cities – local drop-off locations, convenient to a number of members, are organized, often at the homes of members. Shares are also usually available on-farm.

CSAs are different from buying clubs and home delivery services where the consumer buys a specific product at a predetermined price. CSA members purchase only what the farm is able to successfully grow and harvest sharing some of the growing risk with the farmer. If the strawberry crop is not successful, for example, the CSA member will share the burden of the crop failure by receiving fewer, or lower quality, strawberries for the season. CSA members are often more actively involved in the growing and distribution process through shared newsletters and recipes, farm visits, farm work-days, advance purchases of shares and picking up their shares of produce.

Some families have enrolled in subscription CSAs in which a family pays a fixed price for each delivery and can start or stop the service as they wish. This kind of arrangement is also referred to as crop-sharing or box schemes. In such cases the farmer may supplement each box with produce brought in from neighboring farms for a wider variety. Thus there is a distinction between the farmers selling pre-paid shares in the upcoming season’s harvest or a weekly subscription that represents that week’s harvest. In all cases participants purchase a portion of the farm’s harvest either by the season or by the week in return for what the farm is able to successfully grow and harvest.

An advantage of the close consumer-producer relationship is increased freshness of the produce because it does not have to be shipped long distances. The close proximity of the farm to the members also helps the environment by reducing pollution caused by transporting the produce. CSAs often include recipes and farm news in each box in which tours of the farm and work days are announced. Over a period of time consumers get to know who is producing their food and what production methods are used.
Share prices can vary dramatically depending on location. Variables also include the length of share season and average quantity and selection of food per share. As a rough average, in North America, a basic share may be $350–550 for a season lasting for 14–20 weeks in June to September (or October). The produce would be enough of each included crop for at least two people consisting of perhaps 8–12 common garden vegetables. Seasonal eating is implied as shares are usually based on the outdoor growing season which means a smaller selection at the beginning, and perhaps the end, of the period as well as a changing variety as the season progresses. Some CSA programs offer different share sizes or choices of share periods e.g. full-season and peak season.

The film the Real Dirt on Farmer John documents the resurrection of a family farm through its conversion to a CSA model.