Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
CSA, a marketing method in which members of a community invest in a local farm operation by paying up-front for a share of the harvest, has been growing steadily since it first appeared in the U.S. in the late 1980s. The community idea carries over into the farm itself, with members dividing the weekly harvest as well as the risk of crop failure. Moreover, most CSA farms invite members to learn more about their operations through farm visits, volunteer opportunities and potluck suppers.
No two CSA farms are alike. Most supply produce. They also might provide flowers, berries, nuts, eggs, meat, grain or honey. Farmers may ask members to come to the farm to pick up their shares, or they might deliver them to centrally located distribution sites. Families run some CSA farms, while others involve groups of producers to supply additional goods. Many CSA farms ask members to commit time and labor to the operation, which not only lowers costs, but also allows members to learn more about what it really means to grow food.
In and around Concord, N.H., eight organic vegetable growers decided to try a cooperative CSA. With a SARE grant, the group worked through the logistics, from the creation of a legal entity called Local Harvest CSA to weekly food production and delivery. Being part of the cooperative makes it possible for the growers to combine what they produce best or substitute for others’ crop losses. Co-op members also learn from each other, sharing information about production issues like seed varieties and fencing options. Since forming in 2003, the group has slowly expanded its roster of farmer-members and doubled its number of shareholders to more than 200.
Another model comes from northern California’s Full Belly Farm. Run by a team of four farm partners, Full Belly hosts a year-round, 800-member CSA with drop-off sites throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Full Belly Farm employs 40 workers and grows nearly 80 different types of vegetables, herbs, fruits and nuts as well as flowers, eggs and wool. They also sell at farmers markets and to restaurants.
“I wanted to create a different model than what I grew up with,” says Paul Muller, who was raised near San Jose in a family of dairy farmers and now is one of the Full Belly Farm partners. “On our farm, we have great relationships with our end users – they are the ones we grow for, and they have confidence in our integrity” about how Full Belly Farm produces their food. “They have no question about feeding it to their kids.”
Full Belly Farm has been organic since the 1980s, and hosts an award-winning annual “Hoes Down” festival including kids’ activities, farm tours, food and music. Muller received SARE’s Patrick Madden Sustainable Farmer Award in 2006.
Many CSA farmers produce weekly or biweekly newsletters describing the harvest and providing recipes. Others reach out electronically through listservs or Websites. Full Belly Farm’s Website describes their CSA program in detail — including drop-off locations, prices and payment schedules, a harvest calendar and a newsletter specifying the contents of the weekly CSA box, among other things.
When evaluating CSA as an option for your farm, consider:
- Your location. Can you find enough members? Can they drive to your farm; or do you need to establish community drop-off sites?
- Labor. Do you have enough paid support or volunteers to handle the extra jobs involved in CSA, such as packaging?
- Your willingness to sponsor events on the farm, publish a newsletter and provide other services that help customers feel connected to the farm.