Ultimate Guide to Community Supported Agriculture

People pick up their weekly share of vegetables from a CSA. See more pictures of vegetables.
AP Photo/Tina Fineberg

When you go to a local grocery store in, say, New York City, and pick out some grapes, you may not think too much about where they began their journey to the produce section. But it's worth considering.

If it's February, they might be from Chile, which sends 75 percent of its winter grape crop to the United States, where grapes are out of season in winter months [source: Business Network]. Chilean grapes use about 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) worth of fossil fuels to get to your table [source: BackpackerNation]. Better-case scenario, it's June and they're from California, in which case they flew only about 2,400 miles (3,800 kilometers) to your city [source: ConvertUnits]. That's between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds (453 and 907 kilograms) of carbon dioxide emitted getting grapes whenever you want them [source: AIT].

Lots of people have started eating locally -- and seasonally -- to both reduce the environmental cost of eating fresh produce and to keep small farms in business. In this context, it doesn't get much better than community supported agriculture, also known as CSA. In community supported agriculture, people become members of a local farm. They pay a set amount of money upfront before the growing starts for the year; in exchange, they get a weekly allotment of fresh produce all year long. They're basically buying a share in the operation.

The CSA concept has only started picking up steam in the United States in the last few years, but it's been popular in Europe for decades. The concept originated in Japan in the 1960s, when a handful of people concerned about the effects of imported produce on local farmers started paying upfront for a sustained supply of food from the locals [source: LocalHarvest]. They were looking not only to keep the farms financially viable but also to know who was growing the stuff they put in their mouths (these first CSA-type programs were called teikei, or "putting a farmer's face on food").

Modern CSA farms share similar goals, but the movement has gotten much bigger, with lots of options available for people looking to buy a share in a local farm. In this article, we'll look at the CSA concept, find out what it means to buy a share in a CSA farm and check out what types of food a CSA farm provides.

The underlying fact that spurred the rise of CSA is a dark one: Local farms are in trouble.