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.

The CSA Concept

Community supported agriculture membership will bring ripe berries to your door -- in season of course.
Community supported agriculture membership will bring ripe berries to your door -- in season of course.
Image courtesy of CDFA

Local, sustainably managed farms have been dropping like flies in the last couple of decades, unable to effectively compete in a global market that values low price over high quality. That's where community supported agriculture (CSA) comes in. People who want the good stuff -- local, fully ripened, typically organic and grown using environmentally friendly farming practices -- can become an active part of supporting the local farming process.

And not just after the fact, when the fruits and veggies appear in their market. That's one of the keys to CSA. Members pay before the growing season starts, assuring farmers of an income for the year so they can make a living and the farm can stay afloat, even if nature throws a curveball. The money a member spends goes toward seeds, labor, fertilizer -- everything needed to produce a crop. And in exchange, each member gets a share of that crop.

Since farmers know they've already got buyers, they can spend their time, you know, farming, instead of marketing their product.

The shared risk inherent in buying a share of a farm upfront can be something of a gamble, but that's actually the point. Community-minded farming tries to even the sales a bit. Everyone is eating fruits and vegetables, but only a minute percentage of people are growing them. In the United States, 2 percent of the population is actively involved in commercial farming [source: DeMuth]. That 2 percent takes on all of the risk of investing in food production for the year and all the responsibility of producing crops for the rest of the population to eat. CSA helps to balance the relationship between food consumers and food growers.

Balance is a big part of CSA. Most CSA farms are organic and sustainable -- they grow food in a way that enhances the land instead of detracting from it, and they produce food free of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The CSA concept itself tends to encourage sustainable practices like crop diversity and complementary planting.

Aside from the eco-friendly farming practices, CSA encourages people to get reacquainted with the land. It's a symbiotic arrangement that helps bridge the gap that's been growing since the industrial revolution. Buying a share in the land fosters a sense of ownership and connection. CSA members can even help with the growing. A CSA farm is not the same as a "community garden," where community members can pay to use a patch of land to grow their own food. A CSA farm is run by the pros. But many CSA farms encourage members to assist with farming tasks whenever they want, often in exchange for a discount in share price.

Getting in on the local-farming action begins before the crop starts growing. Farmers set the share price at the beginning of the year, and the CSA process unfolds from there.

The CSA Practice

Some CSA programs allow you pick up the produce right from the farm.
Some CSA programs allow you pick up the produce right from the farm.
Image courtesy of U.S. government

There's a lot of financial planning that goes into a year's crop, and those plans determine the price of a CSA share. Each farm has different costs and offers different packages, and no two farms will be charging the exact same amount. A CSA membership can run anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand dollars a year [source: Saulny].

At a typical grocery-store price of 50 cents an apple, $3 a pound for mushrooms and $4 for a pound of blackberries, if you get your recommended daily supply of fruits and veggies you're easily spending $1,000 a year on produce -- that's only $20 a week. [source: FDA] Some people actually end up saving money by joining a CSA farm, even an organic one.

The basic CSA process goes like this:

  1. Joining: A person signs up to join a particular local farm under its CSA program.
  2. Determining share cost: The owners and managers of that farm get together and create a budget for the year. This includes seed, fertilizer, equipment, labor and all other costs. They take that total number and divide it by the number of members to come up with that year's share price.
  3. Buying a share: Members pay that amount upfront (or sometimes in seasonal installments).
  4. Collecting: Each week of the year, members collect their allotted amount of produce. They may pick it up at the farm, or the farm may deliver it to their door or another location.

Each farm grows a different set of crops, so it might be smart to pick a CSA farm by what it offers. These farms grow everything, from strawberries and watermelon to beans, carrots and broccoli. Some CSA farms even offer meat, dairy, honey and fresh-cut flowers. A farm with only a few different crops might be part of a CSA network that offers members produce from each network farm for a much larger variety.

It's all seasonal, of course. You're only getting California-grown grapes if you live in California and it's May through February. Farms plant different crops for each season, so the variety changes throughout the year based on what's in season in your area. The beauty of eating seasonally and locally is that everything you get is fresh and ripe and tastes exactly like it should.

And the drawback of eating seasonally and locally is that you won't be getting those grapes, even if you're craving them; and what you will be getting, you'll be getting a whole lot of. That's the potential downside of the CSA membership -- you're at the mercy of Mother Nature, who decides which produce you'll be eating for a few months at a time. If you get tired of broccoli, you may find yourself back in the supermarket spending money on asparagus you don't get from your farm.

For more information on CSA and related topics, look over the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • DeMuth, Suzanne. "Defining Community Supported Agriculture." USDA National Agriculture Library. September 1993.http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/csa/csadef.shtml
  • Price, Katherine. "The Locavore's Dilemma." Slate. March 25, 2009.http://www.slate.com/id/2214524/
  • Saulny, Susan. "Cutting Out the Middlemen, Shoppers Buy Slices of Farms." The New York Times. July 10, 2008.http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/10/us/10farms.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=CSA&st=cse
  • What is Community Supported Agriculture and How Does It Work?http://www.localharvest.org/csa.jsp LocalHarvest.