Ultimate Guide to Community Supported Agriculture

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.