Thinking about signing up for a CSA but want to learn more about the idea before you commit? Read on. (Source: LocalHarvest.org)
For over 25 years, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer.
Here are the basics: a farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share (aka a “membership” or a “subscription”) and in return receive a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.
This arrangement creates several rewards for both the farmer and the consumer. In brief:
Advantages for farmers:
- Get to spend time marketing the food early in the year, before their 16 hour days in the field begin
- Receive payment early in the season, which helps with the farm’s cash flow
- Have an opportunity to get to know the people who eat the food they grow
Advantages for consumers:
- Eat ultra-fresh food, with all the flavor and vitamin benefits
- Get exposed to new vegetables and new ways of cooking
- Usually get to visit the farm at least once a season
- Find that kids typically favor food from “their” farm, even veggies they’ve never been known to eat
- Develop a relationship with the farmer who grows their food and learn more about how food is grown
It’s a simple enough idea, but its impact has been profound. Tens of thousands of families have joined CSAs, and in some areas of the country there is more demand than there are CSA farms to fill it. The government does not track CSAs, so there is no official count of how many CSAs there are in the U.S.. LocalHarvest has the most comprehensive directory of CSA farms, with over 4,000 listed in our grassroots database.
As you might expect with such a successful model, farmers have begun to introduce variations. One increasingly common one is the “mix and match,” or “market-style” CSA. Here, rather than making up a standard box of vegetables for every member each week, the members load their own boxes with some degree of personal choice. The farmer lays out baskets of the week’s vegetables. Some farmers encourage members to take a prescribed amount of what’s available, leaving behind just what their families do not care for. Some CSA farmers then donate this extra produce to a food bank. In other CSAs, the members have wider choice to fill their box with whatever appeals to them, within certain limitations. (e.g. “Just one basket of strawberries per family, please.”)
CSAs aren’t confined to produce. Some farmers include the option for shareholders to buy shares of eggs, homemade bread, meat, cheese, fruit, flowers or other farm products along with their veggies. Sometimes several farmers will offer their products together, to offer the widest variety to their members. For example, a produce farmer might create a partnership with a neighbor to deliver chickens to the CSA drop off point, so that the CSA members can purchase farm-fresh chickens when they come to get their CSA baskets. Other farmers are creating standalone CSAs for meat, flowers, eggs, and preserved farm products. In some parts of the country, non-farming third parties are setting up CSA-like businesses, where they act as middle men and sell boxes of local (and sometimes non-local) food for their members.