By Kim Robson
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a movement that is gaining wide acceptance in this country.The concept has its roots in Germany, Switzerland, and Japan. It began in the early 1960s as a response to concerns about food safety and the urbanization of agricultural land, and took hold in the U.S. around 1984. As people become more aware of the benefits of local, organic produce, CSAs become more popular.
CSA sharing programs can vary among the farms that offer them. By far, the most common system is the pre-made box. Farmers evenly distribute the week’s harvest among shareholders into boxes, which are usually picked up, but some farms deliver to farmer’s markets. The boxes can include anything the farm grows that’s in season. Usually the contents are fruits and vegetables, but the boxes can also include herbs, cut flowers, honey, eggs, dairy products, and even artisanal meat, depending on the farm. Shareholders are guaranteed variety, which creates an opportunity to try new veggies at their peak ripeness. It’s very fulfilling to bring something unfamiliar home and find a recipe for it. Some CSAs offer “choose-your-own” (or market-style) distribution systems, where you pick out what you want. Those options usually come with some limitations — for instance, one basket of blueberries per family. Leftover produce gets donated to food banks. Some CSAs work on point systems.
In addition to receiving flavorful farm-fresh produce, shareholders actively discover where their food comes from. They often are invited to the farm, receive regular newsletters, and become familiar with the farmers growing the food. You may discover new veggies and fruits, and new ways of cooking. Kids want to eat foods from “their” farm, even foods they’d normally eschew. You’ll learn more about how your food is grown. The environment benefits, too, as very little fossil fuel is used to transport and package the produce.
The advantages for farmers are great. Since the farm is receiving payment for a full season’s budget ahead of time, farmers don’t have to spend time and money marketing the food after their 16-hour days in the field. CSA farms are usually small, independent, family farms. CSAs provide a guaranteed market for farmers via prepaid annual shares, allowing consumers to directly finance farming operations. This allows farmers not only to focus more on growing quality food, but also to get to know the people who eat the food they grow. CSAs help small farms compete in a food market that favors large-scale, industrialized agriculture over local food. Many CSA farms use ecological, organic, or biodynamic practices.
CSA subscribers don’t pay for so many pounds of produce; instead, they support the budget of the entire farm and in return receive what is seasonally ripe each week. The initial cost can be daunting for some (generally around $400-$700 annually), but many farms will allow people to contribute labor in exchange for a discount, or offer installment plans. Farmers also can prorate the fee for members who join mid-season. Subscribing to a CSA share almost always costs less than consumers would pay for the same amount of fresh food at a grocery store each week for a year. Do be sure to check the farm’s policies, as most will not issue refunds for missed weeks, but will often allow shares to be transferred to a friend or neighbor for a time if you go on vacation.
In a CSA, risks are shared, creating a sense of community between members and farmers. If a hailstorm takes out all of one crop, everyone is disappointed together, and together, everyone cheers on other crops that do survive. CSA farmers feel responsible to their members. If certain crops are in short supply, the farmers make sure the CSA gets served first. Keep in mind, though, that – just as in any business – very rarely things go wrong on a farm, and expectations aren’t met and members may feel shortchanged. Know your farm’s policies ahead of time and don’t join with unreasonable expectations.
Ready to find CSA farms in your area? LocalHarvest.org has a great CSA finder; so does MapMuse. Talk to the farmers and visit their farms. You could be getting a box full of nature’s goodness every week, fresh from the farm, and supporting local, sustainable agriculture.