CSA Members - About CSA's

An Introduction to Community Supported Agriculture

What is Community Supported Agriculture?

A Community Supported Agriculture or CSA program works to put people who use farm-grown products into a cooperating business relationship with the actual farmers who grow those products. By purchasing a subscription to the CSA service for a growing season, families and individuals become shareholders. Each week the farmer divides his bounty into equal shares, which can then be picked up at the farm or another central location by shareholders.

CSA is a partnership of mutual commitment between a farm and a community of members (shareholders), which provides a direct link between the production and consumption of food. Shareholders cover a farm's yearly operating budget by purchasing a share of the season's harvest. CSA members make a commitment to support the farm throughout the season, and assume the costs, risks, and the bounty of growing food along with the farmer or grower. A member's subscription helps pay for seeds, fertilizer, water, equipment maintenance, labor, etc. In return, the farm provides, to the best of its ability, a healthy supply of seasonal fresh produce throughout the growing season. Subscriptions usually run from early May through late September or early October, depending on the growing season where you live. Becoming a member creates a responsible relationship between people, the food they eat, the land on which it is grown, and those who grow it.

This idea of community-supported agriculture is catching on around the country as our society experiences an increased awareness of the need for personal, economic, and global health. The goals of CSA support a strong foundation for a sustainable agriculture system. CSA provides farmers with direct outlets for farm products while ensuring fair compensation. CSA provides shareholders with an equal share of the fresh and typically organic bounty for their families at prices competitive with those in the grocery store. Not only does it cut out the middleman and ensure the freshest possible produce at good prices, CSA is also good for the environment as it reduces the harmful emissions released by long-range transportation.

How CSA's Work: Money, Members and Management

Consumers and farmers work together on behalf of each other and the environment. While the farmer is tending the environment on behalf of others, consumers share the costs of supporting the farm and share both the risks and the bounty of variable harvests. Membership in the CSA is based on shares of the harvest. Members are called shareholders. Each CSA handles this relationship in its own fashion. Every farm is different in length of season, crops grown, level of social activities and price they set for their shares.

A farmer or grower, often with the assistance of a core group, draws up a budget reflecting the production costs for the year. This includes all salaries, distribution costs, investments for seeds and tools, land payments, machinery maintenance, etc. Most CSA groups invite members to visit the farm and welcome volunteer assistance. Flowers, fruit, meat, honey, eggs and dairy products are also available through some CSAs.

Community members sign up and purchase their shares, either in one lump sum before the seeds are sown in early spring, or in several installments throughout the growing season. Production expenses are thereby guaranteed and the farmer or grower starts receiving income as soon as work begins.

In return for their investment, CSA members receive a share of fresh, locally-grown, typically organic produce once a week from late spring through early fall, and occasionally throughout the winter in northern climates and year-round in milder zones. Members prefer a wide variety of vegetables and herbs, which encourages integrated cropping and companion planting. These practices help reduce risk factors and give multiple benefits to the soil. Crops are planted in succession in order to provide a continuous weekly supply of mixed vegetables. As crops rotate throughout the season, weekly shares vary by size and types of produce, reflecting local growing seasons and conditions.

Property arrangements tend to be quite flexible. Beyond private ownership, there is leasing of land with lease fees factored in as a regular budget item. CSA is also an excellent opportunity for holding land in some form of trust arrangement.

Every CSA strives over time for a truly sustainable operation, both economically and environmentally. Many try to develop to their highest potential by expanding to provide additional food items such as honey, fruit, meats, eggs, etc. Networks of CSA have been forming to develop associative economies by growing and providing a greater range of products in a cooperative fashion.

Some CSA provide produce for local restaurants, roadside stands or farmers' markets while building farm membership, or in many cases, in addition to it.

What is a Share?

A "share" means a share of the harvest. The share is usually enough to feed a family of four or a couple on a vegetarian diet for one week. Some CSAs offer "half shares.” The price of a share for a season varies widely, depending on each farm's costs of operation, total months of distribution, variety of crops available, and productivity of the soil. Most full shares fall within the range of $300 to $700 for a growing season. Actual cost of produce to the member varies, but is generally comparable to prices in the supermarket.

Distribution/Delivery/Pickup
In many CSAs, crops are harvested twice a week. If a CSA has full- and half-shares, a full-shareholder would pick up twice a week and half-shareholder would pick up once a week. Distribution styles vary. Once the day's produce is harvested, the entire amount is weighed and the number of pounds or items (e.g. heads of lettuce, ears of corn) to be received by each share is determined. Some CSAs have members come to the farm and weigh out their own share, leave behind any items they don't want at a surplus table, and possibly find something there they could use. Other farms have a distribution crew to weigh items and pack shares to be picked up by members at the farm or at distribution points. Some farms even offer U-Pick for certain labor-intensive crops like peas, beans, strawberries, tomatoes, flowers, herbs, etc.

Each CSA tries to harvest only enough fresh produce for the number of people picking up that day so that little if any food is wasted. Several advantages to the direct marketing approach of CSA, in addition to shared risk and pre-payment of farm costs, are the minimal loss and waste of harvested farm produce, little or reduced need for long-term storage, and a willingness by members to accept produce with natural cosmetic imperfections.

Types of CSA Farms

CSA groups vary considerably as they are based on farm or garden location, agricultural practices, and specific farm and community goals and needs. Memberships are known to include a variety of community members including low-income families, homeless people, senior citizens, and differently-abled individuals. If provided, an extra fee typically is charged for home delivery.

In return for fair and guaranteed compensation, consumers receive a variety of freshly picked, typically organic vegetables grown and distributed in an economically viable and ecologically responsible manner. Most CSA groups invite members to visit the farm and welcome volunteer assistance. Many farms offer their shareholders the opportunity to work in the fields or distribute produce in exchange for a discounted share price. Others offer sliding scales to accommodate lower income consumers. In this way, farmers and members become partners in the production, distribution and consumption of locally grown food.

Organic food produced within local communities is not the same as organic food transported over long distances. When members obtain food from local farmers, environmental costs associated with the transport, processing and distribution of organic food and the consumption of fossil fuels are significantly reduced. Since the organic food available to members is produced locally rather than transported over long distances, the impact on the environment is significantly less.

Apprenticeships are growing in popularity on many CSA. For some farms they are an integral component of a successful operation. Apprenticeships offer valuable hands-on education.

Organization

There are typically three groups involved in the farm: the farmers, the core group, and consumers. The farmers do all the actual farming work. They enjoy the autonomy of utilizing their experience and know-how to grow their crops in their way. The responsibility of farmers is to make their annual garden/farm plan and grow and harvest the crops.

A core group is responsible to financially support the farm and see that all the food is consumed. The farmers or growers, distributors and other key administrators, and several CSA members often comprise the decision-making body for the CSA that determines short- and long-range goals, prepares the budget, conducts publicity and outreach, organizes events, etc. Annual meetings, a member newsletter, and occasional surveys are some basic means of communication between the farm and its members. The core group usually consists of 5-12 people.

The consumers group includes everyone (e.g., farmers, distributors, shareholders, etc.).

Benefits of CSAs

Joining a CSA program provides you with produce that is at its peak of freshness. The produce is picked, sorted, and delivered typically on the same day. This cannot be said of the produce sold at the big supermarket chains,whichimport much of their stock from farms, not just across the country, but around the world. By keeping the revenue right in your area, CSAs directly benefit the local economy. And because the produce is local, it need only be transported to the local pick-up location, which reduces fuel costs and the unhealthy emissions that have proven detrimental to the environment as a whole.

Please understand that CSA is not about securing cheap food, which is usually neither nourishing nor grown with care of the environment in mind. CSA is about each of us being responsible. Nevertheless we encourage you to compare prices of a share at your local CSA to the supermarket's “cheap food.” We think you'll be pleasantly surprised that being responsible and nutritious can also be financially savvy.

CSA Is About Seasons

Seasonal celebrations are natural when you are living closer to nature. Social gatherings such as Planting Parties, St. John's Festivals, Raspberry Festivals, Michaelmas, Potato Digging Potlucks, and Fall Harvest Festivals are all seasonal celebrations. Changing your diet to eat with the seasons is something that happens naturally when a larger portion of your food begins to come from a garden. Many CSAs take on the task of helping to re-educate shareholders on how to shift their diets to include more fresh seasonal produce and how to store and preserve that produce for the winter months. Shareholders help one another by sharing recipes and menus. Some CSAs publish recipe books like Louise's Leaves or Farmer John's Cookbook, and some try to encourage shareholders to pick enough food to preserve for the winter months. This allows consumers to re-discover the household arts of drying, canning, and freezing foods.

CSA Is About Community

Though often formed by farmers, some CSAs have been formed by consumers. CSAs offer opportunities for people to meet in a different way and address important community issues. Some CSAs make sure that the CSA initiative does not exclude low-income families through its pricing policies. For example, several CSAs are organized as part of regional food banks, and at least one CSA offers employment for homeless individuals. Another CSA, formed by a church group, links suburban and inner-city residents. Some CSAs also take on composting shareholders' food scraps.

Community Supported Agriculture Programs Are on the Rise

Just a few short years ago, a CSA program probably didn't exist in your community. They have taken off in recent years, and for good reason. Not only are they a great way for farmers to know they are going to have a market for their crops, but CSAs are a great way for the consumer to get high-quality products without breaking the bank.

CSA crops are typically organic, so health-conscious consumers can be sure they're eating right. Community-supported agriculture programs offer a wide variety of options, including, vegetables, fruits, flowers, meats, cheeses, and grains. You don't have to live right next to an agricultural area, either. Often farmers will spread their produce around in several nearby cities to make sure all their crops are spoken for. Community Supported Agriculture Programs bring communities together in a unique and healthy way!

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