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Each month, Farmer Sandy sets aside a portion of the crops she's grown, placing them in cardboard boxes for families to come by to collect. These families mostly live within 30 minutes of Farmer Sandy's small, 10-acre farm. After Farmer Sandy has finished packing the boxes, she takes stock of whatever's left over so she can take it to her local farmer's market the next weekend.
But, wait—a subscription? To vegetables? Why not just buy them from the grocery store? If the concept seems strange to you, this might be the first you're hearing of community supported agriculture. This is one of many relatively new food movements in contemporary agriculture, designed to link local people more closely with the food they are eating and to address concerns over modern agricultural practices.
Community supported agriculture (sometimes written as "community-supported agriculture") is essentially a monetization scheme in which customers give money to a farm at the start of a growing season in exchange for boxes of fresh produce on a regular basis as crops are harvested.
Community Supported Agriculture: A commercial agricultural service in which customers invest in a farm in exchange for a portion of the farm's harvest.
It is tempting to characterize community supported agriculture (CSA) as merely a subscription service, sort of like receiving a magazine in your mailbox every month. But when you subscribe to National Geographic or Time, you do so with an expectation of consistent quality, in that your copy of the magazine won't be torn or ripped or even missing entirely—and if it is, there is an understanding that the company fulfilling your subscription will provide a replacement.
This is simply not possible with CSA. The food that is grown is all the food there is. So while CSA is a subscription service in a sense, a more appropriate analogy might be to compare CSA to buying shares in a publicly-traded company that offers dividends. If that company does well over the course of the year, you will receive some good dividends—but if the company performs poorly, you may actually lose more money than you invested.
The same general principle applies to a CSA. Customers invest in a CSA with the understanding that the quality of the produce may turn out poorly for a variety of reasons, but there is no way to get that money back or to swap out the produce for higher quality produce. This is why the concept is branded as "community-supported"—the farmers and their community of supporters succeed or fail together.
CSA has many synonyms, such as vegetable box scheme, solidarity farming, and crop-sharing (not to be confused with sharecropping!). In Japan, CSA is commonly called teikei (提携), which literally translates to "support" or "cooperation."
According to the Rodale Institute,1 a farming research organization, the concept of community supported agriculture seems to have emerged independently in different locations at least four or five times:
In the 1920s, Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, first articulated the concept of CSA to the general European public.
After WWII, CSA began to gain traction in Europe.
In the 1960s, American agriculture professor Booker T. Whatley advocated for a CSA-type system in the United States.
In the 1960s, teikei emerged independently in Japan as a response to fears over agricultural chemicals.
In the 1970s, CSA also emerged in Chile.
In 1985, CSA truly began in the United States, largely as a result of European influence.
Indian Line Farm and Temple-Wilton Community Farm (located in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, respectively) are credited as the first CSA farms in the United States.1 Since 1986, CSA has spread throughout the US and is largely concentrated in and around New England, the Pacific Northwest, and California. CSA is also increasingly gaining traction in China.
This is how a typical CSA might operate:
A farmer or group of farmers establishes a commercial farm on a plot of land.
The farmer solicits investors for the CSA plan.
These investors pay money upfront for their portion of the harvest.
The farmer uses this money to fund the farm's operations.
As crops are grown and harvested throughout the year/season, the farmer sets aside some of them for each investor.
Investors collect their shares of the harvest (usually in the form of a box of vegetables, fruits, dairy, or eggs they have to pick up directly from the farm) throughout the year/season.
Leftover crops are either sold to non-investors (such as via a stand at a farmer's market) or donated to a community food bank.
As we mentioned earlier, things do not always go according to plan. No matter how much labor and money you pour into a farm, the forces of nature remain beyond the control of human civilization: a bad year is a bad year. Crops fail. Quality or quantity might fall short of expectations.
For this reason, if customers are interested in investing in a CSA, they may be asked to sign an agreement or contract. Typically, it's basically an acknowledgment that the crops they're investing in may not turn out as planned, but that there is no way they can be offered a refund or replacement. It's a recognition of shared responsibility and shared risk. However, a contract or similar agreement is also an assurance that the CSA farmers will reserve part of their harvest for the investor.
Formal statistics regarding community supported agriculture are few and far between. As of 2022, even the United States Department of Agriculture's formal CSA webpage is hosting statistics dating as far back as 1993.2,3
In 2017, the USDA published "Community Supported Agriculture: New Models for Changing Markets," featuring a number of statistics about CSA in the United States.4 Consider the following:
In 1999, 41% of CSA farms were growing exclusively organic produce. In 2017, this number jumped to 86% of all CSA farms (including both informally organic and certified organic).
In 1999, 70% of CSA farms were operating on 49 acres or less.
In 2017, CSA farms on average were making about 53% of their sales via their CSA subscriptions.
In 2017, approximately 60% of CSA managers were women.
In 2017, around 26% of CSA farms had been in operation for over 10 years.
In 2014, the average CSA had 141 shareholders.
In 2017, the majority (58%) of CSA farms were located within 50 miles of urban areas.
What conclusions can we draw from these statistics? Though they are a little old, they suggest that both managers and CSA investors tend to be quite concerned with agricultural chemicals and genetically modified organisms and are seeking an alternative ("organic").
CSA farms, on average, are also significantly smaller than many of the farms used for large-scale crop cultivation. This suggests that CSA goes hand-in-hand with small family farms and/or market gardening, and by its nature, CSA requires intensive farming to be successful. It also suggests that many CSA managers are not deeply entrenched in US agricultural families (i.e., they are not inheriting massive plots of land).
Let's use the two CSA farms we mentioned earlier for brief case studies.
Indian Line Farm is located in Massachusetts. It is owned and maintained by a family. Seventeen acres in size, the Indian Line Farm was established as a CSA farm in 1985 and claims to be the first CSA in the United States.5 Indian Line Farm could probably best be characterized as a market garden.
Indian Line Farm grows a variety of fruits, vegetables, and ornamental flowers. The "full investment" CSA option (i.e., a little of everything) cost US$835 per season as of 2022. The cheapest CSA investment option, the "half fruit share," offers a portion of fruit once every two weeks for about four months for $150. Indian Farm also expects its members to do at least two hours of volunteer work per season.
Additionally, Indian Line Farm regularly hosts a stand at a local farmer's market.
The Temple-Wilton Community Farm, located in New Hampshire, was founded in 1986 and is over 150 acres.6 The farm is operated by a collective rather than a family. The farm produces dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese) as well as eggs, poultry, beef, and a variety of produce. It can best be categorized as a mixed crop and livestock system.
To join the Temple-Wilton Community Farm's CSA program, you must first pay $200. After that initial fee, you can expect to pay, on average, $150 per person per month to get full access to the Temple-Wilton products (∼$1800 per person for 12 months).
The Temple-Wilton Community Farm also operates a farm store for 12 hours a day where customers, who don't need to be CSA members, may purchase farm products.
Did the numbers we shared above seem like a good deal to you? Or did you take them as an indicator that CSA is too expensive for you? Let's review some pros and cons of CSA.
CSA farms appeal to those who want to eat local and/or avoid agricultural chemicals and genetically modified organisms:
CSA reduces transportation costs and transportation-related pollution.
Most CSA farms grow exclusively organic produce, which appeals to consumers who are concerned about GMOs.
Most CSA farms grow their produce without pesticides, herbicides, or growth hormones, reducing air and water pollution.
The concept of CSA enables smaller-scale farmers to support themselves and bypass competition with larger farms.
CSA establishes a sense of communal financial responsibility for a local farm.
But, of course, there are certain drawbacks:
CSAs have high upfront costs. For many families, these membership costs may be prohibitively high.
Despite these costs, there is no firm guarantee of product quantity and quality.
Additionally, CSA farms do not typically offer enough food on their own to completely meet the food requirements of a family. CSA shares will likely need to be supplemented with additional food purchases.
Like all forms of intensive agriculture, CSA may eventually cause soil degradation, though likely much more slowly than farming with agricultural chemicals.
What does the future hold for CSA? Can it serve as a replacement for large-scale intensive crop cultivation? Only time will tell.
Community supported agriculture is a commercial agricultural service in which customers invest in a farm in exchange for a portion of the farm's harvest.
Community supported agriculture is important because it reduces transportation and chemical-related pollution and it allows many small-scale farmers to support themselves financially.
A farmer or manager of a community supported agriculture farm solicits investors to pre-purchase a portion of the harvest.
While CSA farms promote community involvement, and typically prioritize environmentally-friendly and organic practices, investing in CSA can be very expensive and quality and quantity cannot be guaranteed.
As of 2014, the average community supported agriculture farm had 141 shareholders. The success of each CSA farm largely depends on the efficiency of the farm's workers and the local community's interest in investing and participating.
Simply, community supported agriculture works something like this: a farmer or group of farmers solicits investors, who pre-purchase their share of the harvest. As the season goes on, some of the harvest will be set aside for investors to come collect from the farm.
Community supported agriculture is a way for smaller farms to support themselves without directly competing with large-scale crop cultivation. Many (but not all) CSA farms also prioritize organic produce and do not or cannot use large-scale agricultural machinery or pesticides and herbicides.
Which of the following is NOT another term for community supported agriculture?
In this 1960s, this US professor proposed something akin to CSA.
Booker T. Whatley.
Which farm is recognized as the first CSA farm in the United States? When did it begin its CSA operation?
Indian Line Farm; 1985.
Which of the following best characterizes CSA?
Part investment, part subscription service for produce from a local farm.
True or False: CSA is strongly linked to increased interest in organic produce.
In which state is Indian Line Farm located?
In which state is Temple-Wilton Community Farm located?
True or False: A single box of produce through a CSA farm can usually meet all of a family's food needs for a month.
False! While there may be exceptions, CSA farms do not typically provide enough food to meet all of a family's food needs.
True or False: As of 2017, the majority of CSA farms were located in rural areas, far from any urban centers.
False! Most CSAs are located near towns and cities, close to potential customers.
You subscribe to an online service that delivers fresh produce to your home once a month. The farm that produces the produce is about 500 miles away. Does this count as CSA?
No, because you technically did not invest in a local farm.
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