The CSA (R)Evolution

A decade ago, the definition of Community Supported Agriculture was fairly straightforward, as there were only two versions in practice. In its purest state, a CSA was a farm that was owned by a group of community members, each of whom had purchased a share of the business. Together they hired a farmer who raised crops which were divided amongst the shareholders. If crops were bountiful, everyone ate especially well. The risk of crop failure was shared as well, so the farmer was paid the same in good years and in lean ones.

Few such projects have taken root in this country, though those that have are known for the passion of their members. Much more common is the type of CSA wherein a farmer offers a given number of shares to a community, typically in the spring when the farm's cash flow needs are the highest. Members purchase a share up front, and in exchange receive a box of vegetables each week throughout the growing season. People who have joined CSAs often speak of the satisfaction they get from being "forced" to eat both seasonally and more widely than they have been accustomed to doing.

Though it offers many advantages to both farmers and consumers, CSAs are not for everyone. Some people find the quantity of produce overwhelming; others balk at the idea of having to deal with veggies they don't care for or know about, while perhaps having to go to the market for favorite items not offered by their CSA.

In response, farmers all across the country are coming up with creative variations on the CSA theme. Some address the quantity issue while offering consumers greater choice, and others take the idea beyond produce to other farm products.

Many farms on the East Coast (and gradually elsewhere in the country) have taken to offering a "mix and match" style CSA, where members fill their own baskets with produce, thus deciding for themselves what's for dinner this week. Bob Muth, of Muth Family Farm in Williamstown, NJ has followed this practice for several years and found it to be successful. "Pre-boxing was a disaster," he says, because so many customers requested customized boxes, which proved to be impossible. Now, all his CSA members come to the farm and fill their own basket - available in three sizes - with whatever they want off the harvest tables. Their choices are often wide open, limited only when there is a small quantity of some item. Bob raves about this system, "It saves me money in labor, saves me time, and helps the members feel like part of the family, which they are."

In another move to meet members' needs, some small-scale farms have joined together to create a single CSA. This allows each farm to focus on the crops it grows best, while still offering members the variety they expect. "Two Small Farms" CSA is one such project, representing the joint effort of two family farms in the Monterey Bay region of California. With the coastal microclimates being what they are, though located only a few miles apart, Mariquita Farm is able to produce heat loving crops while High Ground Organics focuses on cool weather vegetables and berries. Their customers get the best of both!

CSAs have also branched out to offer much more than produce. Meat and eggs are featured in some CSAs, with or without vegetables. At VanCalcar Acres, in Fort Plain, NY, CSA members beef, pork and lamb cuts, an assortment of vegetables, and two loaves of homemade bread each week. And for those who need a regular dose of beauty as much as they need food, 'flower CSAs' offer members a bouquet of fresh flowers every week. In a bit more liberal application of the term, 'CSA' is also used in conjunction with a monthly subscription service for coffee beans shipped to customers from a farm in Hawaii.

The most controversial twist on the CSA idea are the programs whose managers purchase food from other businesses and offer the collective goods to subscribers. These may be run by farmers or by third parties. For a time, LocalHarvest.org did not allow such businesses to list themselves in our directory because we felt that practices such as purchasing tropical fruit to round out a CSA box in, say, the Pacific Northwest made the program more of a "buying club" than a CSA. As with so many things, however, it has become difficult to draw a definitive line.

There is some gray area. Consider, for example, "Eating with the Seasons," a San Francisco Bay Area CSA run by Becky Herbert, the daughter of a Central Coast produce farmer. The 'CSA' offers produce from her dad's farm and one other local farmer, along with locally raised grassfed beef, organic eggs and chicken - and imported, locally roasted organic fair trade coffee. Becky uses the term 'CSA' with some hesitance, but says, "There isn't really a word for what we do." Her business grew out of the traditional CSA on her dad's farm. When he simplified his crop plan and stopped growing the wide variety of vegetables expected from a CSA, the group of community members that had been part of the farm wanted to find a way to continuing their relationship with it. Becky approached other farms in order to keep the CSA going for the community. "We see our business as a channel for the farmers in the community to get their food to the people. It's more like a network thing now," she says. Making the model more flexible allowed for a new dialogue with the members. "We ask them what they're looking for, and then we try to find those products in the county," she says. "Working with new farmers is fun for me, and our members get introduced to a number of the local growers instead of just one."

Recognizing that "CSA" is becoming a malleable term, this month LocalHarvest updated the forms that farmers use to create their on-line listing for our directory. We now ask new CSAs to describe how their program is managed: by a single farmer, a group of neighboring farms, or a third party. We also ask them to describe their order and delivery mechanisms and whether the share is customizable. We hope that these changes will be helpful as our users locate - and define - CSA programs in their area.

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Back to the February 2007 Newsletter