Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a system where consumers subscribe to the seasonal harvest of local farmers, and receive weekly installments of food during the season. This allows consumers and producers to share in the risks of farming. Most CSA farms supply seasonal fruits and vegetables, but some offer eggs, meat, grains, and, increasingly, even seafood.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can partake in food on a small scale, using practices that nourish the environment, and basically looking for a change in the way you buy produce, then read on. What if you could regularly buy organic food grown seasonally in your region? Will CSA help? How does community supported agriculture work, anyway?
- What Is Community Supported Agriculture?
- Pros and Cons of a CSA
- What are CSA Boxes?
- What is the CSA Membership Cost?
- CSA vs Co-operatives (Is a CSA a Co-op?)
- Examples of Community Supported Agriculture
- How to Find Community Supported Agriculture Near You
What Is Community Supported Agriculture?
Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a form of organic agriculture that relies on the cooperation and relationships between farmers and consumers. The farmers are the producers of organic products, and have the assurance that the consumers will buy their products through pre-paid subscription memberships. For over 25 years, community supported agriculture has been a popular method for consumers to purchase healthy, organic food directly from a local grower.
CSA members (the consumers) pay a membership amount at the start of the season (thus “funding” the farming process), and in return, receive weekly shares of food from groups of farms in their locality. Local farmers have pick-up and drop-off points to serve the local community CSA members, who have paid in advance for their products. At the end of the day, CSA is another form of food purchasing, albeit one where you know where your food comes from, the type of organic practices used in the farms, and other advantages. As a CSA member, you are therefore directly supporting local agriculture, sans middlemen, and getting the freshest, healthiest food possible.
The farmers in this setting work together on an ongoing basis. They establish a rotating committee, composed of different members of the group, that meets regularly. This rotational committee organizes tours of local farms and talks with other consumers about different things they’re interested in. At the end of the month, these farmers send their produce and other food items out to various groups, such as local schools, women groups, and soup clubs, forming a CSA network.
Local organic farm members of a CSA group produce everything from fruits and vegetables to meats and poultry, all sustainably and at a smaller scale.
Pros and Cons of a CSA
What are the pros and cons of joining a CSA? As more of us discover the drawbacks of the global food supply chain, and begin to consider CSA as a great option (for our health and for that of the planet), let’s go into it with our eyes wide open.
What are the Benefits of joining a CSA?
1. You’re supporting a local farm.
CSA groups receive their produce from one farm or a few farms, located within the region (so the produce will not be shipped in from far away). Farms usually specialize in certain types of produce. So, for example, you may buy shares for the supply of eggs from one farm, vegetables from a second farm, and meat from a third. These are usually family-run, small-scale farms, for whom the financial commitment offered by the purchase of shares is very important. You will, if you choose to, easily build relationships with the farmers and even visit their farm to see how it works.
In the big picture, communities that support local agriculture can find many ways to support local small businesses. By purchasing products from small local farms, you are promoting the continuation of local agriculture and food processing. You are buying locally grown food that supports the food system and provides a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle.
2. The produce is organic, fresh and local.
This arrangement is probably the next best thing to growing your produce yourself. The CSA produce you order will get delivered immediately after harvest – so no plastic packaging and no freezer storage. This means perfect ripeness and flavor. Plus, farmers generally use local varieties of produce, and grow them during the season, in different styles (such as vertical farming, or permaculture), all of which is also great for the environment. What a wonderful arrangement for you and your family!
3. It’s less expensive than you think.
You may hesitate at having to pay upfront at the start of the season, but when you calculate the costs, it’s actually very reasonable for organic, fresh, locally-grown produce (and may work out to be less than buying the same amount at a farmers’ market). As an example, New York CSAs typically charge about $400 for the five-month period from June to October. This works out to $80 per month, on average. This amount will give you a healthy variety of vegetables in good quantities throughout the period. Besides, purchasing produce from small rural farms is more economical than buying it from large nationwide grocery stores, with greater benefits (such as transparency). By buying produce from smallholder farms, you are supporting family farmers and creating a healthier environment for yourself and your family.
4. It’s a community, and you may have to get your hands dirty.
This may be good news or bad news, but you may have to volunteer as part of the CSA arrangement. It’s an organized group, and some admin duties are to be expected. If you’re the type to get involved with such activities, then yay! If not, don’t worry. You won’t be forced to do anything. But being involved in the decisions can always be a good thing.
5. You’re protecting your local ecosystem.
There are many benefits to local, organic farming. First of all, there is no soil pollution or fertilizer runoff because no pesticides or fertilizers are used. There are also no chemicals used in growing the food, which makes the soil healthier for the plants and the people who grow it. It is organic farming, community-style. And your community and the local environment (and the bees!) will benefit from it in the long run.
6. It can be the bridge to becoming self-sufficient.
Maybe you grow your own vegetables already, and maybe you don’t. You probably don’t. But maybe you have plans to. In any case, a CSA can help you learn things quickly, and cover your requirements while you get your veggie plants and know-how up and running. It’s a neat step in between eating stale, store-bought produce and plucking your own fresh tomatoes and lettuce from your container garden!
What are the Drawbacks of joining a CSA?
1. You’re dependent on a small farm.
What if the harvest gets destroyed in a storm? Or by an unexpected infestation? While all farms face this prospect in this great age of climate change, small farms are much more vulnerable. They will have alternate arrangements for such events, but the point is that you will be tied down to those arrangements. There’s a certain lack of choice that you may feel, especially if your favorite vegetable isn’t available this season for some reason. But this is a minor blip in the grand scheme of things!
2. You’ll have to pay up-front.
Pay in advance for a pick-up every week. That’s the deal. If you’re traveling or on vacation, there are no refunds offered. This is the flip side of financially supporting a small-scale farm: no refunds. What you could do in this case, though, is give your share to friends or neighbors, or donate it to someone who needs it. If you’re away on vacation, then losing out on $20-40 of fresh produce will probably not damage your bank balance.
3. You’ll need to plan ahead.
Since the produce will be organic, they will, by definition, have no preservatives or artificially extended lifespans. The point is, that CSA produce are fresh, but the flip side is that they will need to be used up soon. Plus, with a weekly supply of produce, it will be a waste to freeze your zucchini “for next week.” You’ll have other vegetables to eat next week! So, you will need to get more organized and committed with your meal planning.
4. Don’t expect the efficiency of a big corporation.
This may be controversial, because sometimes small set-ups are much more efficient than corporations, and sometimes they’re not. But keep this in mind: CSAs are run by a community that may or may not have super-efficient admin folks. This may mean delays, mistakes, or confusion. But that’s all part of community work! The trade-off here is that you are eating healthier and not lining the pockets of Big Ag CEOs. Seems ok to me!
5. It helps if you enjoy to cook
Needless to say, dealing with a variety of fresh produce every week is a challenge to even the more seasoned chefs. It requires some creativity and patience, and if you aren’t someone who enjoys cooking and spending time in the kitchen, you may be better off looking for services that provide cooked food.
What are CSA Boxes?
The CSA Box is the weekly supply of locally grown fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, etc. that you get in return for your membership. These boxes either get delivered to your home or, as is more common, they get dropped off at pick-up points where you will need to collect them.
Smaller, local grocery stores often offer one-time purchase of CSA Boxes. This way, you try out what organic produce from the CSA farms are all about, before subscribing. It gives you an idea of what you can expect: what do the items taste like? How fresh are they? What quantities will you need?
What is the CSA Membership Cost?
The membership, or “share price,” differs from CSA to CSA. The median share price for a full share is $400, and for a half share is $250. Full shares feed 2 to 5 people, and half shares feed 1 to 3 people. These prices are calculated based on costs of production, overhead costs, and other considerations of a typical organic farming business. Many CSAs offer low income payment options and staggered payment plans.
CSA vs Co-operatives (Is a CSA a Co-op?)
CSAs are an alternative socio-economic food system, just like a food co-op. But in a CSA, there are clear, distinct and separate producers and consumers, with a business transaction taking place between them. Whereas, a co-op is more loosely organized, with the cooperative efforts of most (or all) members of an organized group to produce food for everyone in the group. They are non-profit, but may sell produce to the public, with all members receiving portions of the profits.
Examples of Community Supported Agriculture
The Helsing Junction Farms CSA in Washington state has over 550 members and delivers from June to mid October. Each weekly CSA Box can contain between 6-14 items, depending on the harvest and the size of the share. The contents vary also along with the changing seasons. You can sign up for any one of a variety of options. The Mini Share costs $33 per week for 20 weeks and feeds one or two people. The Medium Share costs $39 per week for 20 weeks, feeding 2-3 people. The Large Share costs $50 per week for 20 weeks, and can feed 3-4 people. They have 30+ drop sites across the state, and home delivery in Seattle and Olympia.
The Helsing Junction Farms CSA program includes a weekly newsletter with recipe ideas, photos of the farm, and lists of upcoming produce. They also have an annual members-only event at the farm that includes music and camping!
We’ve portrayed CSAs as small farming operations, and they mostly are, but some CSAs have grown to cover huge numbers of people. Capay Inc CSA in California supplies to thousands of customers every week, and also sells at farmers markets and to restaurants. The New York Coalition Against Hunger has a CSA program (the Farm Fresh Project) that supplies underserved communities of all income levels.
How to Find Community Supported Agriculture Near You
Community supported agriculture programs are available in every state. Through these programs, consumers can purchase certified organic fruits and vegetables. They can also buy certified organic meats and poultry, as well as a wide variety of other foods. Through this process, consumers can reduce their carbon footprint and increase their involvement in creating a healthier environment and healthy food choices. When buying food from local food hubs and small-scale farmers, you get more for your money.
How can you find a community supported agriculture (CSA) near you? Check out USDA’s list by region here.
CSAs provide a huge range of possibilities, so do check out your local CSA and see if it suits your needs. In fact, CSA membership seems to be on an uptick during the pandemic. We hope this trend continues even afterwards!
Community supported agriculture is a growing trend and offers a variety of benefits to consumers and to the local economy. This type of organic and eco-friendly agriculture reduces greenhouse gases, reduces land grabbing by large-scale commercial farmers, and reduces environmental health implications. It has been shown that large-scale commercial farming methods and practices result in greater water, energy and other costs, which ultimately lead to higher food prices, less nutritious products, and overall poor health for consumers. The increased control over supply, environmental impact, and quality of life offered through this type of local, community supported, organic agriculture is a clear advantage that cannot be overlooked.
Check out this Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Resource Guide for Farmers for you’re interested in learning more.
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