||The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with North America and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (May 2013)|
Community-supported agriculture (CSA; sometimes known as community-shared agriculture) is an alternative, locally-based economic model of agriculture and food distribution. A CSA also refers to a particular network or association of individuals who have pledged to support one or more local farms, with growers and consumers sharing the risks and benefits of food production. CSA members or subscribers pay at the onset of the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest; once harvesting begins, they receive weekly shares of vegetables and fruit, in a vegetable box scheme. Many CSAs also sometimes include herbs, cut flowers, honey, eggs, dairy products and meat. In theory a CSA can provide any product to its members, although the majority of CSA tend to provide produce and other comestibles. Some CSAs provide for contributions of labor in lieu of a portion of subscription costs.
Community-supported agriculture began in the United States in the 1980s, influenced by European biodynamic farming ideas formulated by Rudolf Steiner. Two European farmers, Jan Vander Tuin from Switzerland and Trauger Groh from Germany, brought European biodynamic farming ideas to the United States in the mid-1980s. Vander Tuin had co-founded a community-supported agricultural project named Topinambur located near Zurich, Switzerland. Coinage of the term "community-supported agriculture" stems from Vander Tuin. This influence led to the separate and simultaneous creation of two CSAs in 1986. The CSA Garden at Great Barrington was created in Massachusetts by Jan Vander Tuin, Susan Witt, and Robyn Van En. The Temple-Wilton Community Farm was created in New Hampshire by Anthony Graham, Trauger Groh, and Lincoln Geiger.
The CSA Garden at Great Barrington remained together until 1990 when many members left to form the Mahaiwe Harvest CSA. One of the original founders, Robyn Van En, became incredibly influential in the CSA movement in America and founded CSA North America in 1992. The Temple-Wilton Community Garden was more successful and still operates as a CSA today. It became an important member of the Wilton community and it receives funding from state, federal, and local sources.
Since the 1980s, community supported farms have been organized throughout North America — mainly in New England, the Northwest, the Pacific coast, the Upper-Midwest and Canada. North America now has at least 13,000 CSA farms of which 12,549 are in the US according to the US Department of Agriculture in 2007. The rise of CSAs seems to be correlated with the increase in awareness of the environmental movement in the United States.Some examples of larger and well established CSAs in the US are Angelic Organics and Roxbury Farm. CSAs have even become popular in urban environments as proven by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger's own CSA program that maintains locations in all five boroughs of the city. The largest subscription CSA with over 13,000 families is Farm Fresh To You in Capay Valley, California. The Québec CSA network (17 years old in 2012) is one of the larger in the world. It is a unique system where a non-profit organization reach the customers for the farmers and provide these farmers with technical support. More than one hundred farms are part of this network.
Since 2008, the international CSA network Urgenci has been coordinating dissemination and exchange programmes that have resulted in the creation of dozens of small scale CSA in Central and Eastern Europe.
The CSA system
CSAs generally focus on the production of high quality foods for a local community, often using organic or biodynamic farming methods, and a shared risk membership–marketing structure. This kind of farming operates with a much greater degree of involvement of consumers and other stakeholders than usual — resulting in a stronger consumer-producer relationship. The core design includes developing a cohesive consumer group that is willing to fund a whole season’s budget in order to get quality foods. The system has many variations on how the farm budget is supported by the consumers and how the producers then deliver the foods. CSA theory purports that the more a farm embraces whole-farm, whole-budget support, the more it can focus on quality and reduce the risk of food waste or financial loss.
Community-supported agriculture farms in the United States today share three common characteristics: an emphasis on community and/or local produce, share or subscriptions sold prior to season, and weekly deliveries to members/subscribers. Though CSA operation varies from farm to farm and has evolved over time, these three characteristics have remained constant. The functioning of a CSA also relies on four practical arrangements: for farmers to know the needs of a community, for consumers to have the opportunity to express to farmers what their needs and financial limitations are, for commitments between farmers and consumers to be consciously established, and for farmers needs to be recognized.
From this base, four main types of CSAs have been developed:
- Farmer managed: A farmer sets up and maintains a CSA, recruits subscribers, and controls management of the CSA.
- Shareholder/subscriber: Local residents set up a CSA and hire a farmer to grow crops, shareholders/subscribers control most management.
- Farmer cooperative: Multiple farmers develop a CSA program
- Farmer-shareholder cooperative: Farmers and local residents set up and cooperatively manage a CSA.
In most original CSAs, a core group of members existed. This core group of members helped to make decisions about and run the CSA including marketing, distribution, administrative, and community organization functions. CSAs with a core group of members are most profitable and successful. However, in 1999, 72 percent of CSAs did not have a core group of members. CSAs with a core group of members operate more successfully as a farmer-shareholder cooperative and CSAs without a group of core members rely much more on subscriptions and run most prominently as shareholder/subscriber CSAs.
In its most formal and structured European and North American forms CSAs focus on having:
- A transparent, whole season budget for producing a specified wide array of products for a set number of weeks a year;
- A common-pricing system where producers and consumers discuss and democratically agree to pricing based on the acceptance of the budget; and
- A ‘shared risk and reward’ agreement, i.e. that the consumers receive what the farmers grow even with the vagaries of seasonal growing.
Meaning that individuals, families, &/or groups do not directly pay for x pounds or kilograms of produce but rather support the budget of the whole farm and receive weekly what is seasonally ripe.
This approach eliminates the marketing risks, costs for the producer and an enormous amount of time and labor, and allows producers to focus on quality care of the soils, crops, animals and co-workers as well as on serving the customers. There is financial stability in this system which allows for thorough planning on the part of the farmer.
Some farms are dedicated entirely to their CSA while others also sell through on-farm stands, farmers' markets and other channels. Most CSAs are owned by the farmers while some offer shares in the farm as well as the harvest. Consumers have organized their own CSA projects and have gone as far as leasing land and hiring farmers. Many CSAs have a core group of members that assist with CSA administration. Some require or offer the option of members providing labor as part of the share price.
Some CSAs have evolved into social enterprises employing a number of local staff, improving the lot of local farmers and educating the local community about organic and ecologically responsible farming.
Typically CSA farms are small, independent, labor-intensive family farms. By providing a guaranteed market through prepaid annual sales consumers essentially help finance farming operations. This allows farmers to not only focus on quality growing but can also level the playing field in a food market that favors large-scale, industrialized agriculture over local food.
Vegetables and fruit are the most common CSA crops. Many CSAs practice ecological, organic or biodynamic agriculture by avoiding pesticides and inorganic fertilizers. The cost of a share is usually competitively priced when compared to the same amount of vegetables conventionally grown – partly because the cost of distribution is lowered.
Community-supported agriculture in America was influenced by the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher. He developed the concepts of anthroposophy and biodynamic agriculture. The Temple-Wilton Community Farm used his ideas to develop three main goals of CSAs:
- New forms of property ownership: the idea that land should be held in common by a community through a legal trust, which leases the land to farmers
- New forms of cooperation: the idea that a network of human relationships should replace the traditional system of employers and employees
- New forms of economy: that the economy should not be based on increasing profit, but should be based on the actual needs of the people and land involved in an enterprise
As CSAs have increased in both number and size since they were first developed, they have also change ideologically. While original CSAs and some more current CSAs are still philosophically oriented, most CSAs today are commercially oriented and community-supported agriculture is predominantly seen as a beneficial marketing strategy. This has led to three ideologically based types of CSAs. The first type is instrumental, the CSA is considered a market in the traditional sense, instead of an alternative form of economy and relationship. The second type is functional; there is a relationship of solidarity between the farmer and the subscribers, but this extends mostly to social functions, not managerial or administrative functions. This is the most common type of CSA. The final type is collaborative; this is the closest to the original aims of CSAs where the relationship between the farmer and the subscribers is seen as a partnership.
Distribution and marketing methods
Shares of a CSA originally and predominantly consist of produce. In more recent years, shares have diversified and include non-produce products including eggs, meat, flowers, honey, dairy and soaps. Share prices vary from CSA to CSA. Shares are sold as full shares, which feed 2 through 5 people, and half shares, which feed 1 through 3 people. Prices range from $200 to $500. Full shares are sold at a median of $400 and half shares are sold at a median of $250. Share prices are mostly determined by overhead costs of production, but are also determined by share prices of other CSAs, variable costs of production, market forces, and income level of the community. Many CSAs have payment plans and low-income options.
Shares are distributed in several different ways. Shares are most often distributed weekly. Most CSAs allow share pick up at the farm. Shares are also distributed through regional drop off, direct home or office drop off, farmers markets, and community center/ church drop off.
CSAs market their farms and shares in different ways. CSAs employ different channels of marketing to diversify their sales efforts and increase subscriptions. CSAs use local farmers markets, restaurants, on-farm retail, wholesale to natural food stores, and wholesale to local groceries in addition to their CSAs to market shares. One problem that CSAs encounter is over-production. So, CSAs often sell their produce and products in ways other than shares. Predominantly, CSA farms also sell their excess products at local farmers markets. CSAs that also sell their products at farmers markets are more profitable than those who do not. Excess products are also often given to foods banks.
Community supported agriculture was originally developed as a comprehensive plan to benefit the community, environment and farmer. Even though most CSAs do not run completely in this original method, community supported agriculture still benefits the environment, the community, and the farm/farmer.
CSAs provide access to local, fresh produce. Additionally, a 66% CSAs farm by organic practices, 15% farm by mixed practices, 18% of CSAs are certified organic, and only 1% of CSAs farm using conventional methods. The environmental benefits of CSAs are simple. Since CSA produce is locally grown and distributed, the transportation that traditionally grown produce is not necessary and fuel and energy costs are minimized because of this. Because most CSAs run organically or are certified organic, pesticide and fertilizer use is also diminished.
CSAs also benefit the community in which they are established. Though most CSAs do not fully integrate the community into their operation, as they were originally intended to do, CSAs still have a positive impact on the community. A large majority of CSAs organize social or educational community events. Events include potlucks, farm tours, events for children of shareholders, and educational opportunities for the community and local schools. CSAs often donate unclaimed shares, organize donations from shareholders, donate a portion of their harvest to food banks, and have scholarships. Many CSAs also offer work-trade programs for low-income members of the community.
CSAs most effectively benefit the farm/farmer. CSA farms make more money than non-CSA farms, even though they are predominantly and significantly smaller than traditional farms. 63% of CSA farms reported having an income of $20,000 or more while only 38.5% of non-CSA farms reported having an income of $20,000 or more. More than 25% of CSAs have a gross income of $40,000 to $99,999. CSA are also less reliant on non-farm incomes. Because the growing and selling season is only during part of the year, traditional farms often rely on non-farm income during this time. 55% of CSAs have a non-farm income of less than $10,000 and a majority of CSAs have a non-farm income of less than $1000. While CSAs benefit the farmer economically, they are still not an incredibly lucrative business. Most CSA farmers run CSAs because they are passionate about it, because it increases their quality of live, and because it helps to cover costs.
CSAs around the world
The term CSA is mostly used in the USA but a variety of similar production and economic sub-systems are in use worldwide:
- Association pour le maintien de l’agriculture paysanne (AMAP) in France
- Agriculture soutenue par la communauté (ASC) in Québec
- Teikei (提携) in Japan
- Reciproco in Portugal
- Solidarische Landwirtschaft in Germany
- Andelslandbruk in Norway
- Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale (GAS) in Italy, (see also, Ethical purchasing groups)
- Съпричастно земеделие in Bulgaria
- Asociația pentru Susținerea Agriculturii Țărănești (ASAT) in Romania
- Grupa solidarne razmjene (GSR) in Croatia
All these different models are represented in the international network, Urgenci, under the terminology of local and solidarity-based partnerships between producers and consumers. Some of them have been documented in Urgenci's newsletter, Teikei. The Romanian, Croatian and Bulgarian models were directly implemented as a result of Urgenci's dissemination programmes.
Orti Solidali (Italy)
Orti Solidali (meaning Solidarity Gardens) is an example of a CSA project in Italy; the reasons for participating are mostly ethical. Participants' commitment to sustainable, local produce protect the development of the network from mainstream market forces, allowing it to develop independently and flourish. Key to its success are shared ethical and environmental values, as well as the nature of the relationships that are formed, which help to shape and constitute this protective environment. Orti Solidali uses a sustainable agronomic method for food production and supplies locally-sourced produce while providing revenue and fair working conditions for the producers. With one of the aims being the reduction of economic growth, also known as degrowth, the objective is to transition to a new economic system based on environmental protection and social equity.
- Civic agriculture
- Community supported fishery
- Development Supported Agriculture
- Farmers' market
- Local food
- Sustainable agriculture
- Vegetable box scheme
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- Urgenci, the international CSA network, also feeds a blog
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- Directory of US CSAs
- National Agricultural Library of the U.S. Department of Agriculture CSA resource
- Comprehensive map of CSAs in the United States
- Going beyond CSAs with Community Food Systems