CSAs: Community Supported Agriculture

Community Supported Agriculture quick links:

What is a CSA? Where did it come from?

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is the name of a direct marketing relationship between farmers and subscription consumers. As the name implies, this form of direct sale invites consumers to directly support a farm or group of farms by enrolling in a seasonal share in the farms’ operations. While the terms of the membership differ from farm to farm, CSA shares are usually purchased for a set price early in the season in exchange for weekly boxes of mixed produce. The partnership allows consumers to share in the seasonal rhythms of diversified farms, enjoying the successful bounties and helping to stabilize crop failures.

The first examples of CSA concurrently emerged in Japan and Europe in the 1960’s, driven by consumers who wanted to insure the quality of their food and farm communities. These consumers purchased shares in their local farms to help stabilize the farmers’ incomes and support sustainable growing practices. Finding success within those communities, similar models of direct purchasing and partnership have multiplied around the globe under many different names.

In the mid-1980’s Jan Vander Tuin brought the concept from his farm in Switzerland to Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts. Together with Robyn Van En, he coined the term Community Supported Agriculture. Since then, the CSA model has spread around the country with well over 1,000 documented examples in operation today. In reflection of our strength of diversified, direct sales farms in Vermont, we currently document over 65 CSA farms in the state.

CSA has provided a powerful marketing outlet and community tool for many Vermont farms. With interest in eating locally on the rise, there are increasing opportunities for farmers to connect with their communities through CSA. Hopefully, this article will help growers begin to see the potential to create new and expand existing CSA programs. In the sections below, you can learn about: the basic structure of CSA, what motivates consumers to engage with CSA, ways to enhance your CSA membership, market development and innovation, and links to other organizations and resources that can support your research.

How do CSAs work?

Because CSA, by definition, reflects the particular characteristics of the surrounding community, there are many different ways that these relationships are defined. The most common arrangement asks customers to purchase a membership before a given growing season in exchange for regular (e.g. weekly) shares of produce. The shares are typically marketed in boxes with enough produce for a two or four person household. The cost of membership is determined by the farmer based on the cost of production materials and labor, divided among the CSA members.

In addition, some CSA farms include an option or requirement for a work exchange on the farm. This exchange may include helping to pack/deliver member boxes, weekly member field work days, or seasonal work parties. These work exchanges are sometimes offered as barter for some or all of the cost of a membership. Members often appreciate opportunities to get their hands dirty and be more involved with the physical operations of the farm.

The method of delivering the shares is another aspect that differs widely from farm to farm. Many farms set up a CSA farm stand, where members come once a week and choose a certain value of produce or a certain amount of each product available. Some farms deliver pre-boxed shares to one or many locations. Other farms bring their CSA shares to farmers’ markets. For members who have difficulty traveling, farmers sometimes offer home-delivery at an increased price or ask other members to help their neighbors by creating a delivery network. In starting a new CSA, growers should assess which models provide the most benefits within the specific circumstances of their communities.

Why Consumers Support CSA

In a global market of infinite consumer choices and cheap goods, it may be surprising that so many people enroll in a CSA membership where they often sacrifice their choice of specific products. On the other hand, CSA was created in response to a globalized food economy to provide consumers with the ability to secure safe, local food and develop relationships with the people and places that produce that food. While farmers’ markets and farm stands can provide one-on-one relationships between consumers and farmers, CSA expands that relationship and offers a chance for members to become more personally involved in the production of their food. Member involvement in the CSA farm begins at a guarantee to financially support the farm through thick and thin and can become as direct as members providing the farm’s labor. Some CSA farms further integrate members into the farm operations by enlisting them into advisory and administrative roles. Through it all, consumers enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that they are directly enabling their local farms to survive and with their membership supporting their local economies and community health.

Strengthening relationships between consumers, farmers, and food is just the beginning of how CSA draws communities together. CSA offers individuals a chance to become part of a social network where they can find common interests with their neighbors and support a community cause. Many CSA farms enhance these opportunities by hosting social events, such as monthly potluck dinners, seasonal harvest parties, or lecture and concert series. For farmers and consumers alike, it is a joy to watch their communities unite in celebration of delicious, fresh, and local food!

CSA members also enjoy the practical and educational advantages of partnering with local farms. Through weekly shares, consumers are exposed to produce that they may not find or try on the open market. This diversity of produce tends to provide consumers with a more varied and nutritious diet. Besides learning about cooking and eating new foods, members also enjoy learning more about the processes of growing and raising food on the farm.

Troubleshooting and Ways to Enhance CSA Membership

The continuing growth of CSA in the U.S. and Vermont is evidence that this direct marketing model is compelling for farmers and consumers alike. However, setting up a CSA requires close attention, finesse, and commitment. This close attention and careful planning is necessary because CSA relies on coordination between the farmer and many community members rather than a single wholesale receiver or retail outlet. Because of the numerous considerations required of CSA, it is important to be confident that you are ready to invest in your community before you ask them to invest in you.

The most common difficulties in running a successful CSA are balancing the CSA shares with other markets (e.g. wholesale, weekly farmers’ markets, farm stands, etc) and in maintaining long term memberships. These challenges arise in different shapes and sizes depending on each situation, so it is valuable to find some experienced growers who can give advice regarding the specific variables and events. However, here are some tips on ways to integrate a CSA market into a wider farm business and on maintaining long term membership.

Although it can seem challenging to integrate a CSA program into a diversified farm business, CSA can be an extremely useful marketing and organizational tool. Due to the flexible nature of CSA, a grower can establish terms of membership that work well into the farm’s other market outlets. For instance, the farmer might want to stagger a CSA pick-up day with a weekly farmers’ market day to facilitate a more regular harvest schedule. CSA can also be an important guaranteed supplement to a farm’s income, arriving early in the season when costs are high but production is low.

To gain access to the benefits of CSA it is essential that a farmer commit her/himself to the program before getting started. In designing the program, you should be realistic about what you can provide to your members and what you will need from them in return. Realistically: How many members can you support? How much diversity of product can you grow? How many delivery/pick-up days are manageable? How long will the season last? Etc. With careful planning and a balanced commitment to the sustainability of the farm and your members, you will likely create a successful CSA.

To address the issue of maintaining CSA membership, it is valuable to look at common complaints members have about their CSA shares. We often hear that members get too much of certain types of produce in a given week (e.g. in early June, boxes are full of greens. In late August, there are too many tomatoes.) CSA members also sometimes regret getting produce they have never heard of and do not know what to do with (e.g. kohlrabi, fava beans).

While there are many different solutions to the above complaints, it is possible that the simplest solution and CSA enhancement is to develop greater communications between grower and members. Because you cannot talk to each of your CSA members every single week, some members may not find time to ask their questions and voice their concerns. An easy way to improve communication with your members is to publish a newsletter that is distributed with each share, offering a place to describe what is currently growing on the farm, to provide recipes and eating suggestions for uncommon produce, and to update members on any community/farm news. This type of communication helps to broaden and deepen the connections between farmer, farm, and consumer. Also, do not forget to ask your members to write a season’s-end evaluation of your CSA program; they will want a chance to voice their appreciation and critique, and your CSA program will benefit enormously from their advice.

Because the Internet has become such a central part of everyday life, it is valuable for growers to look at how they can integrate web communications into their CSA. With a website or web log (a.k.a. blog), growers can create a multi-media journal to convey what is happening on the farm. Besides being colorful, paperless, and convenient, blogs are a great tool for CSA because they are interactive. Members can post messages to the grower and to each other at their own convenience. Having a website or web log can help reach out to new customers and be used as an interactive storefront that members can use to customize their shares. See Helpful Links and Resources section for examples of Vermont farms that maintain web pages and web logs.

Whatever the challenges a CSA program faces, communication between farmers and members and among neighboring farmers is the strongest tool for finding solutions.

Developing Different CSA Markets

With the success of CSA Vermont, CSA farms are tapping into increasingly diverse market prospect. Through these new markets CSA farmers are finding more specific and tailored ways to connect with their communities while also extending their production and sales potential. If you are setting up a new CSA farm or interested in expanding your markets, it is a great idea to explore some of these ideas and look into other places that your community may be lacking all the benefits of a direct farm relationship.

Farmshare and Senior Farmshare

NOFA-VT offers CSA growers an opportunity to have a direct impact on the food security of low-income families and seniors through the Farmshare and Senior Farmshare programs. The Farmshare programs help at-risk families and seniors overcome financial hurdles and gain access to fresh, local produce by subsidizing local CSA shares. There are currently about 20 Vermont farms working with these initiatives and developing food security in their communities. See links to Farm Share and Senior Farm Share for more information.

3SquaresVT/SNAP

Besides these two established NOFA-VT programs, there are other openings for CSA farms to support low-income and at-risk members of their communities. For example, your CSA can accept 3SquaresVT/SNAP (formerly known as food stamp) payment for shares.  For a complete overview of how to set up 3SquaresVT accessibility, click here or watch a webinar here.

Another way for CSA to expand its impact is to connect with local food banks and anti-hunger programs like day-care centers and after-school programs. Although there is little precedence for these types of CSA partnerships, they could lead to valuable and educational connections between passionate farmers and underserved members of the community.

Winter Shares

Until recently, most CSA farmers focused their CSA production and marketing on the summer season. With increasing consumer interest in eating locally produced foods throughout the seasons, more and more growers are expanding their production of winter-hardy and storage crops for winter CSA shares. Winter shares are especially strong when partnered with products from other farms and food businesses (see multi-farm CSA). While growers benefit from the increased market potential of extended season CSA shares, consumers enjoy the opportunity to maintain year-round connections with their CSA farm. Many growers who operate winter CSA programs also appreciate the year-round employment opportunities for themselves and their trusty workers.

Multi-Farm CSA

Many CSA farms are realizing the enriching potential of cooperating with near-by farms and food businesses to provide members with a greater diversity of farm-fresh and local products. These partnerships not only produce more diverse and enticing shares for the members, but they also create a stronger local food community, which in turn strengthens the wider community as a whole. Internally, CSA programs develop stability through partnerships because a greater diversity of products can help cushion losses from unforeseen crop failures. These partnerships are often made between different kinds of farms (e.g. vegetable farms connecting with orchards, dairies, and meat growers) and can also work well between farms and local food businesses (e.g. farms connecting with local bakeries, wild-edible foragers, cheese makers, etc.)

There are different ways to market these multi-farm CSA packages. Sometimes farmers will incorporate outsourced products (e.g. bread, eggs, and butter) directly into the member share. Other times, these products will be sold as add-on items to the normal share (e.g. members additionally enroll in a weekly share of a loaf of bread and a dozen eggs). Some CSA farms offer a few share options based around different themes of products (e.g. the bread and butter share, the vegan share, and the omnivore share).

While the benefits of connecting with other farms and local businesses are compelling, it is important to remember that these relationships require extra effort and commitment from all of the partners. Unless well managed, these partnerships can be overwhelming for farmers who are already too busy.

Farmers interested in multifarm CSA models should obtain a copy of Local Harvest, A Multifarm CSA Handbook by Jill Perry and Scott Franzblau. This 120-page book was produced with SARE funding. Copies can be downloaded for free or hard copies ordered on the SARE website.

Helpful Resources and Links

NOFA-VT CSA Resources:

CSA Research and Publications:

CSA Support Centers:

Web Page and Web Log Resources:

Examples of Vermont CSA farm websites and web logs:

Free web log host sites:

CSA management software tools: