What is A CSA?
A CSA--short for community supported agriculture--is a subscription to a season’s worth of fresh farm products that is distributed to members weekly throughout the season. Getting food from a CSA is different from going to a farmers market or grocery store. As a CSA member, you make a seasonal commitment to a farmer in your community by prepaying for your food, and the food is either picked up weekly on the farm or at a local distribution center.
Why are CSAs so great?
CSA members take pleasure in knowing where and how their food is grown, and typically have an open line of communication with their farmer. CSAs invite members to join a farm community to share in the experiences of growing, eating, and celebrating delicious farm-fresh food.
Being a CSA member allows you to know that you are eating fresh, healthy food and that you are supporting a local farm. The prepaid CSA arrangements are a source of financial security for farmers. With the cost of a CSA share, members help pay for seeds, equipment maintenance, and labor, while also helping to disperse the financial risks of crop failures. Subscribing to a CSA is a form of investment that allows farms to grow and become economically stable.
The CSA is a unique model of accessing local farm products that:
- Encourages the consumption of fresh, highly nutritious, and diverse farm products;
- Supports long-term changes in daily intake of vegetables and fruits by providing fresh produce each week for several months;
- Connects people of diverse life circumstances to the farmer, land, and food they eat;
- Supports the agricultural costs incurred by farmers through one-time, up-front, member payment for a share of the season's harvest;
- Provides fair market value to farmers through direct sales;
- Encourages individuals and families to spend their food dollars locally.
What is a typical CSA share like?
Remember, every farm is different! Most CSA shares are available during the summer months when Vermont weather is best suited for fruit and vegetable production. However, there has been an increase in the options available during other seasons. Moreover, while the majority of CSA shares provide fruits and vegetables, some farms now offer other farm products like eggs, cheese, bread, and meat. CSA shares also come in a variety of sizes and prices, and with a variety of pick-up options.
Here are some of the options to consider when you are looking for a CSA program:
Share Size: many farms offer small, medium and large shares for different sized households.
Share Season: Most CSA shares occur in the summer; however, more ‘off-season’ shares that offer farm-fresh foods throughout the fall, winter, and early spring are popping up around the state. Share seasons vary in length by farm and season, but typically run between 2-4 months.
Share Products: Farm-fresh fruits and vegetables are the most typical products you will find in a CSA share; however, more programs are offering other local add-on foods including meat, eggs, cheese, and fresh baked and canned goods. Click HERE to see photos of a sample CSA share over the course of an entire season.
Delivery vs. Pick-Up: Some CSA farms deliver their shares to pick-up sites in a number of towns; some will even deliver to your house! Other CSA farms ask members to come to the farm to pick-up their shares, which may include some pick-your-own products like fresh herbs, flowers, berries, etc. Furthermore, some programs provide CSA members with a farm debit card that can be used at the farm stand or farmers’ market booth.
Share Cost & Payment: Share costs range from $100-$800 depending on the share size and product offerings. Limited-income households may be able to receive assistance with the cost through the NOFA-VT Farm Share Program. Some farms accept SNAP/3SquaresV benefits and/or allow payment plans.
How do I find a CSA near me?
Use NOFA-VT’s interactive directory to find a CSA near you that suits your life! You can sort farms by location, season, products, payment options, and organic certification.
Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about CSAs
Where did CSAs come from?
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 toother 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 Do 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.