(This post has been updated since March 3, 2016)
There’s probably one or more in your neighborhood, even if you don’t know it.
Community supported agriculture, or CSAs, are farming operations that allow individuals to purchase a share of what the farmer produces. CSA operations are popping up in rural, suburban and urban areas, but they’ve been around since the 1980s.
While some records say that the U.S. CSA movement was inspired by the Japanese teikei, the Rodale Institute says that community supported agriculture began with two community farms — one in Massachusetts and one in New Hampshire — in the 1980s, and then grew from there.
Today, there are between 30,000 and 50,00 CSA operations in the U.S. as of 2013, according to Penn State University Extension.
How does a CSA work?
CSAs pair growers with customers, as Hank and Joli Fichter of Fichter Farm in Minerva, Ohio, put it.
“The growers gain a guaranteed outlet for their product as there is usually a contract to market produce for a set period of time or season. The customer receives their product from a known source creating a direct relationship between the farmer and the end consumer,” the Fichters said.
Typically, in late winter, customers sign up to purchase a “share” from a CSA, which enables them to receive weekly produce throughout the share season, Kip Gardner of Creekview Ridge Farm in Minerva, Ohio, says.
There isn’t a “one size fits all” description for CSA operations. Each CSA is different, depending on the farmer, the location and the type of growing operation. Kathryn Hatch of The Zaney Pearl – A Crazy Beautiful Farm in Leetonia, Ohio, explains that in the traditional CSA model, community members pay a farmer in advance for shares, which helps the farmer move forward into the growing season.
“This cash advance helps the farmer fund purchases for seeds, soil amendments and so on,” Hatch said.
“When the community commits to purchase from a local farm, that enables the farmer to better calculate how much needs to be grown the following year,” Hatch said.
How are CSAs changing the face of locally-grown food?
Getting produce through a CSA is an entirely different experience than picking up fruits and vegetables at the grocery store.
“Farmers aren’t available at the local grocery store,” the Fichters said.
CSAs give customers an inside look at how farms operate, and they give customers an opportunity to get to know the individuals who are responsible for growing their food. CSAs can also influence how people think about meals and the quality of their food.
“CSAs connect society with their food. This hopefully makes for meaningful meals, less waste and a higher standard for freshness, increasing the demand for more small farms,” Hatch said.
Gardner says that CSAs are just one avenue for people to connect to their food.
“CSAs are giving consumers a stronger connection to locally-grown food, although they are just one piece of that process. CSAs go hand-in-hand with other efforts, such as local farmers markets,” Gardner said.
Creekview Ridge Farm participates in a mobile farmers market operated by Stark Fresh, an organization that serves the Canton, Ohio, area.
“[Stark Fresh] specifically focuses on neighborhoods and populations that otherwise would have difficulty accessing fresh food,” Gardner said.
How long does the share season last?
The share season on each CSA farm is different. For some, it’s six months. The share season may begin in the spring and last until fall. On farms that use season extenders, the share season will be longer.
“CSA seasons vary based on the capabilities of the farm,” the Fichters said.
At Fichter Farm, the share season begins on or around June 1 and lasts 20 weeks. Various produce is available from late spring through fall. In the spring, produce ranging from arugula and kale to herbs like oregano and dill are typically available. In the summer, a wider range of vegetables is usually available.
At Creekview Ridge Farm, the share season lasts for 16 weeks. The shares are “set” and include traditionally popular produce like tomatoes and cucumbers, along with lesser-known vegetables regularly, Gardner said.
What’s in it for me?
Since every CSA is different, there isn’t a universal “share.” At The Zaney Pearl – A Crazy Beautiful Farm, Hatch offers box options as well as a la carte options. This allows for accommodations for dietary restrictions and individual preferences.
Aside from supporting local agriculture, buying a share from a CSA operation gives you access to locally-grown, fresh seasonal produce, some of which may be new to customers.
“Most of us live far away from farms and busy schedules keep us from growing our own food,” Hatch said.
Joining a CSA gives you the opportunity to see how the farm operates. It also puts a face to the farmer. Some CSAs may even allow or require customers to work on the farm and help out with the harvest.
“Many CSAs have on-the-farm pick-up of a weekly or scheduled delivery of product. This allows the customer to witness the farm and the growing practices of the farmer,” the Fichters said.
“Our experience at Fichter Farm is that we have provided items to our customers that they may never have tried if they were just left to buy them in the produce aisle,” the Fichters said.
The Fichters, like some other CSA farmers, offer their produce at local farmers markets for customers that want to choose exactly what they want or need.
What does it cost to buy a share?
Since there isn’t a universal share, the share price will vary from farm to farm. Some farms offer different share sizes that are made up of produce. The types of products offered as well as the season length also impact share cost. Hatch says that a typical CSA may cost about $25 per week.
“Costs may be impacted by customer participation in farming activities and/or by delivery or pick-up options,” the Fichters said.
“Many CSAs have product options such as vegetable deliveries with the addition of eggs, meats, flowers, et cetera,” the Fichters said.
What’s included in a full share and a half share through the Fichter Farm CSA is explained on their website.
Each week’s share at Creekview Ridge Farm costs $20. Gardner said that most CSAs cost between $15 and $40 a week.
Are there any risks?
There are risks to buying a share from a CSA. Weather and disease can affect crops. But signing up for a share means that you’ve entered into an agreement with the farmer to understand that there is the risk of failure, and that you may not receive exactly what you signed up for.
How do I join a CSA?
Local Harvest is one tool you can use to find a CSA farm near you. Type in your zip code or location and a list of nearby CSAs will show up. You can browse what each CSA has to offer, including drop-off and pick-up locations, share costs and other information. Wilson College has a search tool for CSAs, too.
If you want to join a CSA, Hatch recommends getting to know your farmer.
“Some farmers request that their members volunteer on the farm throughout the growing season,” Hatch said. “Some ask that you come to the farm and assemble your own share basket, while others deliver shares.”
CSAs are growing in popularity. It’s recommended that you sign up early, well before the share season begins, to make sure you get a share.