Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a relatively new socio-economic model of farming and food distribution. A CSA consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community's farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. CSA’s focus is usually on a system of weekly delivery or pick-up of vegetables and fruit, sometimes dairy products and meat. The term CSA is mostly used in the USA, but a variety of similar production and economic sub-systems are in use worldwide:
The idea took root in the United States in 1984, when Jan Vander Tuin brought the concept of CSA to North America from Europe. Vander Tuin had co-founded a community-supported agricultural project named Topanimbur, located near Zurich, Switzerland. Coinage of the term, community-supported agriculture, stems from Vander Tuin and the Great Barrington CSA that he co-founded with Robyn Van En, its proprietor. Since that time, community supported farms have been organized throughout North America, mainly in the Northeast, the Pacific coast, the Upper-Midwest, and Canada. North America now has at least 1,300 CSA farms, with estimates ranging as high as 3,000. One of the largest CSA's in the US is Angelic Organics.
Thus, individuals, families or groups do not 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 and costs for the producer and an enormous amount of time, often manpower too, and allows producers to focus on quality care of soils, crops, animals, co-workers — and on serving the customers. There is little to no loss in this system, since the producers know in advance who they are growing for and how much to grow, etc.
Some families have enrolled in subscription CSAs in which a family pays a fixed price for each delivery, and can start or stop the service as they wish. This kind of arrangement is also referred to as crop-sharing or box schemes. In such cases, the farmer may supplement each box with produce brought in from neighboring farms for a better variety. Thus there is a distinction between the farmers selling pre-paid shares in the upcoming season's harvest or a weekly subscription that represents that week's harvest. In all cases participants purchase a portion of the farm's harvest either by the season or by the week in return for what the farm is able to successfully grow and harvest. The largest subscription CSA, with over 4,000 families, is Farm Fresh To You established in 1992 in Capay Valley, California.
Some farms are dedicated entirely to 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, going as far as renting land and hiring farmers. Many CSAs have a core group of members that assists with CSA administration. Some require or offer the option of members providing labor as part of the share price.
Some CSA's have evolved into social enterprises employing a number of local staff, improving the lot of local farmers and educating the local community about organic/ecologically responsible farming. Australia's Food Connect is a unique social enterprise that is now competing with the major supermarkets.
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, it can also somewhat level the playing field in a food market that favors usually large-scale, industrialized agriculture over local food. Vegetables and fruit are the most common CSA crops. Many CSAs practice ecological, organic or biodynamic agriculture, 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.
Method of distribution is a distinctive feature in CSA. In the U.S. and Canada, shares are usually provided weekly, with pick-ups on a designated day and time. CSA subscribers often live in towns and cities - local drop-off locations, convenient to a number of members, are organized, often at the homes of members. Shares are also usually available on-farm.
CSA is different from buying clubs and home delivery services, where the consumer buys a specific product at a predetermined price. CSA members purchase only what the farm is able to successfully grow and harvest, in essence CSA members share some of the growing risk with the farmer. If the strawberry crop is not successful, the CSA member will share the burden of the crop failure by not receiving strawberries for the season or receiving lower quality strawberries. CSA members are also more actively involved in the growing and distribution process, through shared newsletters and recipes, farm visits, farm work-days, advance purchases of shares, and picking up their shares.
An advantage of the close consumer-producer relationship is increased freshness of the produce, because it does not have to be shipped long distances. The close proximity of the farm to the members also helps the environment by reducing pollution caused by transporting the produce. CSA's often include recipes and farm news in each box. Tours of the farm and work days are announced. Over a period of time, consumers get to know who is producing their food, and what production methods are used.
Share prices can vary dramatically depending on location. Variables also include length of share season, and average quantity and selection of food per share. As a rough average, in North America, a basic share may be $350-500 for a season, for 18-20 weeks (June to October), with enough of each included crop for at least two people (perhaps 8-12 common garden vegetables). Seasonal eating is implied, as shares are usually based on the outdoor growing season, which means a smaller selection at the beginning and perhaps the end of the period, as well as a changing variety as the season progresses. Some CSA programs offer different share sizes, also, a choice of share periods (eg. full-season and peak season).
A film, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, documents the resurrection of a family farm through its conversion to a CSA model.