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Question of the Week



Permalink What should I know before starting a CSA?

The USDA defines Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) as 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. Members or shareholders of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer's salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm's bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land. Members also share in risks, including poor harvest due to unfavorable weather or pests.

The CSA concept was brought to the United States by Jan VanderTuin of Switzerland in 1984. Projects in Europe date to the 1960s, when women's neighborhood groups approached farmers to develop direct, cooperative relationships between producers and consumers. By 1986, two CSA projects in the United States had delivered harvest shares from Robyn Van En's Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and the Temple/Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire.

Over time, two distinct types of community supported agriculture have emerged:
the shareholder CSA and the subscription CSA.

Subscription CSA (farmer-driven). In this approach, the farmer organizes the CSA and makes most of the management decisions. Farm work is not required of subscribers. A permutation is the farmer cooperative, where two or more farmers organize to produce a variety of products for the CSA basket. Subscription CSAs now constitute more than 75 percent of all CSAs.

Shareholder CSA (consumer-driven). This type of CSA typically features an existing "core group" that organizes subscribers and hires the farmer. The core group may be a not-for-profit organization and land may be purchased, leased, or rented. Most key decisions are made by core group personnel.

Vegetable production (most CSAs focus on vegetables) is a highly complex, financially risky career, demanding great creativity and professionalism. To initiate a farming operation with the CSA structure may not be the wisest choice for a beginner. The operation, from the very start, will face the dual challenges of mastering complex production and post-harvest handling techniques, while simultaneously managing and servicing the needs of an unusually large customer base. Existing vegetable operations that add CSA as market diversification strategy appear to have a high likelihood of success.

For more information, see ATTRA publication Community Supported Agriculture, available at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=262. This publication reports on the history of CSAs in the U.S. and discusses the various models that have emerged. It also addresses recent trends in the CSA movement and demographic information about the distribution of CSA farms in the U.S. In addition, the publication profiles several CSAs and presents a survey of recent research.

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