February 24, 2017
You’ve probably heard about “CSA”s before, those boxes and bags of fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs and meat that your friends or neighbors get once a week from a local farmer – but what exactly are they, and should you sign up for one? Community Supported Agriculture programs, or CSAs for short, are a marketing system through which local farmers can connect directly with consumers in their area and make a mutual agreement for food production and purchase through the growing season. Today, February 24, 2017, marks the 3rd annual National CSA Day, the perfect day to learn more about the CSA model and find out how you can connect to farmers and fresh food near you!
What are CSAs?
The “C” in CSA stands for “Community,” an important feature that sets CSAs apart from food box delivery services that tend to source from across the country instead of from local farms and ranches. Direct person-to-person relationships are foundational to the concept of a community, and direct marketing (aka farmer-to-consumer sales) is a foundational part of the CSA system.
The CSA Day website defines a CSA as follows:
“CSA stands for “community supported agriculture,” which is a direct-to-customer business model for farmers. In the traditional CSA model, people pay for a season’s worth of produce (a membership), sometimes months in advance. The CSA member then receives a box of fruits and vegetables every week throughout the harvesting season. This is great for the farmers because they get the revenue when they most need it to get ready for the growing season.”
The term “CSA” was first coined in the 1980s in the Northeast United States, and since then the model and philosophy behind it has steadily spread to communities across the country.
Today there is a diversity of approaches to organizing and managing CSAs and they come in all shapes and sizes – weekly share delivery, biweekly delivery, on-farm share pick-up, off-farm pickup, single farm CSAs, multi farm CSAs, and CSAs that offer multiple combinations or choices of fresh produce, eggs, bread, meats and flowers.
Check out this handy infographic, created by the founders of National CSA day, to help navigate through what is and isn’t considered a CSA.
Part of a Growing Local Food Movement
CSAs are one part of a complex and growing local and regional food movement. While participation in CSAs is still relatively small (an estimated 0.4 percent of U.S. households purchase a CSA share), the push toward a more local food and agriculture system is steadily growing.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Local Food Marketing Practice Survey, which includes information on both fresh and value-added foods such as meat and cheese, over 167,000 U.S. farms produced and sold food locally through food hubs and other intermediaries, direct farmer-to-consumer marketing, or direct farm to retail in 2015. These sales resulted in $8.7 billion in revenue for local producers.
But what about the farmers? According to the USDA survey, 77 percent of farmers who used direct marketing to sell their products were established farmers, having farmed 10 or more years, with the balance representing beginning farmers. These seasoned and newer producers are the backbone of the local food industry and their rural communities. They are helping to drive the shift toward more healthy, local, and seasonal foods.
It’s clear that direct-market agriculture is here to stay and is a vital part of building robust rural-urban economic relationships and bolstering agricultural communities – and CSAs can be a big part of that system as more people learn about them. In the next section we detail some of the different kinds of CSAs you might find in your communities, and describe how they’re working to change our food system.
While there is a diversity of approaches to the organization and management of CSAs, one thing they all share is a commitment to direct producer-consumer relationships built on mutual interest and shared benefits. Elizabeth Henderson, a long time CSA farmer and leader, recently published a “CSA Charter” to help farmers and consumers solidify their shared values. The charter was created in consultation with CSA farmers and will be inaugurated on National CSA Day (February 24, 2017).
While meat CSAs are becoming more popular, the most traditional type of CSA is a vegetable or mixed produce CSA like the one offered by Angelic Organics. Angelic Organics is a certified organic CSA farm, one of the oldest CSA Farms (established in 1990) in the country, as well as home to National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) member organization, Angelic Organics Learning Center (AOLC).
Housed on site at Angelic Organics farm, AOLC strives to put into practice the philosophies and principles of the CSA model by helping to train new farmers and build farmer-to-farmer learning networks. AOLC is able to do this work thanks to support from the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which helps make it possible for them to run their Stateline Beginning Farmers Program and Upper Midwest CRAFT farmer training alliance.
Not all CSAs are sourced by just a single farm; there are also innovative multi-farm CSAs like those run by the Western Montana Growers Cooperative. The Cooperative is a collective of over 30 diverse farm members from western Montana, and is also a member of NSAC member organization AERO.
Some CSA farms are even teaming up with communities of faith. NSAC member, Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative, is a great example of an organization bringing together the faith and farming communities to create a better food system. Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative works with faith groups to find partners for CSA farmers, who can then use houses of worship for CSA pick up sites during off-hours.
Interested in finding a bonafide CSA near you? Check out the National CSA directory; the directory was created as part of National CSA Day to help consumer and farmers get connected.
CSAs and the Farm Bill
Federal agricultural policy has huge impacts on what is produced in this country, how it is produced, and who can afford to purchase it. As part of the local food system, CSA farmers and subscribers have an important role to play in the next farm bill. Many programs crucial to the CSA and the local food movement will be up for debate (both their funding levels and the essential ways in which they function), including: the Value Added Producer Grant program, Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Local and Regional Food Enterprise Guaranteed Loans, Farm to School grant program, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
Perhaps the most visible way that the CSA community interacts with federal food and farm programs, however, is through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly known as food stamps).
The FairShare CSA Coalition, an organization that has been working to promote CSAs in the Madison, Wisconsin area for over 20 years, is one great example of how CSAs are connecting to SNAP recipients. FairShare CSA Coalition uses the capacity and infrastructure of the coalition to help SNAP recipients leverage their benefits to purchase CSA shares from its members.
In 2015, the FairShare Coalition received a Farmers Market Promotion Program grant to help them develop four marketing toolkits to assist other CSA networks in replicating the coalition’s success. Participating networks include:
Even though it seems like common sense that we would want to connect our nation’s farmers with food insecure families to create mutually beneficial relationships, for most CSAs, accepting SNAP is far from simple. Those who have managed make it happen, like the FairShare CSA Coalition, have done so out of a commitment to their neighbors and their communities.
In the next farm bill, NSAC is committed to finding ways to better connect food insecure families to fresh, local, and healthy foods. While some changes were made to improve this relationship in the 2014 Farm Bill, there remains much more work to be done. NSAC looks forward to working with members of Congress during the 2018 Farm Bill process to reform policies and support the regulatory flexibility that will make it easier for CSA farms to keep the “Community” in “CSA.”