What Is a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, and Why Is Now Such a Good Time to Join One?
It's the best way to get fresh, local produce each week while also supporting farmers.
The sun is shining, warm weather is here, and with its arrival comes fresh fruit and vegetables. Even if you're lucky enough to live somewhere where harvest runs most of the year, there's something magical about biting into the first strawberry in spring. Before the coronavirus pandemic, it wasn't always easy to make it to the farmers' market for seasonal, local produce. But now our new normal means all types of food shopping are more difficult and grocery store shelves might be empty. Despite the challenges our food system and the world at large are facing, small farms and their Community Shared Agriculture programs (otherwise known as CSAs) are continuing to feed their communities.
"Part of what I love about a CSA is it's a real partnership between the consumer and the producer," said organic vegetable farmer Vera Fabian. With her husband Gordon, Fabian owns Hillsborough, North Carolina, Ten Mothers Farm. The farm typically sells out for its CSA program, but Fabian said once the pandemic hit, demand increased so much that they now have a long waiting list. That's been the case across the country for many farms with existing CSA programs; other farms and restaurants are starting CSA programs for the first time this year.
How CSA Programs Work
At its heart, a CSA program is a food distribution system that allows local farmers and their communities to support each other. The idea is simple: CSA members pay a fee upfront, often during a farm's off-season and then get a share of what farm grows during harvest season. "A CSA is so important to a farm as it provides cash, during a time when we don't have a revenue stream but when we're buying seeds, fixing equipment, and doing other things where we really need cash flow," said Jane Meiser of Stone Acres Farm in Stonington, Connecticut.
CSAs date back to the 1970s when black farmers in the south began what was known as "Clientele Membership Clubs," but it wasn't until the mid-1980s that farm shares began to catch on as a business model for small farmers and with consumers. Today there are more than 7,000 of them across the country, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, and each one operates a little differently. For instance, some offer different size shares; some require members to volunteer for a certain number of hours.
At Ten Mothers Farm, which is in its fifth year, members have the option to pay for their share upfront or each month. During the season, members get a weekly email that includes recipes, news, and pictures from the farm along with a list of what's coming standard in the box, plus additional items available for purchase. Members can then use an online portal to swap items, before picking up their CSA box at one of several locations in the area. "When they join CSA, they are becoming a member of a farm and they have access to everything on the farm," Fabian said.
As the numbers of CSAs rose along with increased interest in local food, so did questions about how sustainable the model is for small farms. At Stone Acres Farm, which is preparing for its fourth year of a 12-week share season, they have adapted the traditional CSA model after two years. Members now have the option of purchasing shares in different amounts of either $120 ($10 per week) to $1,200 ($100 per week), which then gives them different options of produce to collect at the farmstand each week. "We found that although people were very interested in supporting a small farm, the model of the CSA didn't fit into how they planned their meals or did their shopping," Meiser said. "We revamped last year to allow for more flexibility for our customers."
And this year Stone Acres Farm, along with many CSA programs across the country, are adapting to the pandemic, which is both increasing the need for local produce while forcing farms to rethink how they get produce to members. "It's been a struggle in the past recruiting CSA members and now people really want to know where their food comes from, they want to have that relationship with a farmer," said Renée Giroux who saw demand triple in two weeks in March for her CSA at Earth's Palate Farm in Warren, Connecticut. Giroux is also helping to launch a new CSA program partnership between the Northwest Connecticut Food Hub, which before the pandemic, operated as a way for farmers to sell wholesale produce to local restaurants. According to Giroux, they've already had interest from 600 people in the boxes that restaurants will offer alongside prepared meals.
Giroux, Fabian, and Meiser hope that a silver lining of the pandemic is continued interest in local produce. "We hope this is not necessarily a trend but a life philosophy of supporting small farms and creating an environment we live in and eat from," said Meiser.
How to Find a CSA Near You
Many CSA programs have seen a significant increase in sign-ups, but if you act fast you can likely find one near you. Go online and search for "CSAs near you" or visit Localharvest.org, which has an extensive directory of CSAs. Also ask around either at a farmers' market or by reaching out to your favorite local restaurant and seeing if they are either offering something similar or know of places that are.