Community-supported agriculture: A direct marketing model

Susan Truxell Sauter
President, Mountain State Organic Growers and Buyers Association
February 2000

The phrase "community-supported agriculture" may sound more like an ideal than a way of operating a farm. Actually, it’s both. Farmers using this model call their operations "CSAs," which means both the way of marketing their products and the participation and shared risk-taking on the part of the consumers to whom they are marketing.

In general, a CSA involves selling "shares" of the anticipated end-product(s) to a defined group of consumers for a set period of time. Sharers make a commitment to support the farm throughout the season, assuming the costs, risks, and bounty of growing food along with the farmer. In a CSA vegetable farm, for example, the sharer won’t get any money back if the broccoli fails. But the season may be extra generous in some other vegetable so the deficit can be made up. Sharer involvement can range from taking part in every aspect of growing, harvesting, and packaging to being only a "subscriber" who just picks up the produce.

CSA of North America explains that "the roots of this model go back 30 years to Japan where a group of women concerned about the increase in food imports and the corresponding decrease in the farming population initiated a direct growing and purchasing relationship between their group and local farms." There it was called "teikei," which translates to "putting the farmer’s face on food." After traveling to Europe, the concept was adapted in the United States and called "community-supported agriculture." In 1999, nearly 1,000 CSA farms in the United States served a combined membership of well over 100,000 households and had receipts totaling $35 million to $50 million a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

So what are the logistics of operating a CSA? They vary widely and should be tailored to the farm, the local climate, and the people involved. For example, I grow organic produce on my CSA, the Flying Ewe Farm in Preston County, and sell shares in the Morgantown community, For this year, my third, I anticipate that I will grow for approximately 20 two-person families. Consequently, I’ll plant with that number in mind. I know that I’ll have produce for nearly 25 weeks from late May to late October.

In early spring, I’ll ask the families for their full share payment. Share prices are determined two ways—ideally by dividing the costs for the year by the number of subscribers but more commonly by deciding what the market will bear, which usually is a lower figure. Nationally, cost of a CSA share ranges from $250 to more than $1,000, depending on the share size and the operation’s proximity to large populations.

I offer three types of shares: standard, large, and every-other-week shares. Over the season, the standard share averages 5 pounds per week. In May, when I have enough produce to warrant a delivery, I’ll pick mache, arugula, mizuna, other salad greens, herbs, and vegetables; arrange them nicely in baskets and boxes; weigh it all; and divide the amount by the number of families participating. On a chalkboard, I post the amounts each share is entitled to.

At an agreed-upon time and location (a shareholder’s backyard), I set up a mini-farmer’s market—chalkboard, scales, and all—in Morgantown for one hour. The participants weigh out their food following the guidelines on the chalkboard and do a little socializing. This process has changed considerably from my first year when I separated all the produce for the families myself, leaving it in coolers behind a house of one of the shareholders. Some weeks, there were up to 18 different items to weigh and divide, and it got to be too much for me. The only thing a shareholder did was pick up a bag full of already-separated produce.

CSAs tend to grow produce that is hard to find in the grocery store. Last year during the course of the summer, my subscribers received five varieties of tomatoes, including several heirlooms, ten bunches of basil, heirloom beets, sweet corn, three kinds of green beans, three kinds of cucumbers, patty pan squash, zucchini, tomatillos, and more. The season ended with greens again, bok choi, a bag of winter-keeping onions, leeks, many kinds of hot and sweet peppers, pie pumpkins, and garlic. Succession plantings and multiple varieties kept me hopping, but the subscribers were happy to have their favorites and the multiple varieties added interest.

As any farmer knows, not much land is needed to grow a lot of food. I grew enough last year to feed 12 families on an eighth of an acre, a small portion of my farm. CSA startup costs can be fairly low as well—especially if one owns arable land. Once a garden site is established, a walk-behind rotary tiller can be adequate, or the farmer can double dig to establish permanent beds that won’t need heavy equipment.

Designing the CSA logistics needs to be based on one’s time, energy, and other factors. Eventually, I would like my shareholders to take a more active role in the food production and to pick up their shares at the farm. So far, I am very happy with the CSA model. I have a dedicated market for much of my produce, and the families feel connected to where their food comes from. When last summer’s drought produced 4-inch ears of corn, not one of them complained. In fact, one subscriber said that if she didn’t receive any corn she’d still be satisfied with the CSA because she was so happy with what she had received to that point.

It is also a "deal" for the families. CSA costs often are less than the cost of buying similar food at a supermarket. Because families are tied to the land, they are also committed to the idea of keeping farms in production instead of converting them to housing developments. A farmer who can make a living off the land will be less pressured to sell it.

CSAs can market many other products, such as beef, lamb, fruit, honey, eggs, bread, or flowers. A vegetable CSA could offer such products as extra "packages." Or nearby farms could be part of your CSA, providing things you don’t have. Some farms even market wool sweaters from their flock and milk and cheese from dairy cows, using the CSA model. The only limit is one’s imagination!