Research Papers

Community Supported Agriculture

A CSA box from Cedar Circle Farm. Photo by Claire Wild

Cherry tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli and a plethora of unfamiliar greens fill the box. Some items, staples, are easily prepared and consumed while others, like kohlrabi, are unusual to the degree that it is uncertain how one might even go about eating it. “Receiving different vegetables and fruits each week really diversified our diets,” says Claire Wild, a two-year subscriber to the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program at Cedar Circle Farms in Thetford, Vermont, one of the approximately 1,700 programs nationally [1]. Receiving weekly quantities of unusual produce, including tetragonia and fennel, as well as staples like tomatoes and lettuce, Wild also notes that the family tends to cook healthier, more nutrient-rich meals as a way to use the produce from the CSA boxes. Ultimately, Community Supported Agriculture was a refreshing and positive change to her and her family’s eating habits.

In contrast to the Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, model is the food system most Americans are accustomed to. Produce in the supermarket, on average, travels 4,200 miles from farm to plate, the same as the distance between Chicago and Copenhagen, Denmark[2]. The ability to transport fruits, vegetables and other food items from overseas has allowed for greater selection and cheaper prices in many stores, but it has also branded food items as commodities rather than sources of cultural value. As a result, supermarket chains establish stores in locations where they see the most potential for profit while U.S. agricultural subsidies encourage the consolidation of farms into large, industrial commodity crop operations [3]. Although the globalization of the food industry has convenienced many a suburban, middle-class shopper, it has ostracized plenty of others, including the small farmers that cannot compete with large farmers and the urban poor who are left without appropriate access to a decent food source. This is not to say that the plight of these parties has gone entirely unnoticed, however. Over time, many alternative food models have emerged to challenge the status quo. One such alternative is the aforementioned Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). While not a panacea for all matters of hunger, CSA programs combat many of the problems posed by the corporate food model, including the consolidation of farms and food insecurity, while also leaving room for improvements that may make the CSA system accessible on a wider scale.

Some items in CSA boxes may be unusual.

Community Supported Agriculture is a program offered by farms in which patrons purchase a share in the farm for a growing season. In exchange, the patron receives regular boxes of fresh produce that may be picked up at the farm or at a drop-off location closer to the customer’s residence. The arrangement is meant to be mutually beneficial to the farmer and the consumer. By receiving an up front payment before the start of the growing season, the farmer is assured a market for the produce, regardless of whether poor growing conditions result in below average yields or market prices drop. On the other hand, the consumer receives an assortment of fresh, in-season, local produce.

At the most basic level, CSA’s are beneficial to small farmers, who may otherwise struggle to hold their own alongside large-scale industrial farming operations. While oftentimes, farming can be a dangerous occupation with climatic variability and severe weather threatening to spoil crop yields and quality on a regular basis, CSA’s offer farmers a reprieve from these fears. Because members of CSA’s pay for their subscription before each season, the farmers are guaranteed a market for their produce regardless of whether or not they produce as much as they anticipated. In short, the inherent risk of farming is shared by the farmer and the community of people participating in the CSA program. This arrangement allows the farmer to focus more on tending crops and ensuring quality because less time must be spent on marketing[4].

The support system built into Community Supported Agriculture allows small farms to hold their own against the modern paradigm of large, intensive, commodity crop agriculture common in the United States. While much of the American agricultural sector is dominated by crops such as corn and soybeans, which can be used for human and livestock consumption[5], the produce eaten on a daily basis by citizens is oftentimes shipped long distance or even from overseas[6]. CSA’s present citizens with a viable means to truly buy local and “disengage from the global supermarket and reestablish vital local agricultural economies[7].”

Participation in CSA’s benefits the farmer outside the financial realm as well. First of all, by bringing consumers closer to the source of their produce, the program tends to create a deeper sense of community, bringing farmers and consumers together. While shopping for food at a grocery store can result in a sense of alienation from the source of one’s food, receiving regular supplies of fresh produce from a specific farm does the opposite. Here, members get to know the people growing their produce. Community Supported Agriculture presents the opportunity for members to form bonds with the farmers and learn about the realities and hardships of farming. With a better understanding of the labor and thought that goes into producing a head of lettuce, or a pint of berries, for example, patrons can be more sympathetic to their farmers and also appreciate the produce they receive more.

Fresh Raspberries

Overall, these benefits have not been lost on Farmers. The continued popularity of CSA operations among farmers is supported by a study conducted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture which revealed that out of 144 CSA operators in the Midwest, 97% of farmers report being either completely satisfied or satisfied most of the time with their CSA operation [8]. Many CSA operators report the reasons for starting a CSA were heavily based on a desire for a stronger sense of community between farmer and consumer, however increased returns are also an important factor in continued CSA operations. On average, the net return per acre from CSA’s is $2,466.50. This is in contrast to the net returns per acre for commodity crops like corn, soybeans and wheat ($172.11, $134.46 and $38.10, respectively), however, the figures for commodity crop returns do not include income from direct government payments[9].

People have been taking note of the advantages provided by CSA membership. According to a study performed by the University of Kentucky, CSA membership has been rising steadily over the past several years. Source: Woods et al. 2009 Survey of Community Supported Agriculture Producers. University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. July 2009.

Of course, Community Supported Agriculture has benefits for the consumers as well. Namely, consumers are given a regular supply of fresh, interesting and oftentimes new fruits and vegetables. The CSA model is also convenient. Rather than spending time at the supermarket looking for the best melon or least wilted spinach, a CSA member simply goes to the nearest drop-off location and retrieves their box of produce. To simplify this process, many organizations in the Chicago area, including Green City Market and Family Farmed, offer lists of all the regional farms with CSA’s and the drop-off locations to make choosing the right CSA easy. Most farms offer drop-offs to at least two or three different Chicago neighborhoods; however, some have as many as 8 drop off locations all around Chicagoland[10]. By offering a wide array of locations for patrons to pick up CSA boxes, the CSA model has the potential to alleviate some issues associated with food deserts. By offering delivery of fresh, healthy and nutritious produce to areas removed from large-scale food markets, CSA’s can provide an essential and reliable resource.

However, CSA participation is not without its downfalls. For instance, the average CSA share price for a season in 2005 was $429, which has to be paid up front before the start of the season[11]. Many Americans cannot manage an up-front payment of that cost and this oftentimes limits CSA memberships to higher income families. Equally important, CSA’s are a seasonal operation, running on average for approximately 24 weeks during the warmer months of the year, typically from June to October. When considered within the context of food insecurity issues, this is problematic. While CSA’s could potentially provide a food resource to food insecure areas, it would be a temporary arrangement and not a long-term solution. Also, the CSA model relies on patrons being in a stable and stationary family situation. With weekly drop-offs of a regularly quantity, CSA patrons are best served by the system if they are available on a weekly basis to pick up and consume the produce they receive. Another consideration revolves around CSA boxes providing a set quantity of produce, as determined by the share price. This renders the program less suitable for households that fluctuate in membership (such as older relatives occasionally moving in), who may not always receive enough. Lastly, CSA boxes can sometimes contain strange, new items that patrons are unsure of how to consume. This can lead to waste and patrons feeling they are not getting the full value out of their membership.

While membership with a CSA may not be for everyone, finding the right farm may alleviate some of the negative aspects of Community Supported Agriculture. For instance, in the case of patrons being unsure of how to prepare new items, many farms issues newsletters to alleviate this problem. One farm, Beaver Creek Gardens serving the Chicago area from Poplar Grove, Illinois, includes information about current growing conditions, the produce being sent in boxes, plus recipes and meal ideas for some of the less familiar items being sent to members via a weekly newsletter. Sometimes newsletter includes personal preparation suggestions from the farmer, bringing the reader even closer to the farming process. This not only fosters a sense of community but also minimizes the aforementioned problems associated with a lack of familiarity with some of the farm’s less common crops. Ultimately, the newsletter allows members to get the most out of their produce[12].

Peppers from Angelic Organics CSA

Another means to familiarize patrons with the CSA system is illustrated through the Bread and Life organization in New York City. The organization, run by the Nigerian-born nutritionist, Yemi Oyename, has a partnership with Holcomb Farm, a CSA located in rural New York. One aspect of this partnership is a workshop run by Bread and Life to familiarize inner-city families with the produce offered by the farm and cooking demonstrations on how to prepare the food items[13].  In addition, many of the produce varieties grown by Holcomb Farm were jointly decided on by both the farmer and Oyename to ensure that Bread and Life’s patrons would receive items they could actually use and enjoy[14].

Other CSA arrangements work to rectify some of the other aforementioned issues with the CSA model. For instance, some farms offer discounted share prices to low-income families. This can be accomplished in several ways. For one, a CSA can take advantage of their typically wealthy clientele and offer these patrons the option of paying slightly more in order to subsidize the share of a lower-income family. Alternatively, a farm can offer what is called a working share. This entails the patrons to volunteer a small amount of time at the farm in order to pay off some of the share price[15].

In essence, Community Supported Agriculture relies on mutual understanding between the farmer and the patrons and creates a bond that cannot be achieved in the local supermarket. While the CSA model offers an alternative to the potentially destructive corporate food model, it is not without limitations. However, many of these flaws can be fixed with alterations to the CSA concept. Share prices can be subsidized by work or donors to welcome lower-income families into the farm family and outreach on behalf of farm employees can educate shareholders about how best to utilize each week’s produce. By offering a wide selection of CSA box drop-off locations, farmers can begin to chip away at some of the nation’s food deserts if they are so inclined. Apart from some of these solutions, issues still remain, to be sure. For instance, growing seasons in certain geographical regions are too short to support the CSA model throughout the year and the weekly drop-off system does not allow for significant mobility for patrons. Despite these shortcomings, Community Supported Agriculture has the potential to make a positive and meaningful change in the global food industry and offers plenty of room for improvement within the typical CSA structure.

 


[1] Schnell, Steven M. “Food with a Farmer’s Face: Community Supported Agriculture in the United States.” The Geographical Review 97 (2007): 550.

[2] Weber, Christopher L, and Matthews, Scott H. “Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States.” Environmental Science Technology 42 (2008): 3508-3513. Print.

[3] Winne, Mark. Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Boston: Beacon, 2009. Print.

[4] Tegtmeier, Erin and Duffy, Michael. “Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in the Midwest United States: A regional characterization.” Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, 2005. 5.

[5] “Subsidy Buffet for Agribiz, Table Scraps for Good Food.” Environmental Working Group. 01 May 2012. Web. 03 June 2012.

[6] Weber.

[7] Schnell, Steven M. “Food with a Farmer’s Face: Community Supported Agriculture in the United States.” The Geographical Review 97 (2007): 550.

[8] Tegtmeier 4.

[9] Tegtmeier 15.

[10] “2012 Chicagoland CSA Guide.” Familyfarmed.org. 2012. Web. 28 May 2012. <http://www.familyfarmed.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/2012-csa-brochure-spreads.pdf>.

[11] Tegtmeier 11.

[12] “Beaver Creek CSA.” 15 June 2011. Web. 28 May 2012. <http://beavercreekgardens.com/>.

[13] Winne 144.

[14] Winne 144.

[15] Winne 138.