Community Supported Agriculture: Part I: Getting Started

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a concept designed to encourage relationships between consumers and growers, and for consumers to become more knowledgeable about the way their food is grown.
Community Supported Agriculture: Part I: Getting Started - Articles


This is the first of a two-part series that discusses several Community Supported Agriculture concepts: the principle behind community supported agriculture (CSA), examples of CSA models, and member expectations. For more information on recruiting potential CSA members, answers to questions members commonly ask, and what information should be included in the member contract, consult the factsheet entitled: Community Supported Agriculture. Part II: Members and Their Role.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a concept designed to encourage relationships between consumers and growers, and for consumers to become more knowledgeable about, if not involved in, the way their food is grown. A CSA addresses the concern that the average distance that food travels from farm to consumer in the U.S. is approximately 1,300 miles. Another advantage of obtaining food locally is that the money stays within the local community.

The history of CSAs in the U.S.

The evolution of CSAs in America can be tied to the Teikei ("tay kay") movement in Japan. Japanese women, who were mostly housewives, became concerned about the ever-increasing amount of product imports, including food, and reduction in the acreage of land used for farming. As a result, the Japanese Organic Agricultural Association (JOAA) was founded in 1971 as a promotional vehicle for the Teikei system. The history of the Japanese Teikei (although not strictly a CSA, but more like a buying club) and the evidence of how similar movements occurred in Switzerland, is included in most literature that is written about CSAs.

Aside from sources that credit the Japanese with developing the fundamental idea of CSAs in America, other sources credit the Seikatsu Club. This club encompassed social, political, and ecological awareness; however, this system still separated the farmer from having a direct relationship with purchasers.

Based on these ideals, CSAs began to develop on the east coast of the U.S in the mid-1980s. Today, it is estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 U.S. consumers belong to a CSA. Examples of CSAs range from smaller operations, with three to 20 members; CSAs with 200 or more members; and those with membership in the range of 600 to 800 subscribers.

What is the principle behind a CSA?

A CSA involves consumers who support a farmer financially and who pay for a "share" of the farm's production prior to each growing season. The arrangement allows farmers to finance their operation, buy the seeds and transplants they need for the growing season, and pay their farm labor without waiting until harvest to generate revenue.

By paying for food prior to planting, CSA members essentially assume the risk of crop failure or pest or disease problems and understand that a refund will not be issued in the event that no crops are harvested. If a crop is lost, or of poor quality, the farmer is still able to operate financially. These anticipated problems can be managed, with proper planning and reaction. A benefit for farmers who become involved in a CSA is that they can develop a long-term relationship with their members, one that may encourage members to support the farmer by renewing their membership each year.

How are share prices calculated and what is typically included in a share?

Share price is calculated based on the final number of CSA members. By obtaining this number, a grower can divide the total operating costs by the number of shareholders to find the final share price. Therefore, members should be made aware that share prices published in the fall may be an estimate of what will actually be charged at the beginning of the season, when all members have joined.

Share price for an entire season, with shares usually distributed weekly from May until November, can cost around $500. This price does depend on number of weeks the CSA will harvest food. Other sources price an average share at $10 to $30 a week for two people or a family of four. Some CSAs offer half shares for around $300 a season. Notice that the price for a half share is not exactly half the price of a full share since the labor needed to plan, plant, harvest, and package is not exactly half the amount of effort for a full share. Other options can include a monthly or quarterly share.

On average, most CSAs offers an assortment of eight to twelve vegetables, herbs, and fruits each week for a summer share. A weekly share typically equals approximately five to seven pounds of vegetables. Winter shares are usually distributed just once a month, due to lower volume and selection available. Items that members do not have an interest in can be placed on a table for other members to take.

During certain weeks there may not be enough of a particular produce item available to distribute to all members. One option is to divide the shares into two groups and distribute the harvest to each group on alternate weeks. In years when the harvest is more than members can use, excess can be donated to a food bank or sold to a local restaurant. Certain farmers have developed a practice of trading what they grow with other farmers who grow other produce items, or sell meat, fish, fowl, dairy products, honey, and bread products.

What is a typical workload for a CSA farmer?

An example of the number of hours a farmer will work during the CSA season include: 15 to 20 hours during startup, up to 60 hours during the peak planting and harvesting period, and 20 to 30 hour during harvest and wrap-up in the fall. A farmer who is currently growing crops for the wholesale market will probably need a minimum of one year to transition their farm to a CSA. During this time period, the farmer will need to assess the likelihood that they will succeed as a CSA farmer by observing as many different CSA operations as possible. In addition, the first year should be spent supplying the wholesale market for revenue, while determining a budget for the proposed CSA and the number of shares that will be needed to support the operation.

As with any new venture, it will be necessary to concentrate on promotional activities, such as press releases, newspaper articles, distribution of flyers, and other methods, to help prospective members learn about the CSA. It may even be necessary to recruit more members than needed, as it is very possible that not all those who initially express an interest will actually purchase a share.

What are some ways members can become involved in the CSA, other than picking up their weekly share?

As mentioned previously, one important aspect of a CSA is building a connection between the member and the farm where their food is produced. A stronger bond can be built if members are encouraged to visit the farm and socialize with other members. Members who have a working share (in exchange for a reduced price members work a certain number of hours at the farm each week) may be more likely to visit with others and form a strong connection with the farm. For other members, a social occasion such as a potluck or harvest celebration can help members feel that they are actually a part of the CSA.

Another method of making members aware of what is happening at the farm is creating a newsletter that can be distributed with the share. Include announcements, what is included in the share, some sample recipes, and a list of future activities. The practice of developing a newsletter may also help farmers minimize the number of common questions they usually encounter. Instead of inquiring about what they can expect in their July share, or when they can expect sweet corn, a brief article in June's newsletter can help answer these anticipated questions.

What is the expected commitment from CSA members and what are some common types of CSAs?

As can be expected, the level of community involvement can differ amongst CSAs. Larger CSAs, or CSAs with a farmer who prefers to have more control of member involvement, may prefer to enact a "subscription" or farmer-driven type of CSA. Organization of such a CSA would require the farmer to assume a majority of the responsibility; including hiring and training paid employees, as well as other duties. Usually, subscription holders would have little involvement with the CSA other than being responsible for picking up their share. This is a popular form of a CSA. However, with one of the main goals of a CSA to form a bond between consumer and farmer, a question arises as to how this can still be achieved.

CSAs that include members in the organization and daily operations are referred to as "shareholder" or consumer-driven CSAs. Such CSAs could be organized by either the farmer or by members who would then hire the farmer and decide what to grow. This type of organization takes a great deal of member commitment to organize teams who will assist with fieldwork, determine the share, and arrange the distribution schedule. Core group members could also plan and implement events and group activities; arrange for childcare for members when they are working at the farm; distribute announcements and publicity materials; and recruit and accept/ approve potential shareholders. Core group members will need to oversee various administration tasks such as budgets; compiling and printing annual reports; and developing and distributing newsletters and other announcements. Other duties include making decisions about purchases for the CSA and how to finance expensive items.

Another type of CSA organization is called a Farmer-Consumer Cooperative. In this arrangement, both parties own the land and other resources, such as buildings and equipment. As with the shareholder model, this type of CSA requires a high level of consumer involvement. A core group would be needed to work with the farmer on issues such as fieldwork, distribution, marketing, and recruitment.

For farmers who are interested in pursuing the idea of developing a CSA, but would welcome the involvement of another farmer, there have been examples of Farmer Cooperatives that have served a consumer population. This type of CSA would include the involvement of two or more farmers, each of which would provide CSA members with a different assortment of goods. Both CSA members and the cooperating farmers can benefit from this increased product offering. If one farmer is experiencing a potential shortage or crop failure, surplus goods from the other farmers can serve as a substitute. In addition, this type of arrangement allows consumers to purchase more items from their CSA and reduce the number of other shopping trips they would need to make.

As the reader will notice, the concept of the CSA is fairly basic: encourage a relationship between consumers and local farmers that can develop and prosper. In order to begin the process of creating a CSA, it will be necessary for farmers to determine how much control they desire and how much input they want from the CSA members; who should be in charge of the planning, promotion, harvesting, and social activities. Certainly, if a farmer does not enjoy a constant interaction with consumers, it may be wise to consider a CSA model that enlists the help of a core group. It is possible to tailor a CSA to meet the needs of all parties involved and focus on the principle of offering fresh, local produce.

Suggested Further Reading

  • Ackert, D. 1992. Guaranteed sale from subscription farming. In Business 14(4):52-53.
  • Anonymous. 2005. What is community supported agriculture (CSA)? UCSC Farm & Garden CSA. Accessed July 1, 2005.
  • Anonymous. 2005b. What is community supported agriculture and how does it work? UMass Extension. Accessed July1, 2005.
  • Epp, R. 1999. Fertile ground: CSA farms in America and Japan grow by sharing. The Community Farm: A Voice for Community Supported Agriculture 6:1, 3.
  • Van En, R. 1988. Basic formula to create community supported agriculture. Indian Line Farm, South Egremont, Mass.

Prepared by Kathleen M. Kelley, Assistant Professor of Consumer Horticulture