Gardening

Everything You Need to Know About Community-Supported Agriculture

When we were researching the best business model and structure for our farm this winter, we went through a lot of different options. 

For us, starting an LLC was the smartest choice – but the best business structure will vary for everyone. I talk about that a bit in my post about how to start a farm business. Be sure to check it out.

One of the options we researched along the way was that of community-supported agriculture. 

Community-supported agriculture, or CSA, wasn’t the right choice for us. However, for many farms, it makes sense. Here’s what you need to know about community-supported agriculture. I’ll also give you some tips to help decide if it’s the right choice for you.

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What is Community Supported Agriculture?

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Very simply put, community-supported agriculture, or the CSA model, is a system that connects consumers and producers within a food system. It does this more closely, allowing the consumer to help harvest from a farm or group of farms. 

This “help” can be done physically – by actually lending a hand – but more often is done in the form of a subscription. When you purchase a subscription to a CSA, you’ll receive a weekly or biweekly collection of produce and other farm goods. 

Usually, CSA shares will include produce like in-season vegetables and fruits. Some farms also offer milk, meat, dried goods, eggs, and even canned or prepared foods. 

CSAs are popular in the United States and Canada but there are similar systems around the rest of the world, too. 

While it sounds like a new, and, I’ll admit it, relatively “crunchy” concept, CSAs aren’t really that revolutionary. In fact, the term has been around since the 1980s. Frankly, the model of sharing the land and sharing the harvest has existed since the beginning of agriculture as we know it. 

What Are the Benefits of Community Supported Agriculture – for Farmers?

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CSAs are modeled around three main goals: one is the idea that land should be held in common by a community, with another that a network of human relationships should replace the typical employer-employee cycle.

There is also a basic idea that CSAs should focus not necessarily on increasing profit, but increasing access to fresh food and meeting the needs of the people and the land. 

Today, most CSAs are still philosophically oriented around those principles – but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be commercially profitable, either. 

As a farmer, you will be able to market yourself better, in some cases, if you engage in a CSA-type model for your farm.

Often, reaching customers through this kind of community-focused endeavor is a better way of achieving a permanent market for your product than is trying to market yourself through other channels. 

You’ll also be able to spread costs out among multiple buyers. Since you’ll sell shares at the beginning of the season, you won’t have to worry about fronting your expenses. You’ll be able to pay for all of your costs of production without having to stress about finding customers for your crops later on.

As a farmer, you can really capitalize on the closer relationship that you will develop with customers. Many customers will pay more for their food if they know where it came from and who is involved. 

What Are the Benefits of Community Supported Agriculture – for the Community?

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One of the most beautiful aspects of community supported agriculture is the sense of community that is created. There is truly nothing more wonderful than being able to connect with a farm on a personal level. 

If you have a farm, no matter the size, you already know this. You know how life-affirming and enjoyable it is to be able to go out to your chicken coop each day and harvest a basket of eggs. You’ve seen the land in action each season. 

But a consumer isn’t so lucky, especially if they’ve always had to be resigned to buying their food at the local WalMart. If you are lucky enough to live somewhere in which there is a CSA nearby, you should definitely try it out.

Most farmers attempt to cultivate relationships with their subscribers, sending out weekly newsletters, inviting them to share in the harvest, or even holding farm events or tours. 

Many people assume that CSA shares are more expensive than traditional produce you might buy at the grocery store. That’s not the case! In fact, many are offered with payment plans or plans for low-income families. 

Some other benefits of joining a CSA include:

  • Freshly-picked produce that is more nutritious and better-tasting
  • Saves money and time
  • Allows you to try new foods 
  • Lets you know exactly where your food is coming from 

What to Keep in Mind About Community Supported Agriculture Models 

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If you’re thinking of starting or joining a CSA, you will want to keep in mind the following pointers.

They Aren’t Always Organic

While a vast majority of CSA farms are organic, keep in mind that not all are certified organic. If this matters to you, it’s important to ask questions before joining or starting a CSA.

The real attraction of CSA models isn’t necessarily that they are organic, though, but that the produce is local and supports local business, so keep that in mind. 

The Structure Can Vary

If you’re thinking of starting a CSA, don’t fall victim to thinking that they’re all built alike. In order to run a CSA, you really just need to understand the needs of the community and also determine whether your farm can help address those needs. 

There are four primary types of CSAs. A farmer-managed CSA is one in which the sole farmer sets up, maintains, and manages the CSA. A shareholder/subscriber model is one in which local residents set up the CSA on their own, then hire the farmer to grow the crops (and nothing more). 

A farmer cooperative is also relatively common. This is when multiple farmers develop a CSA program and join in on the labor and profits. This can be quite beneficial, as it distributes more of the risk. For example, if all farmers are growing broccoli and one experiences a major unforeseen loss, the others can help buffer some of that damage with their crops. 

The final option is a farmer-shareholder cooperative. This is when farmers and local residents together set up and manage a CSA. 

Decide On Share Prices

Do some research into the CSAs in your local area to learn more about fair prices for CSA shares. These vary widely. A full share usually feeds up to five people, while a half share feeds one to three. Usually, a share can be anywhere from $200 to $500 per season (you, of course, should offer a slight discount for purchasing a full share). 

You’ll want to consider the local market when it comes to pricing your CSA shares. However, you will also need to consider things like your overhead costs, costs of production, and other factors, too.

Pick Up Times and Locations

You need to think about how often people are going to pick up their shares – and where they’re going to do it.

If you don’t want people visiting your farm, that’s okay. You can set up a drop off at a designated dropoff location, you can drop off shares at homes or offices, or you can even set a neutral pickup point, like a community center or church.

There are some CSAs who even take orders online! You just need to figure out the best option for you, and figure out how often you want to distribute shares. 

Advertising Share Contents Ahead of Time

This one is dicey. 

If you know for sure that you are going to have a consistent production of a certain crop – say, kale – you can tell your customers that they can expect to receive kale in their shares for the week. 

It’s not a bad idea to tell customers what to expect in their weekly shares. This way, they can plan ahead for the onslaught of produce and they’ll be able to plan meals accordingly. You may have fewer complaints to deal with, too. 

However, the problem comes if you don’t have a reliable system in place. If you’re new to farming, you should wait a few years before implementing a CSA model on your farm. You need to work out the kinks first!

While you don’t have to advertise to customers what they are going to get ahead of the distribution times, it really can help your business if you are able to do so.

Therefore, it’s important that you get your farm going to the level where you can predict which crops you’ll be able to produce – and when. 

Where to Find More Information About Community Supported Agriculture

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Often, you can find CSAs near you by conducting a simple Google search. However, in the case of small farms, that’s not always as easy. Check out this database for an idea of the local CSAs near you, and give social media a try! Your friends will be the best source of information as to the best CSAs in your area. 

Let me know your thoughts about the CSA model in the comments. I’m still exploring its benefits myself, and I’d love to know what you think!

Want to learn more about farming? Be sure to take a look at these other articles.

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Author: Rebekah Pierce

I'm a writer and small farm owner, and lover of everything outdoors. I'm hoping to share my passion for farming, gardening, and homesteading with you on my blogging journey.

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