Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has been around for centuries, it’s just had different names and frameworks throughout different cultures and continents. Here in America, the CSA movement has really picked up in popularity within the last two decades. Today, there are over 2,500 operating CSA scattered around the United States. Similar programs are also popular and exist in Canada. Is a CSA right for your crop and community?
The Benefits of a CSA
CSA benefits both producer and consumer. The CSA allows producers to sell directly to consumers without a middle entity, which translates to less money invested in distribution and more affordable prices for the consumer.
The Format of Community Supported Agriculture
The typical format for today’s CSA includes a producer(s) and a consumer membership. Some farms, orchards, ranches, etc. have their own CSA program, and other producers join together to create a CSA that offers a variety of products.
Membership prices may range anywhere from $400 to $700 per season, and are always dependent on the size of the CSA share and offerings. Many CSA will offer two size options. Some CSAs offer options as low as $200 and others can be more expensive, especially if they offer bi-weekly deliveries.
The Four Community Supported Agriculture Frameworks
This is where a farmer will set up his / her own CSA, recruits members (subscribers) and controls all aspects of the CSA such as management, delivery, etc.
This is when multiple farmers join together to form a CSA membership program.
Shareholder / Subscriber
This occurs when local residents create a CSA and then hire a farmer or multiple farmers to grow the preferred crops. The shareholders/subscribers will typically control the management of the CSA.
Farmer / Shareholder Cooperative
This is when farmers and local residents or the community set up and cooperatively manage the CSA together.
What Comes in a Community Supported Agriculture Share?
Consumers typically receive a range of freshly harvested items including vegetables, herbs and fruits (usually organic) every week during a certain period of time. Since the majority of CSA’s operate in locations with four climates, a CSA may be set for a certain number of weeks or months, typically during peak growth and harvest periods.
Some CSAs will also eggs, dairy such as cheese and milk, honey, cut flowers, beef, pork, poultry, fresh-baked bread, homemade soap, tinctures, and more. If you're not sure what to grow here is an article about the top 3 plants to grow in the fall.
How are Community Supported Agriculture Shares Distributed?
Most CSA shares are distributed weekly, and in-season. There are a variety of means to getting the CSA share to the consumer. Here are the most popular methods.
If near to your CSA community and you have the space on your farm or land, offer to have consumers pick up their share onsite. This has two major benefits. (1) Facetime with the consumer and (2) the consumer can see the growth and harvest.
There are two different formats for Farmers’ Market pickups. (1) The CSA might have to rent a booth throughout the season to have a legal and licensed point of pick up offsite from personal property or (2) many Farmers’ Markets will allow free space to a CSA for their pick-up customers.
School / Community Space:
Many CSAs will take advantage of a free, public space or parking lot as a place to set up distribution.
It’s still commonplace for CSA shares to be delivered, by hand, to customers’ homes. Customers are instructed to leave out a cooler during hot days for deliveries.
Why Do Consumers Want to Join Community Supported Agriculture?
The benefits are plentiful for both producer and consumer. For the producer, according to Green America, “The CSA model is more sustainable than traditional grocery stores as it connects consumers directly to more local food sources. That means that the produce travels a much shorter distance, saving fuel, and the direct-to-consumer relationship means the farmer retains a larger share of the profit.”
The organization also points out that, “CSAs benefit farmers by distributing both the bounty and risks of the harvest across the farmer and consumers. For example, if one crop doesn’t do well in a season, the CSA member could get more of another crop that did grow better.”
The benefits are equally as delightful and economically profitable for the consumer. Green America states, “CSAs also allow consumers to eat more sustainable, in-season produce. Consumers can also save up to 40 percent on in-season and organic (or close-to-it) produce over buying from the grocery store by joining as well according to DailyFinance.com.”
Challenges of Creating and Maintaining Community Supported Agriculture
The greatest challenge is maintaining a consistent membership, and a consistent product. Consumers get very angry if an entire week’s share is dedicated to one or two items such as mint and cucumber. While consumers are acquainted with natural challenges and obstacles of consistency, they do expect quality and variety.
Transportation costs have great influence on food and production costs. When setting pricing at the beginning of a farm year, factor in the drastic change that can occur within a couple months’ time. 2022 is an excellent example of extreme gas price increase, and that directly impacts every Community Supported Agriculture Community.
There are also struggles for the consumer. In an article written for Food Network, writer Dana Angelo White, M.S., R.D., A.T.C. notes that, “Unfortunately, CSA programs are still hard to find in some areas. Some can be extremely expensive, so you need to do your homework to make sure you’re getting the best program for your money. I’ve seen prices vary anywhere from $300-$1000 a year. You also don’t have control over what you’ll get in your weekly box. Farmers decide what they have enough of to go around (they might save certain items for sale at the farmers' markets). A large, weekly box of foods can get overwhelming and give you more than you know what to do with, which leads to waste.”
You might also be wondering how to keep up with what to grow, how much you need to plant and how to keep track of what you harvest. We've got you covered at Farmbrite!
Here are also some tips of harvesting the perfect market crops.
Giving Bonuses in your CSA!
A popular CSA marketing and education tool is to include recipes in the CSA delivery. By featuring produce in the share, consumers are more inclined to try new vegetables and fruits, and use their entire CSA share with minimal waste and maximum pleasure.
Find a Local Community Supported Agriculture Share Near You!
The sky's the limit on what you might want to sell and how. Often CSA's offer weekly deliveries as well as pick-up locations. So you can also offer that as an add on.
You might simply offer an add-on menu which might be offered each week to the members of your CSA. Your customer simply replies by email to any extra items, or orders them online and it will be included in the weekly share whether pick-up or have it delivered.
Offering Different CSA Share Options
There are many different ways that you can set up your CSA. You can offer a short season, and long season or month to month. You can offer a sign up for the entire 16-week season or a second option of a shorter eight-week season. There might also a month to month CSA option if you're just getting started or for the person who travels a lot in the summer.
You can also offer different types of shares. A single person share, a 2 person share or a family share.
Offering Add ons
Along with the regular share or family share which might change weekly, you might also offer add ons to your CSA. It could be flowers, herb, meat or just more of what you're already offering. And don't forget to include a recipe to help enhance the consumer’s experience. Not everyone knows how to cook all the items that might be included in their box.
Other Types of CSAs
A CSA is a great way for the community to get involved with their local food. There are many different ways to offer customers CSA options and even more options for things that you can offer to them. Here are just a few options:
Vegetables, Meat, Milk, Soap, Wool (Sell what you produce)
Flexible week CSA
Year round (provide what's in season-it may not just be food)
Herbal CSA (medicinal or culinary herbs)
Consumer or Chef CSA
CSA add ons (things made by you)
Classes (Canning, flower arranging, soap making, etc.)
Here is another resource to get out more information about starting a CSA and if it might be right for you.
We've seen many different flavors of CSA's over the years from semi-yearly or monthly CSA's, add ons, classes and more. The type of CSA you choose to offer is really up to your imagination and what your customers are looking for in your community.
Farmbrite helps many farms with their CSA's. Take a look at our software free for 14 days.