Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) – "food with the farmer’s face on it"

A while back, I wrote about natural food cooperatives, where people band together to source organic produce grown locally by small farms and companies.

It’s a form of community supported agriculture (CSA) that usually requires a little work on the cooperative members’ part; but there are other variations with a more direct connection with a farmer.

How Community Supported Agriculture works.

In the direct model, a farmer will offer shares of the farm’s crop or produce to the public. The cost of the share, membership or subscription will vary widely. In return, the shareholder, member or subscriber will receive produce on a regular basis from the farm. Some farmers will offer choices based on customer preferences, others will take more of a pot luck approach.

Some CSA farms go beyond fruit and vegetables; offering eggs, dairy, meat and poultry. Sometimes farmers will join forces to form a group in order to provide a very wide range of food options that CSA shareholders can select from.

A brief history of modern Community Supported Agriculture

According to EarthRise Farm; a CSA and educational farm in Minnesota, while the CSA concept is relatively new in the West, it can be traced to Japan in the mid 1960s.

Food cooperatives had been in existence in Japan since the late 1800’s, but in 1965, a group of Japanese women who wanted to source fresh produce for their families more directly approached a local farmer with the idea. The farmer agreed and a contract was drawn. In Japan, CSA is known as “teikei”, which translates to  “food with the farmer’s face on it”.

A lecture outline from The Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems states the Ten Founding Principles of the Teikei System in Japan are:

1. Mutual Assistance
2. Intended Production
3. Accepting the Produce
4. Mutual Concession in the Price Setting Decision
5. Deepening Friendships
6. Self-distribution
7. Democratic Management
8. Learning Among Each Group
9. Maintaining the Appropriate Group Scale
10. Principle of Steady Development

The first documented CSA farm in the U.S. commenced in 1985 in western Massachusetts. Within four years, there thirty-seven CSA operations in the U.S. And Canada. By 1994, the number of CSA’s in the US was around four hundred. Data collected in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that 12,549 farms in the United States reported marketing products through a community supported agriculture arrangement.

Benefits of Community Supported Agriculture.

For the consumer, participation in CSA means ultra-fresh produce at very reasonable prices. Often farms offering a CSA program will also be very environmentally aware, meaning the produce may be organic, or grown/raised with a minimum of chemicals involved.

One of the great dangers in the modern world of food is that we tend not to know or care about the types of resources and practices that go into creating it. Food production is becoming an increasingly heavy burden on the environment, often focusing on quantity rather than quality. CSA’s provide consumers with a greater connection with their food and this familiarity tends to create more interest in how their food is grown and the work involved.

CSA farms also often encourage visits from families, which can be a great educational experience not only for adults, but for children too.

For farmers, the CSA model allows them to receive income before planting and harvesting commences. It can help with financial and crop planning for the year ahead. Instead of being held hostage by large corporations, the farmer can also have more control over operations and spread the risk by having many individual customers or small buyer groups.

How is the food distributed

Depending on the arrangement, the food may need to be picked up from the farm, but some farmers will transport it to a dropoff point in a nearby town or city.

CSA caveat emptor

Caveat emptor is Latin for “let the buyer beware”. An important aspect about getting involved with a CSA is the willingness to accept risks, being:

– The farm may not produce the items you want at times
– The farm may not produce anything at all some seasons

For example, there may be a drought or tornado that wipes out the farm’s crop. Like the farmer, this is the risk that the CSA shareholder will need to take. In a good or average year, the shareholder will likely receive far more than their money’s worth, but in a bad year, perhaps nothing at all. You’ll likely be asked to sign a contract when joining a CSA farm acknowledging this issue, so as with any contract, read over it carefully.

Finding a CSA farm near you

– If you’re in the USA or Canada, try LocalHarvest’s database

– In the UK, is probably the best place to start your search

– I wasn’t able to find a directory in Australia, but Food Connect offers a natural food cooperative service throughout the country. You might also want to try a more specific search on Google using your town/city name

If you can’t find a CSA near you, perhaps contact farms reasonably close by to ask them whether they would consider the concept!