By Georgie Smith, email@example.com
Have you ever wondered what a ‘CSA’ (community supported agriculture) is?
Or the difference between that and a ‘farm share’, ‘farm box’ or a ‘farm subscription?’ How about a ‘farm delivery service?’ Should you buy from a local farm? Or online from a national delivery service that consolidates farm food?
These days there are about as many ways to order up some version of ‘healthy/local/fresh’ food delivered to your doorstep as there are candy bars at the grocery store check-out line! It can all be very confusing to a customer just looking to support local farms and receive amazing fresh food.
So how do health-conscious consumers concerned about the sustainability of their food purchasing choices, discern the CSA ‘hype’ from reality and chose the best model for your family?
When it comes to CSA, the question ultimately becomes….What are the things that are most important to YOU when choosing the food that graces your family’s nightly table ?
The Origin, and Evolution, of CSA
Fifty years ago,, a group of 200 concerned Japanese housewives, alarmed about mercury poisoning in their community and the toxic chemicals in the modern food chain, approached local dairies in their community and proposed a novel solution.
How about, we give you our year’s milk money upfront, they asked the farmers. You’ll get ALL of our milk money, not a fraction of what you get selling to the local milk cooperative, and you get the money before you have even milked the cows.
But, in return, the farmer agrees to produce healthy, untainted milk and provide it directly to us – not mixed in with milk from who knows where. So, we will know the milk we receive is healthy not only for our families, but was farmed in a clean, non-toxic way that is a boon for our community.
And hence was born the “Seikatsu Kyoodo Kumiai”, translated as ‘Living Cooperative Union.’ A model that was quickly adapted and expanded to vegetables, eggs, meat, and more.
Coming to America – CSA Transforms the U.S. Farmscape
In the 1980s this new theory of thinking arrived in the U.S., underwent a name change, and the “Community Supported Agriculture”, aka CSA, was born. Read more about the history and evolution of CSA in Japan and the United States right here.
Since then, CSA has been instrumental in transforming a small, but mighty, share of the agriculture landscape back toward local, healthy, fresh food produced and sold directly to the consumers within that community. Creating an entirely new generation of eaters that increasingly think before they eat. A consumer purchasing shift that is, arguably, in the process of transforming the entire food system as we know it.
For many small farms, the CSA model has been the life-blood of financial support they needed to get off the ground. Brick-and-mortar banks scoff at the idea of loaning a five-acre farm the $5,000 the farmer needs to order the seeds, compost, supplies, and what not to start up the season. But by posting a few posters at the local grocery store farmers can sign up just twenty $300 shares by February, and now have the ‘start-up’ funds to make a go of it. For many small farms that initial start has grown into much more.
While hard to get a true accurate count, a 2012 USDA census on CSA’s came up with a number of 12,612. Not a bad number for something that started with just two “CSA farms” in 1986.
CSA Explodes! For the Good…and the Bad
Like so many good things that EVERYONE wants a slice of…the CSA model became so popular, that it has become both much more, and sometimes far less, than it was intended.
Competition for ‘farm-conscious’ subscribers became fierce, and in some cases, long-time CSA farms have shut down and moved to different business models. Others have been increasingly diversified, offering more choices or other alternatives to compete. Some CSA farms quickly scaled up, supporting 1000s of shares within a region. Farms joined together in regional cooperatives to offer CSA shares in regional areas, good for the bigger farms that opted in earlier but hard for the new, small farms to come behind and compete for that increasingly smaller piece of the pie. Read more here, about the changing marketplace for many U.S. CSA farms.
Perhaps more alarmingly, there have been many ‘versions’ of CSA, offering something that really had no resemblance to what those Japanese ladies had initially dreamed up.
If a “farm box” can be ordered with the stroke of a keyboard, on a weekly whim, tailored to exactly what you desire at that moment at time AND delivered nationally, is that truly serving the theory of a ‘community-supported agriculture” system.
Or is it simply supporting the same old broken food system, but having it delivered to your door for a pretty penny versus filling up your cart up at the mega-store? Is it just the grocery store, delivered to your house? How does that support local farming communities.
Luckily, there are still many versions of ‘authentic’ CSA’s claiming their niche of the market. CSA’s that offer both the variety and flexibility that consumers need while staying true to the original ideas of supporting small, healthy, regionally-produced food choices. But it still takes some work on the consumer’s part to pick the right CSA for you.
Here’s a Few Pointers To Help Find a Perfect CSA For You!
#1 Customer Convenience Factor
The most wonderful, complete, amazing CSA in the world won’t be much good to your family if you aren’t;
- #1 Able to pick it up because the farm or pick-up is too far away or not at a time you can get there. In those cases, consider CSA with home delivery options (though they typically cost more).
- #2 Don’t find the time to eat the food in your CSA. Evaluate your family’s dedication for using whole foods and ability to cook, or willingness to learn. (CSA Boxes can be a GREAT way to engage picky kids in eating new and different vegetables!).
#2 Farmer Growing Standards
CSA’s, though widely offered by many certified organic farms, do not inherently mean the food that comes in your box will be grown without the use of man-made chemicals or environmentally-harmful practices.
Since typically most eaters interested in experiencing a ‘farm box’ type relationship are also committed to supporting healthy growing practices, make sure your version of what that means are aligned with your farmer’s. If you buy a box from a big aggregator using many different farms, this may be be a hard goal to achieve.
But if you choose a small, regional CSA offering, this is a great thing to ask your farmer about directly. Most farmers are thrilled to share their philosophies and growing techniques with truly engaged customers.
#3 Sourced Locally? Or…Not So Much?
How important is it to you to support your local region’s farms? If you are somebody that is highly invested in your local community, YOUR regional environment, then you are probably going to want to go the route of those Japanese housewives and support the farmers in YOUR neck of the woods.
But what does ‘region’ mean to you. Is that just your town? Your county? Multiple counties? A tri-state region? These are things to consider when you think about your box, and what those food dollars you are spending mean for where you live.
#4 – Variety! Diversified Farms and Local Growing Regions for the Win!
How much selection do you want in your box?
What does variety mean to you? If variety is getting oranges and avocados along with broccoli and peas, you are best off just sticking with the grocery store.
On the other hand, if ‘variety’ means experiencing regional tastes and the unique specialty vegetables that will often not be available at the grocery store – than a local CSA farmer is a great choice.
Twenty different kinds of heirloom tomatoes? Why…yes! A local CSA farmer that also works cooperatively with other local farms can offer up an even larger selection of locally supported food choices.
#5 – The Farm to Table Connection
For some CSA customers, the best part of the CSA is the connection to the farm.
Get to know your farmer by name, hear the story of how that week they had to rush to bring in all the late-season cauliflower before an unexpected frost. Pet their dog.
You see the farm in all the stages of the season, from the initial promise of spring, to the insanity of summer and the incredible abundance of fall and know you had a small, but significant part in that (by paying upfront!).
If the farm has an on-farm market stand (or does a farmer’s market CSA pick-up), you may also use that time to pick up some additional items you need for your weekly menu. This is the opportunity to engage in the production of the food that you eat that will make the eating experience that more satisfying.
You will be surprised by what you might learn, about farming, food, and your community.
#6 – Finding Your Local CSA
The easiest, and probably most frequently way customers find local CSA farms is via Google search. A quick “CSA farms near me” will typically bring up a plethora of options. But if that doesn’t work here’s a few more tried and true ideas:
LocalHarvest.Org – One of the first websites to start listing all the local farms in the United State and still one of the best. Searchable by region and farm type so you can search for ‘CSA farm’ in your area.
Check out your local farmer’s markets. Many CSA farmers also sell at the local farmers markets and you can often find them there by simply asking ‘do you offer a CSA box?’
Search local and state farm and food organizations. Each state or region typically has an organization of small farms, typically with many CSA farms in the membership. Washington State for example has Tilth Producers. Maine has MOFGA. But each region has their own.
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