What is a CSA? Community Supported Agriculture and variants thereof.

April CSA shares from Boistfort Valley Farm

April CSA shares from Boistfort Valley Farm

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  There are several different types of CSAs, but at core the gist of it remains the same: farmer’s have a lot of upfront costs (capital investments) at the start of every spring- seeds, fuel, payroll (even if it’s just the one farmer, that person still has to eat and be housed).  Farmer’s incomes are on a lag, coming mostly in summer and fall.

The farmer with insufficient savings to cover the spring costs (and let’s be real, how many of us have huge chunks of money sitting around?) has two choices: take out a loan or mortgage something.  Both of those options leave the farmer paying interest on the loan, reducing their profits and making it harder to save up for next year’s spring inputs.  And eegads if a major crop fails!  Then the next year they are paying interest on two years of inputs and late fees on one.

Community Supported = Shared Risk

A variant solution has been found in the form of Community Supported Agriculture.  Local families ‘pre-buy’ some of their groceries in the form of a CSA membership at a farm.  Together, they cover the costs of the farmer’s spring investments.  Over the course of the season, the farmer pays them back in a portion (a share) of the farm’s bounty.  If it’s a bad year, well, everybody’s share is a little smaller.  If it’s a good year, everybody’s share is a little larger.

Most CSA farmers I know are also engaged in other forms of money making too. They grow seeds for seed companies, they operate an on-farm market stall, they participate in local farmer’s markets, they sell to local groceries.  The list is limited only by the creativity of the farmer and the crops suitable for their land. What stays true is that the CSA members get first dibs.  The members are the baseline, anything made above and beyond that is great, but as long as the members are happy, the farm will be back next year.

Vegetable farms are the most popular form of CSA.  Because a small vegetable farm tends to be pretty polycultural (lots of different crops, not just one), they are buffered against total crop failure.  If some blight takes out one crop, everything else is there to cushion the blow.  A major flood or devastating drought, a tornado… these are amongst the few things I can think of that would cause all different kinds of crops to fail in one go.  Pretty rare.

How a CSA works

How the farm organizes the CSA is up to them.  At the advent of CSAs, the most common method involved each member getting a box (or bag) of assorted vegetables.  Each box had exactly the same stuff in it.  CSA members then either go out to the farm, or go to an assigned ‘drop spot’ near them one day each week to retrieve their pre-payed bounty.

At some point, CSA’s learned to scale the sizes: now many offer ‘tiny shares’, ‘regular shares’, and ‘family shares’ in order to serve a range of eating habits and family sizes.

They also developed variants on the ‘what’s in the box?‘ theme.  Some started adding items that are tacked on with a special side shares (a cut flowers share, or a dozen eggs a week share). Others moved to a more ‘market stand’ conception, one variant of which I really like and the other I’m a little dubious of.

My mom’s CSA (Potomac Vegetable Farms in Virginia) moved to the market-esque set-up I like.  All the produce is laid out in a special shed and labelled with the number of items it counts for (though most stuff counts as 1 item, a bundle of herbs might count as half an item while a very large pumpkin might count as two.)

Some weeks, the note on the chalkboard for CSA members simply says something like “tiny share: 5 items, regular share: 8 items, family share: 12 items”.  Other weeks, it’s more nuanced, and a regular share might consist of 3 items from the left hand shelves and 4 items from the right hand shelves.  Sometimes there also a box of sub-perfect tomatoes and a note to “take as many as you can stand, puh-leeze!”

I like this: folks get a chance to choose items that suit them better, and the concept of sharing the risk still applies: more items if the farm is having a bumper crop of something, fewer if there’s a dearth.

The other version of the market CSA involves a swipe card with an account balance on it that gets bumped down as the person shops.  This has the advantage of folks being able to pick up their shares at a variety of locations and places, depending on how many farmer’s markets that farm is connected too.  It also lets you skip a week or two if you are going to be out of town.  Also, these CSAs give a bonus: if you prepay $300, you get $325 on the card.  (As usual, I’m making up the specific numbers.)

This method does not, however, share the risk and reward as well. If that CSA has a bad year for eggplants, then their price for eggplants will go up and yes, the CSA member will probably eat fewer of them. Similarly, if there is a bumper crop of tomatoes, they’ll be priced to move, and the CSA member will pick up more of them.  If there is an astonishingly bad year, the CSA members will have priority.  If there is a really good year…

Here’s what I don’t like about this particular method:  I’m not sure how the CSA member benefits if the farmer has a really good year.  The farmer’s happy, and that’s worth something, sure, but is there anything tangible that Joe Public wouldn’t also experience as a benefit?  Warm fuzzies only fills so many canning jars, y’know? I need feedback here: why would this work for you?

The future of CSAs?

In sum, I love the CSA concept.  I need to figure out how to afford the CSA concept.  I never have a lump some for groceries in mid-winter.  I would love it if there were programs to get a couple of CSA memberships for (reasonable!) resale in those small stop-n-shop groceries in neighborhoods with little access to fresh food. I would love it if there were ‘put-up parties’ for processing and freezing extra food (such as shares for members who are out of town that week?) for the local food banks.  There such a gold mine here that I see the systems we have developed thus far as just the start of a larger, even more amazing social revolution to come.

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