CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is an alternative food distribution system in which a group of people (the community) pay a lump sum in advance (the support part) to a local farm or group of farms (yep, here’s where the agriculture comes in). In return, these farms have the funds they need to plant and tend their crops and they repay their members (or ‘investors’ as they are often called) with a weekly supply of fresh and delicious produce direct from the source – at prices that often work out to be significantly lower than comparable purchases at the organic grocery store.
Some CSA’s are only vegetables, others add meat, dairy, eggs and even fresh flowers to the mix. Some deliver, while others host pick-ups right on the farm or at the local farmer’s market. All of them provide those of us who aren’t lucky enough to live on a farm the chance to be an integral part of the production of our food, to support local commerce and, most importantly, to enjoy the freshest and least chemically enhanced food available.
In a good year, the weekly baskets overflow, but during a drought, for example, there may be fewer tomatoes to go around. This shared risk is the defining characteristic of all CSA’s. Everybody wins – the farms know that the money is coming in, and the members get copious amount of delicious, fresh, naturally grown food. And everybody’s in it together, which makes for a stronger sense of community – something that folks, in this global Internet-based economy, seem increasingly willing to go out of their way for.
Good for the farmers:
- Marketing happens during the off season.
- The money comes in by the start of the growing season, allowing for better planning.
- Get to know the people for whom you are growing food.
- Use less energy delivering and shipping food.
Good for the consumer:
- All food is fresh from the farm, with the heightened flavors and vitamin content intact.
- Learn about new vegetables and foods and how to cook them.
- Get to know the farmer who grows your food (great learning experience for kids, too!)
- Drastically lower your carbon footprint by buying local produce.
A Radical Concept From The Sixties
The first CSA’s emerged in Europe in the 1960’s, out of a concern for food safety and a reaction against the suburban-izing of what had once been primarily agricultural land. Often adherents to Rudolf Steiner‘s philosophy of biodynamic farming, in which the farm is treated as a unified organism with the animals, plants and soil all nourishing each other with little, if any, outside inputs, these organic farms focused on producing high quality food for their local communities.
The concept of the CSA jumped across the Atlantic to the United States in the mid-eighties, with the founding of the Temple-Wilton Community Farm in Wilton, New Hampshire. Still operating today, this truly cooperative entity has inspired thousands of farms in North America to follow suit, all of which offer some form of fresh local produce, often in copious quantities, in exchange for a shared financial risk.
So with all of these pros clearly outweighing the cons, what’s stopping you from signing up? Well, there are a few things to consider and questions to ask when thinking about joining one of these groups. LocalHarvest.org advises:
Deciding whether or not CSA is for you requires a healthy dose of self knowledge. Some of us confuse how we are with how we would like to be. Not that there’s no room for movement, but if you truly do not like vegetables, signing up to receive five to 20 pounds of them a week is probably not going to go well.
With that in mind, here’s a list of questions you should ask yourself, and your potential farmer, before you sign on the dotted line.
Things to think about:
- How much food can I expect in a weekly share?
- Can I handle that much produce?
- Can I change the frequency of delivery to twice or once a month?
- What is included? Is it only veggies? Or does a share include fruit, eggs, meat or other farm produced products?
- What are the CSA regulations regarding missed pick ups, late payments, etc.
- Do I want my produce delivered, or would I rather pick it up?
- Does everything come from a single farm, or is there more than one place involved?
- How long has the farmer been farming? Running a CSA?
- Can I talk to past members?
Need help finding the right CSA? Check out our five favorite CSA’s and how to find yours closer to home.
Top photo courtesy of Golden Earthworm Organic Farm, a CSA on Eastern Long Island serving both their local area and as far west as Queens. Check out their website soon - as of this writing there are only a few slots left for the 2011 season!