In 1990, my brother Dan started a small organic farm in Washington, Connecticut. The first two things he did were to buy a dog (a redbone coonhound named Otis) and start a CSA program. The plan was to engage with a group of friends and neighbors, get them to invest some startup money, grow their garden vegetables for them, and create an early revenue source for the farm in the spring, before a seed had ever been planted. He had 15 members that first season. Of course, he had never run a farm before, and the new members were a little wary of how it would all work out. What farming knowledge Dan had, he got from reading and working a season on a small organic farm in Cornwall a few summers earlier. He also began asking some other farmers in Litchfield County about ways to “make a go of it” at farming, and the concept of CSA farming kept coming up. From the earliest days of our farm, it was seen as the wave of the future for small-scale organic farming, and it was the beginning of a model that continues to this day, though the scale has changed a bit.
CSA Programs Explained
So what is a CSA program? It stands for “Community Supported Agriculture,” and the idea is that people invest in the farm, share the risks, and (hopefully) reap the rewards of their local farm’s production throughout a single season. While it is most commonly associated with vegetable producers, it is now actively part of the dairy, chicken, beef, pork, and seafood industries, as well. It has its origins (depending on who one asks) in either post-war (WWII) Japan – where a group of women created a subscription system with local farms who refrained from using synthetic inputs – or from Europe where followers of Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner’s writings were engaged in biodynamic farming and began to collectively support farms who shared similar methods. The latter appears to be more closely linked with the rise of CSA farms in the U.S. The concept of CSAs started to trickle into the American consciousness in the late 1970s, and two farms in the northeast, Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and Temple Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire, lay claim to being the first two in the nation. This was in 1986, and a movement was born.
At Waldingfield Farm, we like to explain to people interested in joining our CSA program that membership is a 52-week community investment for a 20- to 25-week return, and that we will faithfully adhere to our growing standards to ensure a harvest. Should nature intervene (such as in 2009, when tomato blight took all 30,000 of our tomato plants), then that burden is shared by farmers and CSA members alike. Programs vary in length but usually run between 16 to 25 weeks, depending on their season.
One of the core functions of the CSA program is that it provides the farm with the necessary capital to begin the season. Roughly 40% to 50% of the farm’s cost for the entire season occurs before June (including the purchase of seeds, seedlings, and the incredible amount of labor that spring brings), and for many farms, the potential bounty of their season is determined by these early weeks, well before the farm is in a position to sell anything to offset their early-season costs. Once farmers have the funds needed to successfully start their seasons, they can focus on growing instead of marketing, because their investors have backed them.
In addition to financial concerns, the development of a community is what drives many of us to run CSA programs. It is exciting to be a part of a group and to exchange weekly doses of farm knowledge. In return, farmers get to hear of delicious dishes prepared with food grown for the program and occasionally find out that someone has never cooked with bok choy or other exotic vegetables before joining our CSA; part of the CSA experience is discovering local vegetables that you may not be familiar with in your weekly share. Some members return year after year with no input other then a pre-season payment and regular attendance at one of our pick up locations. Others become part of the fabric of our farm, involving themselves in our operation and becoming friends along the way. But each CSA member is a crucial part of our farm’s community, and in that sense, CSAs are really what we today call “crowd funding.”
Is a CSA Right For You?
So why do CSA farms matter, and are they worth the up-front investment from the consumer? After all, many of us are accustomed to paying for food on the spot at a supermarket or at a farmers market. We see it; we buy it. But is it worth it to pay well ahead of actually getting anything in return? We think so, but admittedly, not all farmers are always able to deliver on every aspect of their program, and not everyone is always satisfied with what the program provides. But to understand the complete picture, it may be helpful to look at the CSA model from both the farmer’s vantage point as well as from that of the investors.
In the beginning, farms like ours and others who were early pioneers of the CSA model were usually certified organic growers who had to seek out like-minded believers in chemical-free farming methods, and the CSA model provided fresher, higher quality produce then most “health” food stores. The type of organic produce we have today wasn’t really available at local supermarkets back in the late ’80s, and the boom in farmers’ markets was still a few years away. Today, CSA farms are seemingly everywhere, and that is good news for the consumer, who has an ever-growing list of farms to choose from.
For the farmer, there are many benefits to the CSA model (besides easing early season financial burdens), but it can also mean having to deal with an investor who may critique vegetable selections in their weekly basket or complain that they got no tomatoes in June (tomatoes generally arrive in mid- to late summer) or no strawberries in October (for Connecticut growers, strawberries are an early summer crop). It can be tough to have to justify a particular crop loss due to weather, insects, or disease when a CSA member had their heart set on seeing that crop in their basket. Having to explain risk and potential loss to CSA members is something many producers do not revel in doing, but it is an integral part of the CSA model.
These days, most people who join a CSA do so with the noblest of intentions. They want to support a local farm and allow their family to keep in touch with where their food comes from. Or, perhaps, their friends joined, raved about how incredible it was, and they decided they wanted to be a part of it, too. Others join, because they believe that supermarkets do not represent the needs of producers and the true costs of production, so they choose to invest in the farmer instead. Still others believe that, by joining a CSA, they are now part of a discounted food price club (they’re not).
CSA programs have never been intended as way for the buyer to save costs on produce. Rather, CSA programs exist to promote and extend a reciprocal relationship between buyer and farmer. People should join CSAs if they want to truly connect with their food source, understanding that part of this is a nutritiously satisfying risk-and-reward experience. They need to ensure that they have the time to make that trip to the farm stand or to a drop spot, and for many, that opportunity to interact with their local food grower is a highlight of their week.
CSA programs are, in many ways, reflective of the full, seasonal cycle of small-scale farming, inclusive of all its perils and provisions. But food is what sustains us. Grown properly, it enriches both our environment and our community. After 26 years of providing food and fellowship through our CSA program, we are convinced that there is no wiser investment. So check out that local farm down the road that you have been meaning to stop in and visit. Chances are they will have a CSA, and if not, maybe you will be their first member.
For more information on CSA programs in your area, visit Edible Nutmeg’s CSA listings for Connecticut.