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Community supported agriculture: growing food…and community (Research Brief #21)

Posted October 1996

Unlike conventional agriculture, in which farmers bear the risks of weather, pests, and the marketplace alone, in community supported agriculture the entire community shares both bounty and scarcity.

Community supported agriculture (CSA) is part of a growing social movement that encourages urban and rural citizens to share responsibility for the land where their food is grown as well as for how their food is produced. In simplest terms, CSA is a partnership between agricultural producers and consumers. Members or “shareholders” pay a fee at the beginning of the growing season to meet a farm’s operating expenses for the upcoming season. In return, members receive a portion of the farm’s produce each week throughout the growing season.

Such cooperation lets farmers and consumers share in the risks and benefits of farming. Unlike conventional agriculture, in which farmers bear the risks of weather, pests, and the marketplace alone, in community supported agriculture, the entire farm community shares both bounty and scarcity. This cooperation can provide farmers with a more equitable return for their labor and investment while relieving some of the burdens and uncertainties of conventional marketing.

Community supported agriculture also encourages ecologically sound farming practices such as organic or biodynamic growing methods. This type of farming also minimizes food waste by producing just the amount of food members need, with minimal unused surplus.

But CSA is perhaps best known for how it fosters connections between urban dwellers and the land and encourages cooperation among rural and urban communities. Members can visit their CSA farms and help plan and harvest crops. Many farms host field days, produce newsletters, and hold workshops that educate members about sustainable farming and healthy food choices.

These activities, in addition to festivals and potlucks, bring people together socially throughout the season. At the same time, consumers gain a new voice in how their food is grown, processed, and distributed and where their food dollars are going.

How CSA works

Early in the year, members of CSA farms pay a fee to cover anticipated costs of the upcoming season, including labor, seeds, and supplies. Membership fees vary but typically run between $300 and $500 per year for a household. In return, members receive a weekly portion of the farm’s harvest throughout the growing season. The harvested food is divided into shares and distributed to members through centrally located drop-off sites (often a member’s front porch) or picked up at the farm. Members and farmers often work together to harvest crops and distribute food.

Typically family-operated, CSA farms range from 3 to 300 acres and provide food for 10 to more than 200 households. CSA farms are highly diversified, usually growing more than 40 different vegetables, herbs, and fruits. Some farms also supply meat, eggs, honey, and other products. In Wisconsin, CSA farms provide food for up to eight months of the year by making successive plantings and using greenhouses and root cellars to extend the seasons.

CSA projects rely to varying degrees on member volunteers to work on the farm and help with various tasks. Many CSA farms could not survive without a “core group” of committed volunteers who help manage distribution sites, plan the harvest, and recruit new members. By assuming these responsibilities, core groups enable farmers to focus on producing food and caring for the land.

Community supported agriculture has diverse goals and forms. Some projects have incorporated innovative land use to help solve social problems in urban areas. In Santa Cruz, California, a 2.5-acre lot was turned into a CSA project that offers homeless people an opportunity to work and to serve the community. On the east coast, the Food Farm Bank in Amherst, Massachusetts, provides fresh vegetables for local food pantries in addition to providing CSA shares to those who can afford to be members.

CIAS research on CSA farms

Since 1990, the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has done research on the organizational structure of CSA farms and their impact on local communities. The research aims to identify components of successful CSA projects and to help educate people about the benefits and potential challenges of community supported agriculture.

The research, in conjunction with the Philadelphia Community Farm in Osceola, Wisconsin, is supported by a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant from USDA.

The study looks at CSA farms in the Madison and Twin Cities areas, including farms from the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC), a group of 16 community supported farms, and the Minnesota-Western Wisconsin Community Supported Farm Association, a group of 12 farms serving the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Researchers are examining the business dynamics of CSA farms and the characteristics of members and farmers. Much of the research design and objectives comes from input from CSA farmers and organizers.

Project objectives include:

  • gaining an understanding of the organization of CSA farms, their members and farmers,
  • developing strategies for strengthening members’ involvement in CSA farms,
  • documenting the economic impact of CSA farms on local and nearby communities,
  • identifying potential challenges facing CSA farms, and
    developing educational materials for farmers and the public about community supported agriculture.

Forthcoming research briefs will focus on challenges facing CSA and discuss how CSA farms are building social support for sustainable farming. A related brief will document the results of a price comparison study that includes the cost of fresh produce from CSA farms.

Facts about community supported agriculture

Community supported agriculture began in the early 1960s in Germany, Switzerland, and Japan as a response to concerns about food safety and the urbanization of agricultural land. Groups of consumers and farmers in Europe formed cooperative partnerships to fund farming and pay the full costs of ecologically sound, socially equitable agriculture. Other facts about community supported agriculture:

  • In 1965, mothers in Japan concerned about the rise of imported food and the loss of arable land started the first CSA projects, called teikei in Japanese.
  • Japan has more than 600 producer-consumer groups that supply food to more than 11 million people.
  • The largest cooperative network in Japan is called the Seikatsu Club. Local chapters of this club can involve thousands of people and support up to 15 farms. While distinct from CSA or teikei, Seikatsu members speak of “seeing the farmer’s face on their vegetables.”
  • Community supported agriculture began in the United States on two east coast farms in 1986. Since that time, community supported farms have been organized throughout North America, mainly in the Northeast, the Pacific coast, the Upper Midwest, and Canada.
  • North America now has an estimated 1,000 community supported farms.
    In Wisconsin, the first CSA projects began near Milwaukee and the Twin Cities in 1988.
  • In 1996, more than 65 Wisconsin community supported farms are expected to grow food for an estimated 3,000 households.
  • Many CSA farms have formed associations or networks to exchange information and ideas, educate consumers, and support new or struggling farms.

For more information about CIAS work on community supported agriculture, contact:
1450 Linden Drive
Madison, WI 53706

Published as Research Brief #21
October, 1996