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Farm networks work: a CSA success story (Research Brief #32)

Posted September 1998

What makes a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm successful? Good management and know-how and networking and outreach. Formal research and support for CSA have not been established, but networks of CSA farms can help fill these gaps by sharing their vision with the public and by providing information and support to existing farmers, help to aspiring farmers, and information to potential CSA farm members.

Community supported agriculture is an innovative production and marketing model in which farm members pay for a portion of a farm’s operating expenses and receive a portion of a the produce. (See CIAS Research Brief #21). Networks of CSA farms can have very different operational styles, yet provide farmers, activists, and consumers with a wealth of information and support. (See CIAS Research Brief #23 about farmer-to-farmer networks.) The stories of two CSA farm networks: how they formed, developed, and operate, help to illustrate the issues with which CSA networks grapple. While the two CSA networks in this study have some differences, what they have in common has served them well.

Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) staffer John Hendrickson worked with Marcy Ostrom, currently with the Program on Agricultural Technology Studies, to look at the “ongoing, interactive, process-oriented activities” that are a part of CSA networks, using a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant. Ostrom conducted a case study of two farm networks in the Minneapolis and Madison areas.

Birth of two networks

The Minnesota-Western Wisconsin Community Farm Association (MWCFA) formed in 1993 and now has 26 CSA member farms. MWCFA traces its roots to a 1991 radio broadcast in which a farmer described community supported agriculture. The strong response to the broadcast resulted in the formation of a coalition of interested farmers and organizations. Its purpose was to increase public awareness of CSA through informational workshops for prospective farmers and interested consumers. A diverse group formed a study circle and developed a “shared vision of community supported agriculture in the Upper Midwest, discussing how to put it into practice and recommending future guidelines,” Ostrom says.

After monthly meetings held from late 1992 to early 1993, the study circle concluded. Existing and aspiring CSA farmers then met and formed the emerging association’s leadership base.

The idea for the Madison Area CSA Coalition (MACSAC) began in 1992 with a small group of activists who sought to increase local knowledge and develop their own understanding of CSA. Their vision was that it should incorporate principles of sustainable agriculture in building a community, while farmers and consumers would share the risks and rewards of farming. The group surveyed friends and relatives to assess the market for CSA produce, and began gathering information about potential growers.

A producers’ meeting with an invited speaker (who was a Minneapolis area CSA farmer) sparked the formation of eight new CSA farms. A public open house at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison allowed consumers to meet farmers and learn about their farms. Attendance at the open house exceeded the organizers’ expectations, and it has become an annual event. The organization now consists of 16 farms and has increasingly relied on CSA farmers for leadership roles.

Ostrom found that while differences existed between the two networks, several similarities stood out. “The formation of strong linkages with other nonprofit sustainable agriculture groups that share a similar mission, such as the Land Stewardship Project, the Minnesota Food Association, and the Wisconsin Rural Development Center, has been extremely important to both networks,” she reports. These established organizations have paid office staff, and have been willing to serve as clearinghouses for CSA information.

The development of a shared CSA definition is common to both networks, providing a framework for growth. In each network, the individual CSA farms are responsible for their own start-ups, organizational development, and memberships, although both organizations provide support for these activities.

Network functions

Ostrom identified three primary functions of CSA networks, for farms and the movement as a whole:

  • mobilizing collective action by farmers and activists, and motivating the general public to become involved;
  • strengthening the knowledge base needed for managing successful CSA farms; and
  • creating supportive grower communities.

Ostrom says that, through networking, farmers “think more broadly about the goals of CSA and recognize a wider range of resources for achieving social change. In the Upper Midwest, the networks are the mechanism for developing and sharing new ideas.” In addition, the networks give farmers a feeling of solidarity, and make them feel a part of a distinct social movement.

Challenges facing CSA networks

Ostrom identifies the downside to having a strong network as follows: “farmers may rely too heavily on the network for support rather than building their own farm communities.” Member loyalty to a particular farm may be weaker where the network has played a strong role in helping to establish CSA farms and there are many farms to choose from.

The tensions between the needs of established and new CSA farmers is another challenge: established farmers with sufficient membership may not see a need for outreach programs designed to recruit new members. Established farmers may have less need for services offered by farm networks, although their increased knowledge and experience makes them extremely valuable. Whether to target network activities toward new or established farmers is another tension.

Some of the network member farms are certified organic, and others are organic, but not certified. While the networks have no desire to become certifying agencies, they want to ensure that high quality food is produced on member farms so consumers have positive experiences, yet networks have very little authority to enforce standards. The networks expect member farms to produce quality food, care for the environment, and educate their members.

With no paid staff, networks can find organizational logistics particularly challenging, like seeing that tasks are divided equally. Logistics are complicated by the extreme time pressure many farmers face during the growing season and the substantial distances between network farms.

CSA networks work

Ostrom maintains that networks “are among the key carriers and creators of the CSA movement ideals in the Upper Midwest.” The networks have developed organizational models, decision-making structures, and farmer communities. Ostrom says, “One of the most important functions of the networks is fostering a cooperative spirit and sense of community among growers, which allows for the open sharing of practical knowledge and emotional support.”

A comparison of Madison Area CSA Coalition (MACSAC) and the Minnesota-Western Wisconsin Community Farm Association (MWCFA)

Organizational features

  • MWCFA: bi-monthly farmer meetings during non-growing season; consensus decision making with no active officer positions; subgroups organized regionally
  • MACSAC: whole group meets twice a year; central coordinating committee meets more often for day to day decisions; subcommittees grouped by organizational function

Network membership

  • MWCFA: primarily farmers, also some sustainable ag organizations; nonfarmers are invited to the two full association meetings; no requirements for being listed in the farm directory; open membership
  • MACSAC: farmers, apprentices, and activists are members; farmers must meet requirements to be listed in the farm directory; open membership

Financial and volunteer resources

  • MWCFA: three nonprofit organizations provide support, help keep operating costs low; grants help defray expenses
  • MACSAC: provides compensation to members who fill more time-consuming roles and to supporting nonprofit organization; highest costs: producing and mailing farm directories and brochures, staging the annual open house; revenues: farmer dues, grants, and a cookbook


  • MWCFA: for consumers: CSA farm directory, media events, speakers, workshops, social events, cooking classes, outreach to low income populations through churches; for farmers: winter production meetings, conferences, field days, picnics; producer pool provides produce to grocery store; apprenticeship program; informal assistance to new or struggling farmers
  • MACSAC: for consumers: annual open house, farm directory, speakers, cookbook; for farmers: winter workshops, farm tours, and conferences; program to involve low-income families with CSA

Contact CIAS for more information about this research.

Published as Research Brief #32
September, 1998