Farmers using the community supported agriculture (CSA) model can expect both rewards and challenges in this intense, diversified, community-oriented approach. A solid understanding of CSA and effective management will help CSA farmers overcome challenges in production, labor, and conserving and securing land.
John Hendrickson and Marcy Ostrom, researchers for the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS), surveyed, interviewed, and observed several CSA farmers and farm members to document their experiences. They found that as farmers gained experience they devised unique solutions to their most pressing problems.
The basic CSA principle of selling shares to members for a portion of farm produce can be applied to any type of farm. The model originated with small to medium, highly diversified organic vegetable farms. These farms commonly grow over 40 different types of crops, including vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. The data indicate that farms providing a full-time income grow high-quality produce for at least 80 to 100 shares.
CSA farms in the study used ecologically based production practices: crop rotations, compost applications, and cover cropping, and avoided synthetic pesticides. Hendrickson says, “The diversity of crops on CSA farms, if rotated effectively, helps prevent soil-borne diseases and foil insect pests.”
The diversity of crops over a season stretching from late May to October demands detailed planning. Farmers rely on extensive experience and record keeping to decide how much and when to plant for a given number of people. They set a goal of providing eight to ten items in their deliveries each week.
CSA farmers need to determine how much and what to include in a share. Surveys indicate that members do not appreciate being overwhelmed by produce, but most members want to have a sense that they are receiving a fair amount of food for the price of their membership, averaging over $400. Frequent and direct communication between farmers and members helps establish the amounts and types of food to include in a share.
Farmers use records of the quantity of each crop planted, produced, and distributed to plan share amounts. They also use end-of-the-year surveys to gauge members’ needs. Share amounts are typically what a household of two adults and two children eat in a week, but farms offer other options.
According to CSA farmers, it is important to deliver a bountiful supply of high quality food to establish a sense of trust and confidence with members. Most growers plant extra crops to allow for poor weather or pest problems. If harvests are large, the excess can be offered to members as optional extras or sold at a farmers market. Detailed record keeping over several years helps avoid dramatically over- or under-planting.
Customer preferences can pose management challenges. In farm surveys, CSA members show a preference for potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and lettuce. Unfortunately, some of these crops can be more difficult and expensive to grow for small, organic farms, and many have short seasons. Hendrickson explains, “Sweet corn can be particularly troublesome within an organic system because of numerous pests. Meeting member demand for potatoes often requires specialized harvesting machinery. Berries and sugar snap peas require large amounts of labor to harvest.”
Some crops that thrive in Wisconsin, like beets, rutabaga, and kale, can be less popular. CSA farmers actively educate their members about how to prepare and enjoy more unusual vegetables. The Madison Area CSA Coalition, a network of CSA farmers in the Madison area, wrote a cookbook that includes recipes for such vegetables.
Most CSA farms in this study started small (five to 15 members) so that the farmer could gradually learn the intricacies of a highly complex production system. Established growers stress the importance of devoting time and resources early on to establishing a reliable irrigation system, erecting a greenhouse, and finding adequate labor.
Unlike farms which focus on one or two cash crops with relatively straightforward production schedules, CSA farms are almost continually planting and harvesting crops throughout the growing season. And as with any fresh vegetable or fruit operation, harvesting and post-harvest handling on a CSA farm represents a large proportion of total farm labor. On two of the CSA farms studied, these functions represented approximately one-third of the total farm labor. Weekly harvest and delivery days are hectic. Having 15 or more crops to harvest, wash, cool, divide into equal shares, and pack into bags or boxes requires many hands and solid management skills.
Volunteers often provide labor on the farm. All of the farms in this study either require or actively solicit volunteer help on harvest and delivery days. In some cases, farms offer reduced membership fees to members who agree to work on the farm for a designated amount of time or to organize distribution sites. Other farms require members to help on harvest days.
CSA farmers need to make sure their volunteers are well-trained. The research team heard a story about members armed with hoes who inadvertently removed a planted crop, believing it to be a weed. However, there were far more examples of members providing much-needed help.
Many farms hire workers. The farms in the study relied on one farmer or seasonal worker for every 20 to 40 shares. Farms with 100 or more shares had crews of three or more workers or interns. Some larger farms using paid labor also ask members to help with deliveries.
Finding, training, and managing interns and apprentices requires its own set of skills and responsibilities. CSA interns and farmers stressed the importance of communication, especially at the beginning of a working relationship, to match the goals and needs of each party. One farmer noted that when looking for an intern, he considers communication skills to be as important as, if not more important than, production skills.
Farm land challenges
Owing to the intensity of the production system and the relatively high value of the crops, a CSA farm can be established with less land than many other types of farms. In Wisconsin, CSA farms average five acres in vegetable production. The larger farms plant between ten and 15 acres. Among farms studied, up to 30 shares can be provided per acre. Actual acreage needed will depend on a variety of factors, including the production system used, such as intensive raised beds or modified bed systems; crop rotations; the mix of crops grown (some crops, like potatoes and corn, require larger growing areas); and the farm’s degree of mechanization. A larger land base on a CSA farm allows for more options for crop rotations, pasture, silviculture, and recreation.
Farmland is rapidly being developed for other uses and access to affordable land for new CSA farmers is limited. “CSA farming by its nature thrives on close proximity to urban centers,” says Ostrom, “but this land is sometimes two to four times as expensive as land further from the city.” Farmers further than 30 to 45 minutes from their member base report more difficulties in getting people to visit and volunteer on the farm.
One of the most innovative approaches to acquiring and conserving farmland in the face of strong development pressure is creating a land trust. A land trust holds land in common so that its value can be retained for the benefit of the community. In addition to helping negotiate the purchase of the land, the trust may attach a conservation easement to the land to protect it from development in perpetuity.
“The idea of removing land from the market and placing it under a common, democratically managed trust fits nicely with the larger ideals of CSA,” observes Ostrom. A land trust permits CSA members to assist in financing the land purchase and gain title to the land, thereby shouldering collective responsibility for the operational basis of the farm. The Wisconsin Farmland Conservancy has been instrumental in setting up this kind of arrangement and is available as a resource to farmers in Wisconsin who wish to explore this option.
While the farmers in this study all face challenges in crop production, labor availability, and finding land and land use, they have found solutions that work. The intense, diverse nature of CSA farming requires farmers to be flexible, responsive managers.
For general information on CSA farming, see CIAS Research Brief #21, “Community Supported Agriculture: Growing Food . . . and Community.” Research Brief #41 covers challenges facing CSA farmers in building a community of members and managing economics, marketing, and training.
|Typical weekly deliveries, Wisconsin CSA farms|
|strawberries, 2 pt.||scallions,
|tomatoes, 4||salad mix, 8 oz.|
|broccoli, 1 bunch||green beans,
|zucchini, 2||tomatoes, 8|
|chard, 1 bunch||basil, 1 bunch||wax beans, 1 lb.||cherry tomatoes,
|lettuce, 2 heads||summer squash, 3||onions, 6||zucchini, 2|
|peas, 1 lb.||carrots, 2 bunches||green peppers, 2||cucumbers, 2|
|cabbage, 1 head||sweet corn, 8||garlic, 2|
|beets, 1 bunch||cucumbers, 4||raspberries, 1 qt.|
|potatoes, 4 lbs.||lettuce, 2 heads|
Contact CIAS for more information about this research.
Published as Research Brief #40