How to Choose a Farm Share
[This article was previously published in the spring issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]
by Linley Dixon, Ph.D, Farm and Food Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute
Congratulations, you’ve decided it’s time to join a CSA, arguably the best way to support local, diversified food production!
For the uninitiated, CSAs allow you to purchase a share in a local farm. In exchange for your investment, you receive a weekly portion of the farm’s harvest throughout a season, generally worth more than, or equal to, your payment.
Though the concept can be individually adapted to unique farms and communities, there are certain fundamental principles that every authentic CSA shares.
Subscribing to a CSA ensures that farmers, rather than companies that transport, process, and market food, receive the full value of the cost of the share. In return, customers become connected to the farm and the community.
Robyn Van En, who pioneered the CSA movement in North America in 1985, summed it up by illustrating, “food producers + food consumers + annual commitment to one another = CSA and untold possibilities.”
It is estimated that there are roughly 10,000 CSAs in the U.S., although the numbers aren’t tracked, so it is hard to be sure.
Assuming an average of 100 members at $600 per share, CSAs are estimated to divert roughly $600 million from big agriculture into community-based systems each year.
During most of the year, and in most parts of the country, organic produce is predominantly shipped in from California and Mexico.
“Joining a CSA might mean that your produce was picked 10 hours ago, instead of 10 days ago,” said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s codirector. “That makes a world of difference in terms of flavor and nutrition.”
As this direct-market, farm-to-consumer movement grows, industrial businesses are attempting to capitalize on the concept by offering their own grocery store subscriptions and delivery programs guised as CSAs.
It is more important than ever to do your homework before you subscribe to a CSA to ensure that you are actually supporting local farmers and your community.
Since not all CSAs are created equal, what follows are a few simple guidelines that can help inform your decision.
Authentic CSAs usually require an upfront payment from their members, which provides local farmers with capital early in the season, before they start selling the harvest. That capital is also insurance for the farmer in case of crop failures from weather or pests.
In most cases, CSA money is not refunded when there are crop failures. This allows the local farm to endure the hardship and come back to farm the next season. CSA members are true partners, sharing the risk and the bounty.
However, despite common reasons for crop failures, such as pest outbreaks, soil deficiencies, or destructive weather events, CSA farms are usually so diverse that farmers are almost always able to periodically deliver quick-to-harvest crops like greens and root vegetables.
The best CSAs allow for direct contact with the farmers. Regular communication should exist between members and the farmer as well as opportunities to visit the farm. This open channel for communication is crucial for both parties.
First, it allows farmers to share their production practices with members. Is the farm organically certified? If not, what are their practices? On a personal level, the farmer can explain to members the basis for which crops are grown.
Second, members can provide feedback to the farmer to help improve the CSA. Whether it be crop choices, pricing, or pickup, the farmer should always be trying to improve members’ experiences.
CSAs can come in many shapes and sizes and, while there can be benefits to different models, the farm’s proximity to your local community should factor heavily into your decision.
First and foremost, you will be supporting your local economy, while also keeping transportation costs and environmental impacts down. While meal services and local food aggregators often advertise family farms, those farms can be spread out across the country.
Some “CSA” aggregators will even supplement your share with store-bought foods! Transparency is the hallmark of a good CSA; there should be no question as to where your food is being produced.
WHO’S BEHIND YOUR CSA
Most CSAs are owned and operated by a farmer directly. In these cases CSA payments go straight to the farmer.
Some CSAs are run through a cooperative, where multiple farms provide diverse food—including meat, eggs, or cut flowers—in your weekly box.
Subscribing to this type of cooperative CSA can be a good way to support many local farmers in your area. However, there are some important questions to consider in order to ensure you are maximizing your support of local food production.
Is the cooperative farmer-owned and completely local? Are the farmers receiving fair prices for their products? What percentage of the CSA budget goes toward management and distribution, and what percentage goes to the farmers?
One disadvantage of cooperative marketing is that farmers are likely not compensated for crop failures. Non-refundable CSA purchases have traditionally been an important component of the success of local agriculture, because adequate forms of crop insurance don’t exist for small, diversified organic farms.
Conversely, in some cases, cooperative CSAs provide market opportunities for isolated farms that have trouble getting CSA members and distributing their products.
Cooperative CSAs also allow local farms to work together for production planning, so that they are less likely to directly compete with one another in the marketplace.
When a CSA is backed by a company, non-profit, or corporation, there is potential for unfair competition with authentic family farmers who must make a living from the farm.
As local food gains in popularity, there are more unique situations where farms are financially backed by a project or business.
While most of these entities have good intentions, it is important to consider who benefits from your subscription and the effect that these subsidized farms have on the prices that local farmers can get for similar offerings.
Fundamental for everyone involved is a strong desire to see the farm survive and thrive. Members find meaning in the knowledge that they are vital to the farm’s survival, while farmers feel supported by their community.
When the pressures of corporate America on our food system seem too overwhelming to overcome, joining a CSA is arguably the best way to come together and collectively make a difference.