Connecting with local farmers will allow us to develop a more prosperous and open local food system. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the resources available to facilitate these direct links between customers and farmers. However, with community-supported agriculture (CSA), localities around the country are building supportive relationships that benefit the consumers who buy food and the farmers who produce it.
CSAs Are Relationships Between Growers and Consumers
CSA programs look different from one farm to another, but they all follow the same basic principles.
- Consumers buy CSA shares at the start of the growing season (e.g., April or May).
- Before the start of the season, farmers employ up-front payments to cover the cost of seeds, equipment, and other inputs.
- Starting in June or July, farmers regularly distribute items such as meat, fruit, and vegetables to consumers.
They Are Similar to “Subscription Box” Services, But Local
A CSA share or “membership” is a service that varies from farm to farm in terms of quantity and product mix. Essentially, it is a subscription for regular pick-up or delivery of farm-fresh food.
Farmers have been working to make CSAs flexible in response to changing consumer demands in recent years. For example, farms may provide shares in a range of sizes, enable people to customize the contents of their shares, offer flexible pick-up or delivery times, or collaborate with other regional producers to provide high-quality add-ons.
Customers Get Healthy, Ethically Sourced Food in a Vibrant Community
CSAs allow people to eat seasonally, bridging the gap between farm and table, but they also have several other advantages for both farmers and consumers. For instance, consumers often receive their deliveries within a few days (sometimes even hours!) of harvesting. This timeliness ensures that the produce keeps greater nutritional value and stays fresher longer, resulting in high-quality, fresh, nutritious food.
CSAs also provide what is abundant and in season, offering consumers a terrific chance to try new crops that they would not otherwise have encountered. In addition, a direct line of communication with producers allows customers to inquire about the farming methods each farmer uses. The close connection between producer and consumer enables people to make sure they incentivize producers who share their values.
Finally, joining a CSA puts people in touch with like-minded customers. It enables them to participate in a more regionalized food system, allowing members of a farm's "community" to learn about and participate in the food system. For example, some CSAs provide opportunities for customers to pay in part by volunteering time and labor on the farm itself.
Small Farmers Get the Up-Front Funding They Need
In a conventional CSA arrangement, the up-front payment enables farmers to finance seeds, equipment, and other growing-related expenses without taking out expensive loans. Since CSAs allow farmers to have a consistent source of income and a committed market for their goods, they support small farmers' ability to continue operating. Furthermore, the high cash-flow model allows many farmers to set up flexible payment plans for their CSA customers – an arrangement that benefits everyone.
CSAs Build a Resilient Localized Food System
Anything that connects farmers to families can help reduce food waste and promote healthier living and economic growth in local communities. CSAs make these types of connections but also leverage the long-term commitment of residents to support the small farmers who practice eco-friendly agriculture early in the year when it's needed most. Everyone benefits, which makes CSAs one of the best ways for consumers to connect with their local farms.
- Do Some Research – Before joining a CSA, visit your local farmers' market. Not every small farmer will necessarily mirror your values, so talk to them first! Not only will you learn about their agricultural practices, but you can also find out what each grower will offer to their CSA customers.
- Consider Add-ons – Some farms offer great add-ons like bread, cheese, meat, eggs, and dairy by partnering with other local businesses. In addition, many sustainable farmers sell incidental crops such as mushrooms, berries, and other edibles from sources bordering their fields as part of their CSA shares.
- Work and Learn – CSAs can be a great learning opportunity. Some accept volunteer work as a form of payment, and they will give produce to people who help them harvest, clean, and pack food for just a few hours per week!