In 1985, Robyn Van En pioneered a new concept in North American farming at her Indian Line Farm in South Egremont, Mass. By selling shares of the projected harvest from her apple orchard to local customers, she ensured a stable income for the farm. In exchange, the farm's “shareholders” received a regular supply of fresh produce, and a sense that they were helping a local grower and voting with their dollars for ecologically sound agriculture.
Modeled after similar programs in Europe and Japan, Van En called the business model Community Supported Agriculture. And before her untimely death in 1997, she had become the leader of a budding movement, authoring books on CSA programs, and helping to found over 200 similar initiatives around the country.
CSAs have since continued to grow in tandem with the broader local food movement, with different programs offering shareholders weekly deliveries of assorted produce, dairy items, eggs, cheese, meat, poultry — whatever is fresh, local and in season. And, where farmers' markets allow customers to meet and talk with local growers, many CSAs offer members a chance to visit the farms themselves, or even work there for a set time each month helping to plant, harvest or package product.
“Right now we have 1,700 farms listed on our national CSA database, and we're constantly being contacted by new farms,” said Nichole Nazelrod, program coordinator for the Robyn Van En Center at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa. This includes farms in all 50 states, although the programs are most concentrated in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and West Coast regions.
“I think it has a lot to do with interest in stimulating local economies and keeping the dollars local. And with gas prices so high, people are really starting to think, how much are they paying for winter tomatoes with no flavor?” she added. “I think it brings an awareness about where these products are coming from, what it takes to get them to a supermarket. It also brings the seasons back to their life. It's actually kind of an old-fashioned idea — it's going back to a simpler, more local food system.”
Some of these programs require shareholders to make rather large payments up front. Nazelrod said the cost of shares can range anywhere from $300 to $700 per season, depending on the quantity of food offered, as well as what types of items are sold. Although it would seem that these costs could present a barrier to mainstream popularity, many farms are now accepting payment plans as well.
For example, according to their listing on localharvest.org, Houston, Ark.-based Cherokee Farms supplies its 25 shareholders with “a minimum of 15 pounds of fresh vegetables in season, a fresh flower arrangement, a fresh selection of herbs, a jar of canned or preserved food item, fresh home baked cinnamon rolls, cookies or muffins, [and] a bar of our featured goat milk soap” for $35 per week with a 10-week minimum commitment.
Similarly, for $99 to $165 per month, the 800 shareholders at 8 O'clock Ranch in De Kalb Junction, N.Y., receive 20 pounds per month of “100% grass fed, organically raised Heritage breed lamb & beef and pastured Yorkshire pork.”
This and other programs offer half-shares, making smaller deliveries or deliveries every other week; many CSAs offer discounted shares to customers who come and work on the farm a few times per month as part of their subscription.
“It makes it easier for people to afford the shares, and it really brings people together,” Nazelrod said.
And, new business models are being developed all the time. Recently, Uprising Organics Farm in Bellingham, Wash., worked through a complex set of U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations to develop a CSA aimed at customers on fixed incomes, which accepts Food Stamps and EBT payments for its weekly deliveries. In the meantime, organizations and nonprofits like the Robyn Van En Center and localharvest.org have acted as information clearinghouses for the movement — if a new CSA is having trouble attracting members or figuring out how to get their business off the ground, or how to start a targeted program like the one at Uprising Organics, they've got other farmers and experts to turn to for advice.
Many of these programs have been a boon to residents of rural communities, and there are a growing number of signs indicating that the movement could be popular in larger towns and cities as well, provided that they are accessible. Since most CSAs do not have the resources to support far-flung residence-to-residence delivery services, many simply offer a window of time, one or two days each week, when shareholders can come to the farm to pick up their weekly selection.
Others work with local churches and charity organizations, Nazelrod noted, which offer a more central, convenient drop-off point in many towns. And, she added, many independent natural food stores and co-ops have begun cultivating relationships with CSAs. “Co-op employees have said [CSA deliveries] bring people into the store as well. You're including the business sector — farmers and businesses coming together. I think it's a great idea.”
Like supermarket owners who have found that hosting farmers' markets in their parking lots can be a profitable and mutually beneficial relationship for everyone involved, Robynn Shrader, chief executive officer of the Iowa City, Iowa-based National Cooperative Grocers Association, said that many co-ops agree that working with local CSAs can help build loyalty, memberships and store traffic.
“The whole idea is that [CSA subscribers] want to be as close to where their food is grown as possible, and they're also getting a fairly good value,” said Shrader. “When you contract with a farmer in a CSA, you're saying ‘I will take what you grow’ — that's security for the farmer, and great for members, because they're going to be getting fresh, in-season produce. It's not a charity arrangement at all. It's simply a more direct link from consumer to farm.”
The relationships between the co-ops and their local CSAs currently run the gamut, “from providing information in the store, such as where to sign up or where to find CSAs, to hosting fairs where they invite different farmers in to promote their CSAs,” she said. “We have co-ops that offer to be drop-off points for these CSAs, and even some that offer to accept credit cards on behalf of the farmers for CSA payments if the farm isn't set up to do that.”
Shrader added that her local co-op has its busiest day each week when the local farmers' market is a block away, and similarly, many of NCGA's member co-ops report that acting as a drop-off point for CSAs also increases traffic and sales inside the store on delivery days.
Enthusiasm for these arrangements has been growing among both co-ops and farmers during the past couple of years, Shrader noted.
“The co-op is sort of a central community point that people are going to anyway. It maximizes the opportunity for the farmer to deal directly with the consumer and not to add cost. It's similar, but not as labor-intensive, as a farmers' market for the farmer. They don't have to give up a day on the farm to drive somewhere and display their goods and basically spend a day retailing. Instead, they've presold what they're growing, they know who it's going to and they know that they're going to get paid. Farmers' markets are a wonderful community activity, and they're going to continue growing, but I think CSAs offer another advantage to smaller farmers that don't have the personnel capacity to staff a farmers' market every week.”
Of course, not all co-ops work directly with CSAs, but those that don't aren't likely to view the programs as a competitive threat.
“We don't work directly with CSAs, because we're a retailer, but our view is that anything that's good for our farmers is good for us,” explained Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs for Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets. “Without the farmer being able to make an adequate income, we won't have their products available to sell. We need to keep them in business, and in order for them to have an income to live on, they need to have a combination of outlets that include retail as well as CSAs.”
Bialic noted that many of PCC's members also subscribe to CSAs.
“When you buy direct from a grower, a larger share of the food dollar goes into their pocket,” she noted. “A lot of our members understand that, and that's a big reason why they want to participate in CSAs or shop at farmers' markets. Being a retailer, there's a certain amount of staffing and overhead that we have to cover, [and if a farmer is] doing it themselves, they just recoup that portion of it. We're not competing with CSAs or their subscribers. We're all in this together, and if it's good for the customer and the farmer, and it builds a more secure food system in our area, that's good for all of us.”