The History of Community Supported Agriculture
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are a fun and reliable way to get fresh, farm-grown products on a weekly basis. CSA programs have early roots in the “clientele membership clubs” pioneered in the South by Black horticulturist, author and Tuskegee University professor Booker T. Whatley in the 1960s and 70s, and in European cooperative farm economics, explored by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s and capitalized upon by farmers in post-WWII Germany and Switzerland. The farm-to-consumer model was popularized in the U.S. in the 1980s by the Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire, which drew on the philosophy behind the European cooperative farm movement to create their own CSA programs focused on producing local goods for local markets. In the years since, CSAs have grown in popularity across the country and are now widely available through many farms.
How They Work
One of the foundational principles for the current CSA model in the U.S. is the idea that consumers pay up front for a season’s worth of sustainable, locally-grown produce, thus providing financial support for farms to operate and taking on some of the financial risk involved in the growing season. In return, CSA customers, called “members,” receive a weekly “share” or box of the farmer’s products. Unlike simply stopping in at your local farmer’s market, with a CSA share you don’t get to pick exactly what you receive each week; what you get is a selection of whatever has been harvested that week at the farm. The model provides insurance for the farm in case of inclement weather, pest issues, or other problems that farms may cope with throughout the growing season. Farmers get a decent price for their products, and consumers often pay less than market rate for the products they receive in their share. Ultimately, the direct-to-consumer model provides farmers with a reliable market for their crops and upfront payment to fund their growing season, while consumers have a chance to receive a weekly share of farm-fresh products at a great price. Additionally, CSAs offer a cooperative model for growing and distributing food, allowing farmers to develop relationships with their customers and customers to know exactly who and where their food is coming from.
What’s In a Share?
Shares can vary greatly from one farm to another and depending what’s in season. Farms generally pack a variety of the products that are ready for harvesting each week, so members get an array of fresh, seasonal goods to enjoy. Some CSA programs offer shares that include products from a few local farms or provide the option to add more specialty items, such as meat or mushrooms from a local producer who focuses on those products. Joining a CSA is a great way to try new foods and branch out from your usual grocery store staples. Below are a few samples of what a few weekly shares from local CSA programs might look like in the spring/summer.
From Free Bird Farms: Broccoli, red leaf lettuce, Easter egg radish, bunched spring onions, garlic scapes, flat-leaf parsley, baby bok choy.
From Hearty Roots Farm: Arugula, baby lettuce mix, beets, cauliflower, japanese turnips, kale, radishes
From Hellgate CSA: Parsley, fennel, radicchio, green leaf lettuce, snap peas, summer squash, Swiss chard.
CSA programs generally run either from January-to-January or from June-to-November, although exact dates vary by farm. While the programs may not begin weekly shares until June, registration for many CSA programs begins in March or April, with some farms offering discounted prices for early sign-ups. Subscriptions generally close in May, although some may fill up earlier, so the coming spring months are the perfect time to begin your search for the right CSA fit for you. Some community supported agriculture programs require a volunteer shift to participate in the program. That could mean one or two shifts a season helping to distribute shares during pick-up times. Volunteering is a great way to get to know the farmers and other CSA members, but if volunteering doesn’t fit your schedule there are many CSAs that don’t require a work commitment to join.
CSA pricing varies farm, length of season, and size of share. Many CSAs offer flexible payment options such as payment plans or sliding scale payments, and many accept SNAP benefits. Some farms/programs offer weekly Full Share options along with Every Other Week (EOW) options, and pick-ups are offered at a variety of locations, including farmers’ markets, community gardens, urban farms, or local community organizations such as churches or schools.
These days the types of CSAs offered are numerous. Most farms offer traditional fruit and vegetable shares, while others offer shares of mushrooms, flowers, bread, eggs, cheese, and other locally grown or produced goods.
CSAs During COVID-19
The pandemic caused disruptions across the food chain: distributors struggled to keep shelves stocked and farms that usually provided goods for the supermarkets, restaurants, and wholesale saw demand shrink due to lockdowns. However, demand for locally-grown goods has grown, as people are spending more time cooking and less time at the grocery store and restaurants. Amidst the pandemic, the community supported agriculture direct-to-consumer model has provided an avenue for connecting small farms who have lost out on typical revenue markets with local communities looking for ways to shop and eat locally. As a result, many farmers have seen their number of CSA subscriptions grow over the last year. It may seem like the rush to join a CSA will be a short-lived fad, but many farms are seeing high retention rates a year into the pandemic as returning customers sign up for the 2021 season and the number of new customers continues to grow. To meet these new demands, some farms are working together to consolidate their offerings and bring customers CSA shares with greater variety. These new developments in community supported agriculture programs are strengthening networks between local farms and providing possibilities for growing local food systems further.
Below are just some of the many CSAs and farms with local CSA pick-up locations in New York City. For a full list of CSAs with pick-up locations in the NYC Metropolitan Area check out Just Food’s Value Chain Map or browse LocalHarvests list of CSAs.