CSA stands for community supported agriculture. Community supported agriculture programs originated as a way to help small farmers by spreading the risks associated with farming throughout a community. Wet weather, dry weather, pests, and diseases all contribute to the outcome of a growing season. In 2009, a late blight outbreak destroyed the organic tomato and potato crops from Maine to Maryland to Ohio, but 2010 was an amazing year for most New England farmers. Each year farmers face a huge risk because so many elements of success or failure are outside an individual's control. Many small farmers have turned to various community supported agriculture models to try to keep their farms in business.
CSA farms have become more common over the last 20 years. Originally, most CSA farms were vegetable farms and they operated on a similar model. Customers joined the farm in the early spring, buying a literal "share" of the farm's produce. A farmer determined the amount of food they expected to grow and calculated the number of families they thought that would feed. The number of families they could feed equaled the number of shares they sold. Everything the farm grew that year was divided up equally among the shareholders.
With a traditional CSA model, if the farm has a good year, all the members share in the bounty. If the farm has a bad year, the loss is shared - everyone gets less produce. The risks of farming (and farming has a lot of risks) are spread throughout a community and no longer rest solely on the shoulders of the farmer. A bad season won't drive a farm out of business. In addition, this kind of CSA model enables farmers to know exactly what their income will be for the year, giving them greater stability. Farmers also have money available at the beginning of the growing season to pay for expenses like seeds, supplies, and labor.
Most CSA farms give their members prepacked boxes of produce each week. Shareholders have an assigned day to pick up their boxes and everyone's boxes are the same. A box might contain a head of lettuce, a bunch of beets, ½ a pound of new potatoes, a pound of zucchini, a bunch of radishes, and some scallions. Or later in the season it might contain a mix of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, summer squash, onions, garlic, and potatoes. If the tomatoes die, no one gets tomatoes. If the season is too hot to grow lettuce, no one gets lettuce. If there is an excess of zucchini, boxes might be packed with pounds and pounds of it.
However, over the years, CSA models have diversified. Some CSAs offer flexible pick up days, some offer delivery. Some offer a choice of vegetables, larger or smaller share sizes, year round shares, winter shares, early spring shares, and/or fruit shares. Some CSAs are collectives made up of many farms. Some buy in produce (like oranges and tomatoes in winter) from farms in distant parts of the country. Some CSAs grow their food in California and fly the boxes into Alaska. Some CSAs are organic and some use conventional growing practices. Some CSAs are tiny with fewer than 10 members and some have thousands and thousands of members. There are meat CSAs, dairy CSAs, and grain CSAs. There are also community supported fisheries, community supported bakeries, and community supported restaurants.
We do something a little different too. We offer a Farmers' Market CSA Share - our own twist on CSA. With a "farm" like ours (many garden sites) a traditional CSA model with 200 matching boxes of produce is a logistical challenge. If we could grow 200 identical heads of lettuce a week, we'd be delighted, but in reality each garden is a little bit different and so we get a range of vegetables that seldom match. Instead we offer a free choice CSA program based at our farmers' markets. Our members sign up for a share with a specific value. Members come to any market they choose, as frequently or infrequently as they like. They select the produce they want, we tally up the value and deduct it from the credit in their account. They only choose food they want and they only take it when they want it. This flexibility seems to suit both us and our members. (If you would like more information, visit our main CSA page.)
There are commonalities between all these models of CSA though. Like farmers' market customers, CSA members are exposed to the farming community in a more direct way than the grocery store allows. CSA members usually get updates from their farmer, learning about how the growing season is progressing and the transitions throughout the season. CSA membership is a terrific way to get fresh produce, be exposed to new vegetables and new ways of cooking, to develop a relationship with the farmer growing your food, and to develop relationships with fellow food loving members. If the farm does well, members reap the benefits. If the farm is hurting, members share the burden. CSA programs offer both farmers and eaters shared risk, shared benefits, and a chance to be part of a larger food community. Being a member of a CSA means "we are in this together".