The CSA Model

What is a CSA?

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  It’s a community program where members buy shares of a farm’s harvest up front in the winter or early spring.Your shares then entitle you to farm-fresh, seasonal vegetables throughout the growing season. During the CSA season, you pick your share of the farm’s fresh produce weekly or biweekly, depending on your membership, from a predetermined distribution site in or near your own neighborhood.

How Does it Work?

At the beginning of a growing season, community members come together to pre-pay for shares in a farm’s harvest.  The farmer then takes this capital and focuses on growing the best possible assortment and volume of produce for an entire season.  Each week, the farmer brings an assortment of the best and freshest produce to the shareholders.  Each shareholder receives the same vegetables in the same quantity as all other shareholders.

What are the Benefits & Risks?

CSAs offer a host of benefits to both farmers and shareholders.  For farmers, it provides capital early in the season and a guaranteed market for their produce come harvest time. It allows farmers to focus on growing the best possible produce at the best possible time, versus sacrificing quality or growing cycles to compete at farmers markets. For share holders, it provides a direct link to produce at a substantial cost savings to farmers markets.  For around $26 a week, shareholders receive a full week’s worth of field-fresh produce.

This is done through the redistribution of risk.  Farmers who don’t participate in the CSA model grow produce on spec.  They grow and hope that they will be able to sell at the quantity and timeline that the growing season dictates.  This concentrates all of the risk on the farmer.  If there is not enough sun and the tomatoes he has invested in don’t grow, he has to assume the cost of the investment and lost revenue.  SImilarly, when taking produce to farmers markets, farmers have to estimate the volume they’ll sell and pick on spec.  If they set up shop on a rainy day or lose business to a neighbor, each piece of picked produce is lost revenue.

In a CSA, however, that risk is redistributed amongst the entirety of the body of shareholders.  As the farmer has the capital up front, he can focus solely on growing the best possible produce at the exact quantity he needs without concerns of competition.  Additionally, should there be an issue with a crop or harvest, the impact is also spread around.  For a farmer to lose all tomatoes for a season is disastrous, but for a family to not receive tomatoes in a share is a mild inconvenience.   In supporting a CSA model, shareholders absorb the bulk of risk that comes along with an industry dictated by weather conditions.

Is a CSA Right for Me?

CSAs are a great option for those who enjoy produce and cooking.  As produce cannot be preselected, members should enjoy a variety of common produce as well as some surprises.  As CSAs are community driven, they’re a great organization to meet neighbors and build a community.  They do, however, require you to be able to pick up your shares–either personally or through a proxy–at regular intervals. Members should also be prepared to buy in to the risk and reward model that CSAs provide.  You reap a huge benefit, but you do absorb a small fraction of the risk.