What Is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)?

How Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Works

Basket of fresh produce


Community Shared Agriculture, or CSA, is a farming model built on fairness and transparency for both the farmer and the consumer. Traditionally, a consumer buys a share of a farm up-front, which provides financial security to the farmer for that season. In return, the consumer receives a regular box of fresh produce.

Unconventional as it may seem, participating in a CSA offers many benefits to both parties. What’s more, a CSA makes a positive impact on the environment, especially when compared to industrial farms. This article is a great resource for those looking for an alternative, potentially better, way to source their food.  

Supporting Farmers

The US is infamous for its industrialized farming system, which hatched in the 1950s. What was seen as a trend towards efficiency, safety, and prosperity has shown steep consequences, many of which fall squarely on the shoulders of farmers who own and operate small to medium-sized farms. Put simply, farmers can’t compete with the outsized productivity and low market prices industrialized farms offer, and as a result are driven out of business.

In many cases, farms in the US are family-owned so when they disappear, so does the generational knowledge and tradition. CSAs are one way to restore sovereignty to farmers, who can rest easy knowing costs—rain or shine—are covered. As a result, they’re often able to spend more funds improving the farm, whether that be investing in a drip irrigation system, hiring more trained help, or experimenting with new crops or techniques. Farmers also benefit from CSAs by marketing directly to their consumers, eliminating the need to pay a middleman or curtsy to prices set by corporations. And because their members pay before a season begins, farmers know exactly who they’re producing for and can adjust their efforts accordingly.

Consumer Benefits

Of course, the best solutions benefit both sides of the table and in the case of a CSA, the consumer is far from short-changed. First and foremost, CSA members receive high-quality food, whether that be a box of produce or one with specialty items like cheese and meat. Fruits and vegetables are local and typically organic, which means they are fresher and grown with minimal-to-no undesirable pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. Also if animal products and specialty foods are part of the deal, they will be of higher quality as well.

Many CSA farmers build collaborative relationships, meaning that a local pig farmer or dairy rancher can join in and offer their products to consumers, who are often more than happy to sample all of the heritage pork or fresh yogurts available. Serendipitously, all this good eating normally costs less than the equivalent haul from a grocery store, which is largely made possible by the direct relationship between the farmer and consumer. So, it's a win-win: the farmer can make a livable wage and the consumer doesn’t have to absorb costs tagged-on by middlemen.

Finally, there’s a lot of perks that lie outside of simply enjoying good food at a fair price. For example, consumers often know precisely how their food is produced and are updated on relevant events at their farm, as it’s not uncommon for farmers to include reports in each box they send out.

Environmental Benefits

From animal waste polluting groundwater, damage caused by a plethora of antibiotics, pesticides, and herbicides used, to the monocropping practices that sap soil quality, industrial farms impose major damage on the environment. Despite the outsized control these operations have on our food system, alternatives like CSA offer a better future.

The CSA movement in the US was born from farmers practicing biodynamic and organic farming techniques, so it’s largely standard that those who participate in one today care deeply about the land and its proper stewardship. As a result, an ecological balance is kept and many of the negative impacts of farming are sidestepped. Off the farm, issues like greenhouse gas emissions and waste are greatly reduced as excess refrigeration, transport, and packaging are rarely necessary. CSA subscriptions are one example of how a complicated problem, like climate change, can involve simple solutions.

How to Participate

No matter if you live in the city or countryside, it’s possible to join a CSA. What’s more, many offer a diverse range of pricing options, like buying a half-share or paying what you can based on income. Often consumers will need to pay for the entire CSA season upfront, which admittedly can feel daunting. If a CSA feels out of your price range or it's simply too much food for you, then try going in on the season with friends, neighbors, or family. Additionally, sites like Local Harvest act as a comprehensive directory so you can find a CSA or farmers' market near you, and even grocery delivery services like Fresh Direct offer consumers a chance to buy one-off shares of a CSA.

Although the basic structure has remained the same, many CSAs have developed their own unique approaches to matters like community and consumer engagement, farming practices, and pricing. This means that now more than ever, the odds of finding a CSA that fits your needs are in your favor.