What is a CSA indeed? The term CSA gets bandied about with increasing frequency and as the movement continues to grow, some people get left behind. That acronym, those three letters, are assumed to be self-evident it seems, but many people have questions.

As a case in point, I set up a quick and unscientific poll on my Facebook page last week and as many people responded with their love of their own CSAs as did with the question “what’s a CSA?”

According to the 1993 USDA publication Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): An Annotated Bibliography and Resource Guide, by Suzanne DeMuth, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Their description of the term goes a bit further though:

Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a new idea in farming, one that has been gaining momentum since its introduction to the United States from Europe in the mid-1980s. The CSA concept originated in the 1960s in Switzerland and Japan, where consumers interested in safe food and farmers seeking stable markets for their crops joined together in economic partnerships. Today, CSA farms in the U.S., known as CSAs, currently number more than 400. Most are located near urban centers in New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, and the Great Lakes region, with growing numbers in other areas, including the West Coast.

In basic terms, CSA consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. Typically, members or “share-holders” of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer’s salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm’s bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production. Members also share in the risks of farming, including poor harvests due to unfavorable weather or pests. By direct sales to community members, who have provided the farmer with working capital in advance, growers receive better prices for their crops, gain some financial security, and are relieved of much of the burden of marketing.

For most people, a CSA membership consists of an annual membership fee and then weekly or biweekly fresh vegetable deliveries (or pick-ups) for the duration of the growing season. Farmers in the arrangement benefit from some financial security as well as start-up capital to get their crops in the ground at the beginning of the season. Members benefit from the fresh, usually organic, vegetables as well as the knowledge that they are helping to support local, small farms.

My CSA, Goldfinch Farm, offers membership discounts in exchange for labor on the farm. I live in a pretty rural part of Pennsylvania, so getting to a farm to get my hands dirty isn’t very difficult. People in more urban areas may be less inclined to harvest their own arugula, but in my mind there is nothing so satisfying as eating a meal I played a role in growing.

Referring back to my informal Facebook poll, I asked my friend Rachele why she continues to renew her CSA membership and she told me: “We like feeling like part of a local farm and supporting that economy. The produce we get is outstanding and we feel it is a better value than grocery store produce of similar quality. We don’t have the time right now to invest labor in a home garden. We like ‘forcing’ more veggies into our diet.” Other friends chimed in too. Krista mentioned that she loves that she’s supporting a local business and improving her diet at the same time. Alice told me she loves the challenge of finding ways to prepare the vegetables that arrive she’s not familiar with. Everyone I spoke with hit on the same ideas of freshness, variety, and of helping to support a local business. CSAs are a win/win for all parties. I know that from my own experience and based on my Facebook sampling, a lot of other people feel the same way.

If you’d like to learn more, Local Harvest maintains a national directory of CSAs and organic farms. You can also find some farms under our Community Resource Directory (Find a Farm) on this website. If you live in an area with a CSA, go visit the farm. Ask questions and get involved. You have nothing to lose and you’ll be supporting your community and your health at the same time.

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