I think that most folks who are toying with the idea of homesteading are intrigued by the potential for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), an arrangement where customers will pay a farmer in advance for a share of the produce he grows that year. Customers like the model in part because it allows them to participate in growing the food they eat by establishing a personal relationship with the grower and helping to fund his efforts. Farmers like it because it reduces their own up-front investment, and because it guarantees a return even if the year is bad and there isn’t much produce to go around.
There’s a downside lurking in there, though. Although customer participation is real, it is also very limited. No CSA I’m aware of expects customers to come weed the fields or pick the produce, as a co-op might. And I’ve heard stories about CSA managers having to shield customers from the losses that they agree to take, by going out and procuring produce when their own crops fail.
We’ve never tried setting up a CSA and I’m not in close touch with anyone who runs one, so mostly I depend on anecdotes and the occasional published study to fill me in on whether the model is really viable. Here’s a mildly interesting article about the “green” aspects of belonging to a CSA, but what caught my attention is that it mentions in passing an Iowa State survey of CSA members (PDF) that asked some important questions about how customers view the model.
The survey notes that nearly half the respondents are former CSA members, who gave the following reasons for having given up on the arrangement.
- My household was out of town too often. (42%)
- Sometimes there was too little produce. (42%)
- Farmers’ markets are more suitable. (41%)
- Distribution time was inconvenient. (39%)
- Didn’t know how much I would receive each week. (35%)
- Sometimes there was too much produce. (35%)
- It was too costly. (31%)
- Quantity of produce fluctuated. (29%)
- I did not have time to prepare the food. (23%)
- I grow/raise my own food. (22%)
- Producers sold better quality products at farmers’ markets. (21%)
- There was too little overall produce. (21%)
- There was too much overall produce. (21%)
- I did not know the prices I paid for each type of produce. (21%)
- Distribution location was inconvenient. (21%)
- Produce was of poor quality. (15%)
- I moved out of the area. (13%)
- Producers sold products at farmers’ markets, not at CSA. (12%)
- I did not know how to prepare the food. (12%)
- I was not sure producers were meeting obligations to members. (11%)
- There was not enough contact with other members. (11%)
- There was not enough contact with organizers. (5%)
- There was not enough contact with producers. (4%)
I thought these reasons were intriguing because only a few of them were things that a CSA manager might be able to fix; most of them are inherent in the model, the sorts of things that are handled properly in a market arrangement. Customers are not so much disappointed in their particular CSA as they are in the CSA arrangement itself.
When I attended a small farmers’ conference a couple of years back, one of the speakers mentioned that 50% annual turnover was what they experienced with their CSA customers, and that they heard comparable numbers from other CSA managers. Because this put them in the position of having to replace half their customers every year, they finally gave it up in favor of concentrating on farmers’ markets.
The report also contains this quote from a respondent, which is interesting in itself.
Some producers did the CSA as a ‘side’ event; often there were new enthusiastic producers who were learning how to be a producer. I felt like every year was a year that I was still supporting the ‘learning curve’ of the CSA. It felt not so much like I was supporting normal risk, which is certainly part of a CSA, but that I was consistently subsidizing the learning and growth of the CSA and its producers—constant extra risk, no reliable reward. After four or five years I decided I had done my part to be true to my values, and went shopping for ‘my own farmer’ as I call it. Someone who was my person, my farmer, and whose single focus was pretty much his/her relationship with what they grew and by extension who they grew it for.