Is the CSA a viable model for farming?

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.

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5 thoughts on “Is the CSA a viable model for farming?

  1. The CSA that my wife and I have belonged to the past two years encourages “working” shares whereby participants spend a couple hours working at the farm each week in exchange for a lower share price. I was under the impression that the working share model was fairly common amongst CSA farms.

    On that note, we will not be joining the CSA next year. And there are two reasons, first we don’t own a car any longer and it takes an hour and a half to get to their farm by bicycle. Second is because when we subscribe to their CSA I get lazy and don’t grow anything my own self! ;D

    But to make a long story short, we love the CSA model.

  2. Hi! I found your site through Amy’s Humble Musings, and I’m enjoying your writing. Well done, and very informative. My family is moving to Kentucky next month, to a little farm we’ve purchased, and CSA arrangements were one of the things I’ve been planning to look into. Now, I’m thinking…maybe not. :-)

  3. Hi Rick,
    We started working with a newly formed Combined CSA (CCSA) in St. Louis called Fair Shares (www.fairshares.org). They are currently purchasing Chicken and Eggs from us, and many other produce, meat and other products. This seems to be a good solution to many of the above complaints.

    I don’t know if it would work in smaller cities/communities. It’s good for us, because we take the products to a central location, and they distribute to multiple sights. It does create a middle-man, but that is what a lot of consumers are used to, so they should be willing to pay for it (and the comments above prove that consumers are still focused more on their convenience than the ideal of local farms).

  4. Nick,

    I was under the impression that the working share model was fairly common amongst CSA farms.

    After a little bit of Googling I see that it is more common than I thought; thanks.

    All,

    I don’t mean to diss the CSA model, I only want to get a clearer picture of its advantages and disadvantages for both customers and growers. Certainly for folks with a certain mindset it is a great arrangement.

  5. Thanks for this post Rick. I went to an ND Ag Department meeting on their Local Foods initiative recently, and have been suspicious of the state involvement in local food initiatives, especially as I notice the Democrat leadership of this initiative. Our local college is starting a CSA and schools are being encouraged to start them too.

    Perhaps you could elaborate on whether there are any ties between the philosophies of the CSAs and socialism, such as captive buyers/captive shippers, cost based pricing, buyer v. seller instead of buyer v. buyer and seller v. seller, and common ‘ownership’ instead of individual ownership where the sinful nature of man works to ensure the highest quality, lowest price etc.

    The blog comments above indicate that CSAs are not as satisfying as free market economics for some, which would be expected, since this seems to be a derivative of socialism in some way.

    Thanks again for getting this thread going!

    Jim Bartlett

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