Two to three heads of lettuce, salad mix, radishes, bok choy, spinach, swiss chard, summer squash or zucchini, basil, sage or parsley, scallions, and broccoli. That is what shareholders at Angelic Organics Farm in Calendonia, Ill., received the week of June 13, 2005 in their boxes. What boxes? The boxes of fresh produce provided to them for being Community Supported Agriculture shareholders.
Community Supportive Agriculture, or CSA, is a program that allows the general public to buy shares of a season’s crop from some smaller farms. In exchange for the cost of the share, shareholders are given fruits and/or vegetables usually on a weekly basis. Sometimes flowers and herbs are available as well. For the farm, this is guaranteed revenue no matter how the season turns out. The money usually covers operating costs for the farm, including a base salary for the farmer. For the shareholders, this means getting a selection of the freshest produce each week that may include things you normally wouldn’t select. It also is a slight gamble for the shareholder – weather impacts crops so you might not get the boatload of corn you hoped for and instead get a wealth of root vegetables.
According to an excerpt from Suzanne DeMuth’s 1993 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): An Annotated Bibliography and Resource Guide, “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.” DeMuth said that the idea then spread to Europe and in the mid-1980s crossed the pond to the United States. The first CSA program in the United States was located in South Egremont, MA in 1985, and created by Robyn Van En during her second season at Indian Line Farm. She got the idea from a Swiss friend.
Van En said that this program does a lot for the farmer, giving them fiscal credibility and also the means to continue farming from year to year. “I know that the CSA guaranteed income helped me get my farm mortgage. When lenders see that people are willing to take this risk with farmers, they begin to take more risks and try alternatives,” Van En said. Van En further said that this defuses the danger of a bad harvest, something that every farmer faces, because the loss is shouldered by the group of shareholders with the farmer instead of the farmer alone. At Fort Hill Farm in New Milford, Conn., farmer Paul Bucciaglia reassures his prospective shareholders with some logic
We grow a huge variety of crops, everything from arugula to zucchini. So the chances of it being a bad year for everything are practically nil. For example, bad strawberry years (cool and wet weather) bring on bumper crops of sweet snap peas. We also grow several plantings of most crops. But there is a risk that farmers take each year, and as a CSA shareholder you are taking on some of that risk. Some weather events, like severe hail and wind in late spring, cause crop yield losses that are unrecoverable. As a CSA shareholder, you are taking on the rewards AND the risks of farming. Please consider that we do not refund shares due to weather damage or other Acts of Mother Nature before you commit to a share.
“CSA members are supporting a regional food system, securing the agricultural integrity of their region, and participating in a community-building experience by getting to know their neighbors and who grows their food,” Van En said. In many ways, this concept epitomizes the idea of eating locally because shareholders pledge at the beginning of the season to help sustain the farm. This has become a way for struggling farmers to survive and maintain stability.
Joining a CSA is fairly simple. First locate a farm that offers subscriptions. Local Harvest, a website dedicated to farm, has a great search engine for doing so. Then, contact the farm. Most farms begin selling their subscriptions in winter, but some still have slots available in the late spring.