Last Updated: February 16, 2024, 12:13 pm by TRUiC Team

What is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)?

Community supported agriculture, also known by its acronym CSA, is a farming model in which the produce grown is sold in the form of a seasonal subscription. It is designed to encourage consumers to form relationships with the farmers who grow their food.

Recommended: Read our 5 step guide to starting a CSA written by a successful startup CSA owner.

The Benefits of the CSA Model

Let’s look at some of the major ways CSAs can benefit farmers and consumers:

Shared Financial Risk

One of the principal reasons that farmers choose the CSA model is because of the shared-risk element. The most common CSA revenue model has members pay an upfront fee (commonly referred to as a “share”) at the beginning of a growing season, and in return they are supplied with a weekly or bi-weekly box of mixed vegetables throughout the season. In addition, some CSAs offer other options, such as dairy products, fruit, fresh-baked bread, honey, etc.

By receiving all of the seasonal revenue up front, the farmer is then able to use this capital to pay for field inputs, pay employees, and meet other expenses without having to wait until harvest time.

And because consumers have a share in their food, they value it more than store-bought produce. This contributes to a sense of satisfaction and gratefulness.

Provides Farmers with a Steady Income

As with any business, when it comes to farming, there are many unpredictable factors. Whether it’s unfavorable weather, pest problems, plant diseases, or something else, crop yields can differ drastically from one season to the next.

A share-based CSA program helps to support local, small-scale agriculture by providing farmers with a steady income despite any unforeseeable obstacles that might arise. If you’re selling at a farmer’s market and there are heavy rains that discourage customers from showing up that day, you don’t make money. Or if you’re providing for grocery stores and restaurants, you may be undercut by the competition mid-season, and be forced to scramble to find a new sales outlet.

The CSA model provides a structured, reliable model of income that is far more dependable than the alternatives, since the revenue is received up front from customers who have a personal investment in the food you are growing.

Gives Consumers a Close Relationship with Their Source of Food

CSAs are great at creating a sense of community around food. Many CSAs offer opportunities for members to get directly involved; for example, work-share members may give 4-6 hours of field labor per week in exchange for their share, or they may contribute in other ways, such as by writing a newsletter for the farm or by helping with packaging and distribution of CSA boxes.

There are varying degrees of community involvement among CSAs, and the way you approach this aspect is entirely up to you.

Low Environmental Impact

The small-scale, local market farming model cuts down significantly on environmental pollution and promotes sustainable farm practices. Food travels, on average, 1,300 miles from where it is grown before it lands on your dinner plate. Because CSAs grow food for their local communities, the reliance on fossil fuels, as well as the use of plastics in packaging, shipping, etc. are drastically reduced. 

Most CSA farms also use organic, environmentally-friendly practices, and some are regenerative as well. Generally, these farms restrict the use of pesticides and herbicides which contributes to improved ecosystems and better soil quality.

The Challenges of the CSA Model

Now we’ll take a look at the biggest challenges the CSA model poses:

Dealing Directly with Consumers.

CSA members can sometimes be finicky, and this requires special attention to consumer needs. For instance, some members may want more or less of certain vegetables, or they may have other dietary restrictions you’ll need to be conscious of.

Educating members about CSA guidelines is very important to create the right expectations from members. If there is a high level of membership involvement on the farm (such as offering a work-share option), all expectations should be explicitly stated in the CSA contract. You and your members should be very clear about what you’re getting into, and what commitments are being made on both sides.

CSAs Require Careful Planning

After collecting the revenue generated from CSA shares, the farm is responsible to members for providing a mixed variety of food products every week. This requires very careful crop planning and risk management strategies. Planting dates must be planned ahead of time, and harvest dates have to be accurately predicted in order to ensure enough variety every week. Developing a comprehensive crop calendar is a must for running a CSA.

Recruiting and Retaining Members

Bringing people into the CSA requires a carefully planned marketing strategy. The farmer should perform market research to find out if there is a demand for a CSA in the area and find out who are the primary sources of competition.

If it’s your first or second year, offering a soft sign-up during the winter will give an idea of how many members can be expected to sign up at the beginning of the season. You don’t want to wait until February or March to start reaching out to potential members. When you have members, the best way to get them to resubscribe the following year is to make them feel like a part of the community. Host events throughout the year, and send out a weekly newsletter or periodical mailings to remind that they are contributing to something special. You could also compile an annual or seasonal cookbook featuring member-sponsored recipes.

Remember that your CSA is not just selling produce; it’s selling a relationship to the land. Members want to feel connected to the farm.

Distributing CSA Boxes

There are a number of ways to distribute harvested produce. One common distribution model is to have a pick-up site where members are expected to come and receive their boxes during a designated time. Deciding on a location and time can be difficult, but generally Saturdays and Sundays are your best bet, since most people work during the business week and may not have time to come on weekdays.

Some CSAs offer home delivery, which is becoming an increasingly popular option. Of course, this adds another layer of logistics you’ll need to figure out, including coming up with the most efficient delivery routes and deciding how much to charge for home delivery. Members may not be willing to pay the necessary delivery costs that you need to charge in order to remain profitable.

The third option is to have members pick up their CSA box from the farm. This works great if you are located in or around the area of your target market. If your farm is more rural, this may not be a good option since it may require members to drive a long distance.

Is the CSA model right for your farm?

When deciding on whether or not to start a CSA, consider the following questions:

  • Are you willing to take on the extra level of management necessary to run a CSA?
  • Do you like dealing directly with consumers?
  • Do you have the skills and knowledge to grow a large variety of produce?
  • Is there sufficient demand for a CSA in your local area?

Starting a CSA can be a lot of work, and it requires careful planning. It is a great farming model if you have a community-oriented vision, and it can be extremely rewarding. If you have a market, are great at dealing directly with customers, and have a good sense for planning, this may be a model that works well for your farm.

Since the 1980s, there have been thousands of CSAs started around the US, and it is quickly becoming popular among younger generations as people become more educated about the negative environmental and health impacts of commercial-scale agriculture.