Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough

What isn’t to like about community supported agriculture (CSA)?

Farmers receive significant upfront cash flow before the growing season to help cover expenses.  And 3-6 months later they get to sell their food at near-retail prices, giving them considerably better chances of surviving.  Consumer “members” feel good about helping typically regional farmers, who in return help members learn about where their food comes from and how to eat better with farm-fresh food.  I doubt any one would argue that its a mutually-beneficial relationship.

But what about the long-term potential of CSA programs in helping solve the large-scale sustainable food challenges we face?

With 12,549 CSA farms in 2007 (0.6% of all farms), these programs represent a tiny fraction of U.S. food sales, which totaled over $1.1 trillion that year, according to the USDA.  Drill down further and you find that food sales from “farmers, processors, wholesalers, and other” were less than 0.6% of the 2007 total (with CSA sales being a fraction of that percentage).  Try as I might, I can’t see CSA farms ever taking a noticeable share of the U.S. food market.

That doesn’t mean I am advocating throwing the baby out with the bath water.  In fact, I fully expect CSA sales to continue their rapid growth, while shining a spotlight on the increasingly important American farmer. It is also my hope that such attention will encourage more people, especially younger generations, to consider sustainable farming as a career.  But for now, we need to broaden our thinking about solutions that can scale, while still satisfying the needs of farmers and consumers alike.

Building on CSA Lessons Learned

First, we should learn from the over two decades of experience gained since the first CSA program launched in the U.S.  Marcia Ruth Ostrom of Washington State University has done an effective job doing that in a study she conducted to investigate the “strengths and weaknesses of the organizational configurations, tactics, and outcomes of CSA as a social movement.”  Her 10-year study of 24 CSA farms serving major metropolitan areas in Minnesota and Wisconsin collected data on (1) farmer participation, (2) member participation, (3) member-farmer relationships, and (4) farm-to-farm interactions.

What Ms. Ostrom found was an eye-opener for me personally, especially her discussion of the burdens CSA programs put on the farmers themselves. Here are some key highlights of her findings (I encourage you to read the study for yourself):

  • CSA farms produce >40 crops for CSA shares v. conventional farms growing 1-2 commodity crops; “logistics…turned out to be more challenging than most had initially realized”;
  • Farms don’t receive hands-on consumer support originally envisioned; shifts burden of starting, administering and sustaining CSA to farmer;
  • Many CSA farms struggle with high member turnover and apathy;
  • Farmers setting prices in line with conventional food system, not on real costs of production (CSA vision);
  • Many CSA programs fold after 1-2 years, primarily due to economic, health and quality of life issues (in that order);
  • Most CSA members are middle-class, urban, white, and highly educated (limited socio-economic reach)

When you consider Ms. Ostrom’s findings regarding member experiences, things get more interesting, and even a little concerning.

People join CSA programs for a diverse set of reasons: wanting fresh, nutritious produce; buying local; supporting small-scale farmers; and caring for the environment.  All great reasons, but notice that “helping farmers out using my own two hands” didn’t make the cut.  It’s why members leave that makes me seriously question how far CSA programs can reach beyond their current demographic.

According to the study, 36 percent of members cited supermarket withdrawal as their reason for leaving their CSA program, characterized as “the wrong vegetables in the wrong quantities at the wrong time.”  In other words, consumers wanted more control over the food they purchase.  Perhaps this wouldn’t big such a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that these people self-selected into CSA programs in the first place.  Apparently, those reasons couldn’t overcome the inconveniences of the CSA format.

Where does that leave us?

Envisioning New Retail Experiences

We need to find innovative, new ways to bring local and/or sustainably grown food to broader segments of the population, in place of the highly processed food that dominate today’s supermarket aisles, which makes it very hard to imagine the conventional food system embracing such ideas.  We need to offer farmers financial benefits similar to those offered by CSA programs (e.g., predictable revenues, cash flow support, near-retail margins), but without the major headaches associated with managing a CSA program.  We need to continue helping consumers migrate toward eating more “real food” at home, something CSA programs have done quite well.

The good news is that there are lots of smart, energized, talented people working on such solutions all around us. What we ultimately need are new retail experiences capable of significantly growing sales of sustainably grown food, which requires that they be able to effectively compete over time with the dominate players in our conventional food system.  What I see when I close my eyes is an alternative food infrastructure taking increasingly large chunks of market share away from those player, while building strong regional economies built on regional food systems.

Blur your eyes and I bet you see it too…

Related Information and Links:

26 responses to “Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough

  1. Another great article, Rob.

    Do you think that an increase in Web/online marketing in CSAs, farmers, etc. will improve upon this? Groups like farmsreach.com are really pushing this model. A few food experts I’ve spoken to said what we’re really facing in encouraging this kind of participation in rebuilding our food system is a marketing issue. Farms and Farmers traditionally haven’t been very good dealing directly with the consumer.

    Also, I recommend you speak with Sarita Role Schaffer of Growfoodnow.org “a non profit organization/website that matches people with hands-on volunteer, wwoof, internship, and work opportunities on organic farms and sustainability projects throughout the US and Latin America.”

    I spoke with her recently and she said volunteerism – even temporary, weekend, part time, is way up – especially among the youth demographic. Not sure how it fits with this model, but it might suggest that “helping farmers out with my own two hands” is an increasingly popular trend.

    I love the long-term vision.


  2. Consumer education would greatly help “supermarket withdrawal.” It took me a few seasons to understand how to cook the foods my CSA provided. Being a “city girl,” I just had no clue what foods were in season when, or how to prepare meals on nature’s timetable instead of my own.

    CSA farmers need to avail themselves of young MBAs graduating our business schools with limited options to help them set up a profitable business model. These idealistic young people will breathe new life into the CSA model, become enthused about healthy living, and spread the word amongst their peers.

    But, expecting CSAs to take over ever larger market shares in our current government of hyperregulation is unrealistic. Take the gun away from the farmer’s head and I’ll bet they could produce more, better, happier.

  3. Rob, I love your posts. You ask great questions and challenge the feel good. You and I, my friend, need to combine forces, leveraging the Internet (disintermediation, education, transparency, connectivity, community) with a retail-ish model.

  4. Aurgh. The first button I hit was Pete’s Greens, and it didn’t work! Great article!

  5. One of my favorite movements is the idea of a CSK – Community Supported Kitchen – the first of its kind Three Stone Hearth (threestonehearth.com), launched in Berkeley, CA as a worker owner cooperative, one of the owners being Jessica Prentice, the coiner of the word *locavore* and author of Full Moon Feast.
    Great post Rob! thanks!

  6. Wow, I can’t wait to get a chance to read all the rest of those links. First placed I looked at was Pete’s Greens, and it was so great to see goods offered with the produce. Our own CSA offers other goods like fair trade coffee, raw milk cheeses, pastured eggs, etc. but nothing like his loaves of bread or sheeps milk feta!

  7. I’m glad I was pointed in the direction of your blog. If this post is any indication of the rest of the content, I’ll have much to mull through. I’ll like to look at the CSK idea, it might be similar to something that I’ve been think about. One of the difficulties with the CSA model in Colorado is that our season might only last for 6-7 months. If there was a way for growers to create value added products directly from their farm (or with other local people) then they would be able to supply people throughout the whole year. But to do that, it would really require a USDA approved kitchen. But that’s expensive, and farmers aren’t necessarily interested in the cooking/canning process. So I was thinking that creating a USDA approved kitchen that people could use by renting a time slot. Any thoughts about it?

    • Hello scochenour,

      Thanks for finding your way to my blog, and I am glad you found it thought provoking. As for the CSK concept, the first I heard of this was in the comments on my post, but I am looking into, so stay tuned for a future post.

      You mention a short growing season in Colorado (btw, I grew up in Colorado Springs). In Vermont, our growing season might be even shorter. There is an innovative farmer, Pete Johnson, that is working hard to extend the growing season using movable greenhouses. In addition to these efforts, I am starting to hear more about preserving food using traditional methods, e.g., cold cellars, canning, freezing.

      If you think there is enough demand (potential demand) for renting space, and, more important, the demand to purchase the resulting product at a fair market price for the farmer and/or producer, then I would encourage you to look into it.

      Let me know if you would like to talk more. I would be interested in learning more about the Colorado sustainable food landscape.


      Rob Smart

  8. Terrific questions.

    Wonderhubby and I both read this piece. His solution? Technology to help manage the business and manual tasks of farming. And he even has a tech project in mind.

    As a serious (year-round) vegetable gardener who has been involved in farm sales, farmers’ markets and agricultural festivals as well as being a former CSA member and community garden volunteer, my belief is that we need to help bridge the gap between member expectation and farm reality. Many people are unprepared to deal with more than tonight’s dinner; to some, ten pounds of tomatoes is a trauma. Others want fresh grapes in January.

    Understanding this and serving the need through offering an abundance of easy recipes, classes, a mix of value-added items and other educational events will help. Help, not solve. At least not until something drastic happens and we are forced to reevaluate our relationship with food.

    So I think, anyway.

    *All* that said, I’m greatly encouraged by your array of link to folks operating innovative solutions. Yay them! (and you)

  9. Definitely food for thought. Sorry for the pun. It makes sense that this is such a little part of it. This problem is so much like the medical care crisis. Sometimes, I can’t wrap my head around it. But I know the little guy counts, in both medical care and food!

  10. You ask how we might ‘find innovative, new ways to bring local and/or sustainably grown food’. I am still very excited about 2 local farmers who wanted to start a CSA, but could not find land they could afford. One had an ‘aha’ moment while she drove around trying to come up with something. It was was before her, and behind her, and every other direction: people’s backyards. http://bit.ly/d46RN Their intent, over time, is to have the homeowner take over the growing of their food. And, as they mentioned in the video, there is room for lots more farmers. It’s not the answer for everybody – just like CSAs aren’t – but it is a good fit for many.

    More interesting ideas:
    In the Northwest, a local grocery chain that buys/sells local: New Seasons – http://bit.ly/7piF
    A couple of college students came up with: Sky Vegetables – http://bit.ly/Pynuj
    Recently read about fishermen putting together their own version of a CSA: CSF – http://bit.ly/3wfujv

    As much as I’d like to see it happen, I’m not sure how our medium size farms can become sustainable in order to feed the many – unless some of the money in the Farm Bill ( http://bit.ly/4vINqS part 1 of 6) is shifted. Something has to change in order to make locally grown fresh food affordable to folks of different income levels. Unfortunately right now it leans toward the middle class, as you mentioned. And, until something can shake the hold that agribusiness has on the Farm Bill, I’m afraid there wont be a major shift.

  11. Pingback: Are CSA’s Enough? « Farm To Table: The Emerging American Meal

  12. Another fantastic post, that study is especially interesting. You’ve even provided a few local (MN) places and people for me to check out. Thanks!

  13. Pingback: The Every Kitchen Table Blog: Why CSAs Aren’t Enough | Simple, Good, and Tasty

  14. One thing I’ve learned on the consumer side of things…

    Through our programs at Know Your Farms, we’ve put in place a requirement for our members to participate in an on-farm work project. There is an option to buy one’s way out, but about two-thirds of our members choose to do the work.

    The remarkable thing about this has been the response of the participants. These folks come out, leaving their computers and banker suits behind, roll up their sleeves and spend the afternoon (sometimes in the rain), laboring on a farm. And they’re *grateful* for the experience.

    I believe that the models that are to last will retain this connection between farmer and consumer. Using consumers to support the farmer seems to create a strong connection…I think stronger than simply purchasing from the farmer at market or via CSA delivery.

    Thanks for carrying us forward in the conversation about what a new food system could look like.

  15. A great post, as well as much to explore in the worthy comments. It only makes sense to pursue the multiple issues of sustainable food at the points of contact that we can most affect and that affect us. Living in the city as an adult I see a great disparity in the health of food that people consume, based a lot on their income. As a child I never knew real hunger because we had 1/2 acre garden canned and froze food and traded veggies and services with our neighbors for milk & eggs. Backyard farms and CSAs have been my jumping off points. Seeing the joy in a city kid harvesting corn as well as knowing the struggle of a farmer I’ve talked face-to-face with gives me the courage to pursue additional involvement. And I think that would be true of a lot of people. Keep making the connections immediate and people will respond.

    • Karen: Thanks for bringing an urban perspective to the comments. Having lived in rural central Vermont for the last eight years, I have been hardened by the climate, but have also thought less about life in our bigger cities. Please let me know of any innovative urban programs that are making the “connections” you refer to. I would like to learn more.

  16. Great points, Rob. At this point, about 60% of what I buy and eat is locally raised; I’d like to buy more local products. I’ve belonged to four different CSAs and I confess I haven’t been very good at going out and working on the farms. Part of it is that I do have a pretty demanding life of my own and finding the right balance of time/commitment is always a problem for me. In addition, I haven’t been a successful member when a CSA tells me that I need to pick up on a certain day in a limited span of time. Often hard to make that happen: my wife and I both work.

    On the other hand, I love the model that Pete’s Greens has established. An integrated CSA makes intuitive sense to me; I’d be willing to give up some of the control I have in picking things out at a market for high-quality, local, and fresh. Another factor not to be overlooked from a consumer standpoint is what to do about produce or other things you don’t cook often (or never). It’s OK for me: I’m a good cook and good at improvising, but that’s not true of many people.

    In sum: the options are burgeoning and as more consumers get interested in CSAs, the models will evolve. And so will the challenges and rewards.

    • Michael: I just took a quick look at some of the things going on around sustainability in Woodstock, VT. Sounds promising. Please let me know if you would like to talk more about CSA programs and alternative channels for bringing local food to more people (robert.b.smart@gmail.com). Cheers & Happy Earth Day!

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  18. One thing that would help is more orgs like NYC’s Just Food, which hooks up farmers with community groups that want CSA’s – community groups do the accounting and recruiting. It also offers workshops on starting and running a CSA. There are now 80 CSA’s in NY, including 5 in Harlem & many in other low-income neighborhoods. And now livestock farmers, cheese makers and bakers are hooking into the CSA network.

  19. I am a working shareholder at a CSA, so I trade my labor for a year’s worth of produce and childcare while I am working. In New England, it is a very difficult year for organic farms, between the brutal weather and the late blight on the tomatoes. It is interesting to note that the only regular volunteers on the farm are not even shareholders!

    I suspect a lot of CSA farmers are reconsidering the model, which I think is actually a very challenging one to begin with. If you aren’t in the field seeing everything struggle but the greens, you don’t have the same respect for why this week’s share is all greens and we’re lucky for it! I think Americans are just not accustomed to eating this way and they aren’t about to become accustomed to it.

    From my perspective, I can’t believe how fortunate I am to have a close relationship with a place that produces food I can actually stay healthy by eating, considering what happened in the last great depression!

    • Sarah,

      Your comments – straight from the farm – are so great. Living in New England and being part of the same CSA farm for the past four years, we have come to truly appreciate not only the food grown, but also the incredible dedication of our farmer and the community that supports her.

      Unfortunately, and as you point out, most Americans are not wired to view food this way. But we can and must showcase these examples to spark imaginations and begin adjusting people’s perceptions and experiences. Over time, and with new retail models of sustainable food, we will make a difference.

      Thanks again for your informed and passionate comments.


      Rob Smart

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