Community Supported Agriculture – CSA for short – is a farming model where customers and farmers enter into a partnership for a growing season. Throughout the duration of the season, the farm provides customers, or members, with weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly agriculture products. This partnership provides a built-in market for the farm and their goods, while guaranteeing products and pricing for the consumer.
During our second year in business we decided to add CSA share memberships to our business model. It appeared to be a sustainable option as we determined what markets and what products to expand to include.
History of CSA
There is debate over by whom and where Community Supported Agriculture models began. There are mentions of a women’s coalition in Japan, two farms in New England, and also a man by the name of Booker T. Whatley at Tuskegee Institute.
For this blog post, I’d like to share the contributions of Booker T. Whatley as, if not the “originator,” then as someone who greatly contributed to the history and work of popularizing Community Supported Agriculture models for small farmers across the United States. Mr. Whatley developed a model which was known as the “Clientele Membership Club,” in which club members paid an upfront fee to come to the farm to harvest produce. The goal was to connect 25-acre farms, or smaller, to approximately 5,000 people within a given geographic location. Local agriculture at its purest.
This model, “enables the farmer to plan production, anticipate demand, and, of course, have a guaranteed market,” Mr. Whatley explained in a 1982 interview. In return, this direct connection to farmer, land, and crops allowed families to educate their children, and even themselves, on how vegetables were grown or livestock raised, as the disconnect between food and its origin had widened after World War II.
Mr. Whately focused on the practical economics of how this type of partnership could impact small farmers and allow them to make profits at a time when big agriculture and professional agriculturists were encouraging small farms to grow in the same manner as the “bigger guys.” Rather than planting corn, cotton, or soybean on a 25-acre farm, hoping to turn a profit, his guidance to small farmers was to diversify their crops and welcome a different model of agriculture that could help sustain cash flow throughout the entire year. In developing this theory of small-scale-with-profit farming, Mr. Whately created an action plan that farmers could implement, with both specific criterion and the flexibility to innovate based on a farm’s region, while also including a timeline for implementation.
“The reason for the demise of the small farm isn’t that the growers have failed … we scientists in agriculture are the ones who’ve failed. All we’ve been doing is describing and describing the plight of the little guy. Every few years one of us will do another study showing just how bad the small farmer’s problem is, but each time there’re fewer of those folks left to describe. We’re about to describe them right off the farm!”Booker T. Whatley, 1982 interview with Mother Earth News
Despite his plan being published in 1980, many of the tenants within the plan are just as relevant in 2022 as they were 40 years ago. Small farms continue to struggle to compete with big agriculture, and many have pivoted or started small farms using the tenants of his plan.
From the perspective of our farm, some of the key takeaways from Mr. Whatley’s plan includes teaching people about where their food comes from, a five-year implementation plan, diversification, and leaving this place a little better than when we found it.
How CSAs Work
Today there are an estimated 7,000 farms that utilize a Community Supported Agriculture program – and likely 7,000 different ways in which they are set up and serve local customers!
Generally speaking, customers sign up for a membership to a CSA and pre-pay for what is essentially a subscription service. This “subscription” provides them with weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly agriculture products, including vegetables, fruit, mushrooms, dairy products, flowers, honey, meat, etc. for the duration of the season or a specific term.
This pre-paid service allows farmers to build a more sustainable business model, with income coming in at a time in the year when a farm’s income may be limited (due to the climate) and it provides a dependable income (vs. farmers markets sales which vary from week to week). This service allows customers to connect directly with local farms, growers, and the seasonality of crops grown in a specific region.
Schul Farmstead’s CSA
In 2023, our farm will enter our second year coordinating and growing for a Community Supported Agriculture program. As someone who had been a customer of a CSA prior to starting our farm, I believed it was a good business model to try to incorporate into our farm’s long-term plans.
I mean, I can’t be the only one who loves farm fresh veggies in the summer and not having to always think about a full grocery list! Right?!?
Although I would like to expand to upwards of 100 customers, our operation is still in its infancy (appropriate since we’re welcoming an infant in late 2022). We are taking things slow and opening a minimal number of memberships each year. Expanding at a slower rate helped us to be more flexible to adjust and tweak throughout the first CSA season, as we learned about our customers’ pain points and wants.
Our guarantee to our members includes 20 consecutive weeks of fresh vegetables from June to October. Each week members pick up their share of 7-11 varieties at our farm in Niagara County or at a satellite location in Erie County.
As an avid salad and herb lover, each week customers are guaranteed a 7oz. bag of salad greens and fresh herbs. The salad mix varies from week to week and includes greens such as lettuce, baby kale, arugula, spinach, fresh herb fronds, and edible flowers. While using fresh herbs might be something new for our customers, we insist on including herbs in our shares that provide significant health benefits and compliment the vegetable varieties included in the week’s share.
As a trained educator (hello, M.S.Ed in Adolescence Education), providing information and resources is a critical piece of our CSA program.
We provide our customers with the tools to maximize their CSA experience – including a weekly email with recipe suggestions that include 2 or more items included in the week’s share, a 100+ page digital recipe book, and a PDF guide about storing different produce in the fridge and freezer. I also use the CSA membership as a way to, share information about farm tasks at different times of the season, educate others about the histories of the heirloom seed varieties that we grow, and ways in which “vegetable scraps” can be used to minimize food waste.
If you’d like to learn more about becoming a member of our CSA, visit our Community Supported Agriculture webpage.
“We especially enjoyed the storage tips/recipe eBooks & informational weekly email. We also enjoyed vegetables new to us, such as ground cherries, tomatillos, those purple peas in the pod, & lovage etc. Also enjoyed the kohlrabi – it’s hard to find.”2022 Schul Farmstead CSA member
Now that you’ve learned a little bit about Community Supported Agriculture, you might be asking yourself whether or not becoming a CSA member is really for you.
Just like every CSA program is unique to the farm it’s supporting, we understand there are unique circumstances that would make one CSA program work better for you than another.
However, we can say that if you agree to at least half of the statements below, becoming a CSA member would fit into your lifestyle.
- I like farm-fresh veggies.
- I cook dinner 3+ times a week.
- I want to include more veggies into my meals/diet.
- I love to try new things.
- I value using quality ingredients in my cooking.
- I value sustainable agriculture.
If you are looking to become a member of a CSA, we recommend finding programs searching on Local Harvest, USDA Local Food Directories, or asking farms you’ve supported at farmers markets if they have a CSA program.