Sometimes an idea is just so perfect you wonder why everyone doesn’t do it (like joining a cooperative, for example!). Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)- which produces thriving family farms and high quality, fresh food for entire communities-is one of those ideas. CSAs build healthful relationships among people, the food they eat, the farmers who raises it, and the land on which it was grown.

CSAs aren’t new; the first two in the United States were founded in Massachusetts and New Hampshire over twenty years ago. But the constellation of concerns and interests right now—about strengthening local communities, environmental health, supporting the small family farmer, insuring the healthfulness of the food we eat—have put the concept in today’s spotlight. In 1990, there were about 50 CSAs in the United States; today there are about 1700. Tomorrow, who knows?!

To the cooperatively minded, CSAs make perfect sense. The folks who benefit in the bounty of a season’s produce also share in the risks of the farm; it’s a local and equitable system. When the farm prospers, so do the farmer and the members. Democratic decision-making reigns, membership is open, local bonds and communities are strengthened-in a nutshell, people work together with shared ideals toward common goals. It’s no surprise that many CSAs are tangibly supported by local food co-ops, which may offer information about the CSA, provide for sign up, and even act as a distribution center.

Sowing and growing a CSA

Community supported agriculture is exactly what it sounds like—farmers being supported by their communities. CSAs are made up of groups of people who pledge their support to farms in return for portions of the season’s harvest. Typically, the operating budget for the farm—including expenses for seeds and other supplies, land payments, water, equipment, and labor—is tallied, and these costs are then split among members of the CSA, who commit to the farm by purchasing a share of the season’s harvest ahead of time.

In return for their investment, members receive regular bundles of fresh food from the farm during harvest—typically from late spring through early fall, depending upon the local growing season. CSAs might provide fruit, vegetables, flowers, herbs, meat, honey, and/or dairy products. The amount of each allocation depends in part on the success of the harvest (influenced by favorable or unfavorable growing conditions, such as weather and pests) and the number of shares the member has purchased. One share might provide enough produce for a family of four each week throughout the season, for example.

As surely as each crop varies, so do CSAs. Where the farm is located, what the farmer grows, and what the community needs are just a few of the variables that come into play. In some CSAs, members weigh out or count their own shares, while in others staff weighs and packs shares to be picked up or delivered to distribution points or to individual members. (Some CSA farmers will deliver, usually for an added fee.) Most CSAs ask members to pay up front for a year (at the beginning of the season, for example), but some accept regular monthly or weekly payments throughout the growing season. In some cases, members work on the farm, helping during the busiest times and offsetting a portion of the membership fee. Some CSA farms offer apprenticeships, extending the promise of small farms into the future. Many CSA farmers offer shares in the farm as well as the harvest. And some CSAs have even been organized by consumers, who rent land and hire farmers.

The bounty

The nourishment you receive as a CSA member is immeasurable. You and your family benefit from the highest quality, freshest products—often organic—at excellent prices (thanks to the lack of middlemen and transportation costs). Participating in a CSA shows respect for the direct link between food production and consumption, between gratitude for the food on your plate and appreciation for the farmer who grew it. (If you have children, this is a great way for them to experience these links first hand. And involvement in a CSA can teach them about how food is grown and what factors influence its production.)

At the same time, your participation supports the environment through land stewardship and regional food production. (According to the University of Massachusetts, almost every state in the U.S. buys 85 percent of its food from someplace outside its state lines. This kind of food system taxes the environment, the economy, communities, and small farmers.)

CSAs keep more food dollars in the community, and, because members share the risk of farming, they provide economic stability for farmers. When CSA members pay at the outset of the season, the farmer doesn’t need to wait until after harvest to be paid—and the guaranteed sale of products means he or she doesn’t need to spend time marketing, but can instead focus on farming. Less food is wasted, and there’s little need for long-term storage. Farmers often grow a wide variety of produce, in answer to member’s requests, increasing agricultural diversity and sustainable farming practices.

Visiting a CSA—especially on distribution day—is a good way to learn more about what participation might be like. As with most cooperative ventures, you’re likely to find yourself feeling welcome and enthused about joining in!

To find out more about CSAs or to find a CSA near you, visit: Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC) at www.macsac.org or call 226-0300.