In my home state of Colorado, there are a plethora of family-based farms that either began their farms or are transitioning their focus to both organic and regenerative growing practices. And, it’s not an insular activity. These small, hard-working farms want to share their processes, vision, and, most importantly, nutrient-rich food with the populace. This is where a Community Support Agriculture program comes into play.

This program has been available for over 25 years and while many have reaped the benefits of this wonderful program, there aren’t as many of us out there joining as should be. This is mostly due to lack of knowledge.

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You’re probably wondering: what is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program? How to find one near you? What does it take to join? Where do you go to access those incredibly nutrient-dense, organic, and sustainably grown food items?

These are all the questions I intend to tackle!

What is Community Supported Agriculture Program (CSA)?

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As I mentioned, the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program has been around for 25 years and “has become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer.” The USDA National Agricultural Library describes a CSA as consisting “of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production.” Basically, by joining a Community Supported Agriculture program in your area, you’re directly supporting the farms in your neighborhood.

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And, it’s more popular than you might think!

In fact, as of data collected in 2015 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were “7,398 farms in the United States [that] sold products directly to consumers through a community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangement,” and these CSA’s “accounted for $226 million (or 7 percent) of the $3 billion in direct-to-consumer sales by farms.”

So, how does it work?

When you buy into a CSA you are basically purchasing shares of a farm — referred to in CSA language as a membership or a subscription — which the farmer has allowed access to. In return for your membership or subscription, as a CSA member, you will receive “box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.” Generally, your share will consist “of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included,” depending on your specific locations CSA.

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With that said, this is just the basic form of a CSA. As farmers seek to expand access to their food and publicity for their brand, new and innovative forms of using a CSA have developed including incorporating institutional health and wellness programs, multi-farm systems to increase scale and scope, season extension technologies (for longer growing times), as well as incorporating value-added products, offering flexible shares, and using e-commerce marketing tools.

What does this mean for you the consumer? There are numerous ways to be involved in a Community Supported Agriculture program!

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Understanding the Shared Risk of CSA Membership

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If you go into a Community Supported Agriculture program expecting the 100 percent return you get at the grocery store of with a meal delivery service, then you’ll want to readjust your expectations.

While farmers do their best to provide an abundant box every week, farms are oftentimes unpredictable and dependent on many factors that are outside of their control — such as climate and weather. Most CSA programs require an upfront payment for the entire season. This means that if one week the farmer was not able to provide a full box (or maybe a box at all), then you share in that loss with the farmer. Most CSAs simply implies that this is something “woven into the CSA model,” yet other CSAs ask members to “sign a policy form indicating that they agree to accept without complaint whatever the farm can produce.”

This may seem like a con of joining, yet it’s also what strengthens the resolve of the community program and it’s also a way to join in the reality of community farming. Local Harvest — a great resource for CSAs — puts it very succinctly:

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Many times, the idea of shared risk is part of what creates a sense of community among members, and between members and the farmers. If a hailstorm takes out all the peppers, everyone is disappointed together, and together cheer on the winter squash and broccoli. Most CSA farmers feel a great sense of responsibility to their members, and when certain crops are scarce, they make sure the CSA gets served first.

While shared risk means that sometimes the member loses out on the product, you’re doing so with your community and can lean on that community for support.

What Benefits do you Receive from a CSA?

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The beauty of a Community Supported Agriculture program is that it benefits everyone involved — the farmer and the consumer — equally.

Benefits for the Consumer

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Have you ever wondered where that bundle of kale was grown, what soil it sprung from, what chemicals were used, who plucked it from the ground, and how it was cleaned and packaged to make it to the grocery store? What about that box of blueberries or those potatoes?

This is one of the greatest benefits of joining a Community Supported Agriculture program! You can actually ask these questions and get honest and direct answers. Not only do you get to learn more about the food that you’re eating, but the consumer is given the opportunity to develop a relationship with the farmer who grows it!

Yet, that’s not all!

Through a Community Supported Agriculture program, the consumer (that’s you!) gets to “eat ultra-fresh food,” is exposed to new vegetables, learns new ways of cooking, and, if you wish, gets to visit the farm every growing season. This is a revolutionary idea in our modern society of buying foods from the confined and sterile environment of the grocery store. On top of that, it’s been found that “kids typically favor food from ‘their’ farm – even veggies they’ve never been known to eat.” This connection to understanding where a vegetable comes from and seeing it in its “natural habitat” is an incredibly valuable learning experience for children.

Benefits for the Farmers

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For the farmers, Community Supported Agriculture programs offer an additional flow of sustainable and dependable income outside of other food item sales. On top of that, thanks to CSAs, farmers “receive payment early in the season, which helps with the farm’s cash flow.” Another great benefit comes down to prioritizing time. Throughout the growing and harvesting season, farmers and their workers put in up to 16 hour days (sometimes longer depending). CSAs offer farmers an opportunity to “spend time marketing [their] food early in the year” before these long and laborious days begin. Lastly, a CSA gives farmers the platform to network directly with the community of people who are consuming the food they grow, converse about the products, and maybe even receive feedback or offer information that will strengthen the relationship.

Different Forms of CSA Programs

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So far, I’ve been referring to the standard form of a Community Supported Agriculture program — the CSA member receives a “standard box of vegetables” which every other member is also receiving. Yet, with the popularity of the program, many farmers are looking for more variations to entice new members and provide current members with more personalized access to their foods.

Mix and Match/ Market-Style

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The beauty of the mix and match or market-style CSA program is personal choice! Instead of receiving a pre-packaged box, CSA members will visit a makeshift market in which the farmer “lays out baskets of the week’s vegetables” and the “members load their own boxes with some degree of personal choice.” In this open market-type CSA, members are either encouraged or allowed to take a “prescribed amount of what’s available.”

Combined Farmers Programs

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Another style of CSA that is becoming popular is a multi-farm combination box or basket option. This is when multiple farms offering different types of products band together for one drop-off point or one market. This benefits both farms as they both share the responsibility of the market or the drop-off location, yet they are both able to get their individual products to the community. On top of that, CSA members are given more of a variety of choice, picking and choosing their favorite items from different farms, which leads to happier and more sustainable CSA memberships.

Non-Farming Third Parties

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This final innovative variation on the CSA program is an option for those that don’t necessarily think a full-on CSA membership would be beneficial, yet still wish to get their hands on local food and support local farmers. In certain areas of the country, “non-farming third parties are setting up CSA-like businesses, where they act as middle-men and sell boxes of local” food. It’s very important to note that sometimes these third party providers offer non-local food as well. Therefore, if you go this route, it’s important to ask where they source all of their food items.

How to Find a CSA in Your Neighborhood

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Now that you know that ins and outs of a Community Supported Agriculture program, it’s time to find one in your neck of the woods!

One of the best resources for finding a CSA is through the website Local Harvest. Not only can you learn much more about CSA programs, but they have a unique search engine specific to finding a CSA in your town, city, or state. Simply pop in your zip code and any farms in the area offering a CSA will populate the screen!

If there are multiple Community Support Agriculture programs in your area, Local Harvest offers some excellent pro-tips to help you make your decision and get prepared for joining a CSA.

Ask the Right Questions

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It’s oftentimes the case that your CSA won’t provide everything you need to feed your family, especially when it comes to fruit and veggies staples such as “onions, garlic, and carrots.” Therefore, make sure to call or email the CSA program to ask what they generally offer in their standard box or at their market. This will help narrow down the options before you join! Once you find out what they offer, it’s important to ask how much. Every farm tries to provide its members with an ample amount of veggies. With that said, quantity is dependent on how good of a growing season they’ve had. Therefore, it’s beneficial to also ask what type of quantity should be expected in your CSA box.

Understand Seasonal Eating

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Make sure you understand “seasonal eating” before joining a CSA. We’re used to walking into a grocery store and finding everything we would ever need. When you join a CSA, you’re depending solely on what is in season in your specific climate. Oftentimes, the season starts out slim with veggies such as “salad greens, peas, and green onions,” and then later on “the boxes should be much heavier, with things like winter squash, potatoes, tomatoes, and broccoli.” Take a look at the farm’s website and you should be able to find a list of their offerings.

We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!

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