What is a CSA?

Posted on July 4, 2010

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I’m sure that the acronym CSA could stand for any number of things, but in the food world, where you might come across it now, it stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The concept has become trendy, and in my opinion it is part of a healthy new direction in America’s relationship with food.

Nearly all of the food we eat comes initially from professional commercial farmers. It is their job to grow crops or raise animals, and they sell the results on an open market. Although their product is universally in demand, historically farming has been one of the most volatile and risky of professions. Not only is the work hard, boring labor, but the results depend much more on unpredictable variations in weather and prices than on the effort and resources invested. In a good year a commercial farmer might make a living wage, but a bumper harvest might push down prices, or heat, cold, flood, drought, or disease could leave him unable to repay the debts he incurred to buy seed, fertilizer, pesticides, and farm equipment.

Our society has tried many measures to make life easier for farmers in order to assure that the rest of us have a steady supply of food. I intend to discuss some of these, subsidies in particular, in another article. CSA programs are one of the most recent of these measures. The idea behind them is that families pay a lump sum, perhaps $500, to farmers in late winter.  The farmer collects many of these payments, and uses the money to buy seed and equipment rather than going into debt. He plants a wide variety of crops, and then, beginning in late spring and going through fall and sometimes into winter, he harvests fruit and vegetables and gives the families a portion of the produce every week.

The concept is worthwhile to both sides. The payments in the beginning of the year and the required diversity of species reduces risk for the farmer and the families get plentiful healthy produce at a significant discount compared to grocery store prices. These advantages explain the rapid spread of these schemes around the country.

They are not for everyone. Shares are calibrated for family size and are often more than a single person or couple could eat. The composition of the shares varies from week to week and is not optional. Picky eaters or those with allergies may be unable to avoid getting produce they can’t eat. And the variety requires extensive culinary knowledge and expertise. Even a competent cook might feel their creativity strained if he or she had to cook winter squash, or beets, or zucchini, or kale several times a week for a month or more. They also require more work and time on the part of the farmer, who has to organize the scheme, the delivery method, advertise, and then keep accounts for the entire growing season.

The tools offered by the Internet and the changes in attitudes toward diet and cuisine that have occurred over the last decade have mitigated many of these negative factors, and the benefits are increasingly appreciated. Having vegetables in the fridge encourages people to eat them, and some cooks appreciate the challenge offered. And everyone in the community benefits when small farmers receive the support they need to bring forth quality produce.

Last week my family got these large cucumbers as part of our share

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