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What is a CSA, Really?

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Imagine you get an email that reads, "With the click of a button, the freshest local veggies and fruits arrive to your door complete with recipes and exciting ideas" and that goes on to make the point that while "most CSA's are not customizable," this company—Farmbox Direct—allows you to make five substitutions to your fresh produce box.

You do some Googling around and find that Farmbox Direct has been referred to as "a farm-to-table, CSA style produce-delivery service"; you watch a video of the founder, Ashley Tyrner, on CNN Money in which she describes it as "basically a customizable CSA."

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So it makes sense that you'd think of Farmbox Direct as a CSA. And you'd be surprised, maybe, to learn that you can get mangoes, kiwis, cherries, and green beans—even in May, in New York (where these things are not in season—either yet or ever). But is it a CSA?


Worth It or Not Worth It: Joining a CSA
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Worth It or Not Worth It: Joining a CSA

On the most literal level, CSA is an acronym that stands for "community supported agriculture." Which seems simple enough, until you ask yourself: What does it mean, exactly, for a community to "support" agriculture?

The term itself is as ambiguous as the answer to that question: "It’s hard because there’s no agreed-upon definition out there," says Paula Lukats, the Program Director at Just Food, an NYC-based organization that plays the role of matchmaker and coordinator between farms and communities: "Everyone has their take on the key elements that make a CSA a CSA."

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The roominess of the acronym means that it can be applied to a whole range of business models, some of which differ from the CSA as it was originally conceived but solve some of the model's biggest challenges, albeit at the expense of a few of its greatest benefits. It's confusing for consumers, like you and me, to navigate this lawless land of CSAs, where the differences can be nuanced and we don't necessarily know what we're signing up for.


Once upon a time—or about eight years ago (that's when Paula, who's been doing CSA development for over twenty years, says CSAs really took off)—"CSA" generally meant a 1 : 1 relationship between farmer and community (this is the model that Just Food, which has 130 CSAs in their network this year, honed in on).

A diversified vegetable farmer (someone growing lots of different crops, not monocultures) would establish a relationship with a group of people who paid upfront and committed to weekly shares—the contents of which would be determined by the farmer—for the duration of the season. The majority of vegetables would come from that one farm (fruit, eggs, and other add-ons could come from another), and the needs of the community—food stamps, sliding scale payment systems, flexible volunteer hours—would be taken into account. In some areas of the country, members would drive to the farm to the pick up the shares; in large cities, like New York, delivery systems would be put in place (and, with increasing frequency, farms offer drop-off locations at schools and workplaces, too).

In short, the platonic version of this CSA model is meant to provide consumers with high-quality, local vegetables while allowing farmers to maintain their land and stay in business. "Some of our farmers have said that without a CSA in the city, they wouldn’t be a farmer," Paula told me.

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Because members traditionally join and pay in the off-season, they provide capital to the farm when costs are the greatest. Farmers can look at the numbers and plan for demand accordingly, knowing that their entire harvest will be accounted for: "With a CSA," explained Paula, "they know that the food they're growing has an ultimate home. Farmers know, when they pack their truck, that they're going to come home with it empty. With a market, [they] may go and if it’s hot or rainy or whatever, [they] may come home with a half-full truck that [they] have to figure out what to do with." And without a middleman like a grocery store taking a share of the profits, farmers are more likely to make a fair wage, and consumers are more likely to pay a low price.

In addition to the ultimate goal—a symbiotic farmer-consumer relationship—this 1 : 1 CSA model establishes a direct, human connection between the people growing the food and the people buying it. Farmers have a chance to educate the members about what they do—to explain which plants they choose not to grow organic and why, for example. "I always associate CSAs with fresh food and a direct connection to farmers," Taylor Erkkinen, co-owner of The Brooklyn Kitchen, which sells local produce, told me. For her, it was the relationship with the farmer and the other CSA members that compensated for any inconveniences.


But the model isn't perfect. For one, farms must be able to provide a varied share of produce throughout the entire season, and they need to grow enough to hedge against risk—if the pepper crop fails, they'll need to make up for it in some other way.

On the consumer side, there are the issues of accessibility—not everyone has the option of joining a CSA—and upfront cost. While a share in a CSA may end up being cheaper than shopping at the farmers market in the end, Taylor of Brooklyn Kitchen thinks that the initial price may still be a barrier to entry. And even if consumers can access and afford a share, they may be hesitant to sign on for the whole season or to surrender their dinners to the mysteries of the package.

And that's where the other sorts of business strategies come in, companies that offer financially-flexible, customizable plans that aim, still, to embody the spirit of the prototypical CSA.

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Take Nextdoorganics, for example. The Brooklyn-based company provides "curated weekly packages of the highest quality sustainable, traceable local organic foods," and their extensive page on sourcing explains the details: Packages can be a mix of produce from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Vermont (with fruit and nuts from California), and the farmers they work with range from "a new women-run, LGBTQ-friendly start-up farm operation" to "a farm and foraging community practicing sacred hospitality and permaculture." Members can sign up at any time, select the package size that works for them, add on pantry items and meat in the webstore, and cancel their box 4 days before pick-up day. Local Roots NYC operates with 15 farmers and food producers to offer vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products for 12-week shares. There's produce, yes, but customers can also buy coffee, bee pollen, and even veggie burger mix.

And both Local Roots and Nextdoorganics call themselves CSAs—which is not necessarily a bad thing or a wrong thing. "Some of the newer models may be helpful for farms that are not growing a large number of things," says Just Food's Paula, and they draw in customers who might have been turned off by the rigidity of the traditional CSA.

Still, the more flexible plans have introduced a middleman who did not exist before, another barrier between farmer and shopper who must take a cut of the funds to continue to operate. And are consumers as invested in the fruits and vegetables when the direct connection to the farmer is severed for the sake of ease and flexibility? "It concerns me that that experience [of getting to know the farmer, of volunteering together] doesn’t have the same weight as convenience," Taylor from Brooklyn Kitchen told me.

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Help Us Decide What to Make with This Week's CSA Share!

And then there are businesses, like Farmbox Direct, that use the halo of a CSA—the allure of local produce delivered to a convenient location—as part of their marketing plan.

Ashley Tyrner told me that they're "one big CSA essentially, but not everyone has the ability to have a CSA." And one of the company's biggest selling points is that boxes can be "customized, meaning you can make 'subs' to the box. For example, say you hate apples; take them out, add something you do like. Note that most CSAs are not customizable." Here again, they've placed themselves in the context of CSAs, broadening (and clouding) the acronym's meaning.

But while local food is integral to both the 1 : 1 CSA model and to the small farm aggregators (like Nextdoorganics and Local Roots NYC), the fruits and vegetables from Farmbox Direct come from a warehouse in the Midwest, so how far it travels—and just how "local" the food is—really depends on the consumers' location. You'd never get bananas in a New York City-based CSA, but with Farmbox Direct, you might be buying tropical fruits from Peru, or wintertime strawberries from California, Ashley explained. And, as the PR email emphasized, your box is partially customizable.

"If you're letting a consumer get everything they want, they'll only get what's available at the supermarket," Local Roots founder Wen-Jay Ying told me, as we were discussing Farmbox Direct: "That means less diversity of crops and less diversity in the organisms on the farm." Plus, allowing consumers to pick and choose what's in their box eliminates, at least in part, the guaranteed, secure market that incentivizes so many farmers to organize a CSA. "If you tell a farmer 24 hours in advance [that you need or no longer need certain produce], it's a frantic way for them to sell their items."

Moreover, larger distributors, especially when they're working with small farmers, have huge buying power—and therefore the ability to put on more pressure: Without an upfront payment to the farmer, he or she might plan to grow a whole field of broccoli only to hear, after its harvested, that the demand is no longer there. That can't happen with a traditional 1 : 1 CSA.

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For Taylor from Brooklyn Kitchen, it's the huge gap between producer and consumer that feels at odds with the 1 : 1 CSA model: "You don’t even see the person who delivered the box, much less who packed the box. It’s so strange to me—and I get it, I have two kids and run a business, I get it—but it’s such a distance. It’s so strange."

Paula of Just Food finds it "funny that [the term CSA has] caught on so much. It didn’t used to be an appealing marketing term, and now it’s something that people use because people think of it in a certain way."

But even if this business is a far cry from the traditional CSA, is it effective in extending access to fresh produce to a wider audience? Listen to Tyrner describe their typical customer—"university students; people who write in and tell us that they're elderly, they're veterans, they can't get out of their homes; busy moms and dads"—and the company's geographic reach (48% of their boxes go to rural areas, which can be, ironically, some of the hardest places in the country to access fresh, high-quality produce)—and you'd think so. And it's hard not to see at least some benefit in that.

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As more and more grocery store replacements and supplements crop up—meal-kit deliveries; produce deliveries; local produce aggregators—the traditional CSA (which some think of as the original alternative sourcing option) is beginning to feel the competition. While Paula and Taylor could not point to an exact moment, both agreed that there has been a market decline in CSAs (here, we're referring to the 1 : 1, farm : community systems) in the past couple of years. "The growth has slowed a bit," Paula's noticed, "and groups are having to work a bit harder to fill up and get the numbers the farms would like to see. Right now, there's more farm interest than growth, and that’s because there are so many options for folks, so many opportunities to connect with food."

Business models will continue to evolve to meet consumer demand ("America is very open to having their food delivered to their door," Ashley told me), and as more companies adopt CSA as a marketing term, the symbiotic relationship that the original CSA tries to maintain might tip towards those with the buying power—the shoppers.

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"The challenge right now is figuring out how much you can play with the model and still have it hold to the core elements of what a CSA is. No one model is perfect for all," she acknowledged, "but I want to make sure that models that keep the farmers’ needs in mind are maintained."

Are you a member of a CSA? A CSA alternative? How did you decide which one to join? Tell us in the comments.