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Online Exclusive: The Growth of Community Supported Agriculture

by Steven Jakobi

CSA Week 5. Photo courtesy Flickr: Christopher Paquette

In the early 1990s I lived in Concord, Massachusetts. Despite growing up in a big city, I was always interested in agriculture—especially the natural way of farming. So in 1991, my then wife and I became board members in the Massachusetts chapter of the Natural Organic Farmers Association, NOFA. Since then, NOFA has morphed into the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Back then, organic farming was just beginning to take off on the east coast, and I grew to know many Massachusetts organic farmers and their production methods.

One of the individuals I met was an organic farmer named Robyn VanEn. Cofounder of the Indian Line Farm in Berkshire County, Mass., she was an early proponent of Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. She learned this approach of doing business from a Swiss friend and introduced the CSA concept to the U.S. in 1985. From a modest 200 or so in 1991, CSAs today number well over 6,000 and the list is still growing. Robyn VanEn’s vision of CSAs had three important benefits: saving farmland from development, re-establishing local and regional food supplies to benefit consumers, and bringing back community involvement to farming.

According to the latest census figures, less than two percent of the U.S. population lives on farms today. Many people have no real idea where food comes from, other than it miraculously appears in the grocery store. Sociologists point out that many of our citizens have lost contact with the basic values of land stewardship, cycles of renewal, and the treasures of what poet Wendell Berry called “this once bountiful and beautiful land.”

But what is Community Supported Agriculture? Like all good ideas, the concept of CSAs is straightforward, yet brilliant in its simplicity. The consumer, in effect, becomes a “shareholder” in the production of agricultural goods. The subscriber pays a sum of money up front for a certain level (or “share”) of crops raised during the growing season. The farmer upholds his/her end of the bargain by providing an agreed-upon quantity, quality and variety of produce on a regular (usually weekly) basis during the growing seasons.

Consumers benefit by getting fresh, locally grown products at a much less expensive price than would be purchased in a grocery store. The farmer benefits by having the capital to buy supplies at a time when they are most needed, by increasing the farm’s profit margin, and by diluting the risk involved in what is a most unpredictable business venture. Having an already established clientele takes away the worry, stress, and expense of having to market the products and frees the farmer to do the best possible job for the consumer. In addition to getting fresh and wholesome food, the local community also benefits by saving the farmer from potential financial difficulties and, thus, keeping farmland from being developed into housing developments or strip malls.

Consumer participation in the farm can vary depending on the availability of time, level of interest, and personality of the farmer. Some subscribers drive to the farm weekly to put in a few hours of work in exchange for a reduced price of the share. Others make a family outing of going to the farm to pick up produce and visit with the farmer and other shareholders.  Still others may simply wish to get their shares at conveniently located, prearranged locations in towns or at farmers markets.

A typical share in the northeast consists of a twenty-week or so supply of fresh produce. In the early spring, cool season greens, radishes, spring onions, and spinach are usually available. As the season progresses, carrots, peas, and beets mature. Summer, of course, is the high volume season when tomatoes, melons, peppers, cucumbers, corn, beans, garlic, onions, and summer squash, and cut flowers are included in the typical fare. In fall, potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, spinach and a variety of other greens are offered. Many farmers extend the growing season by offering honey, grains and flour, poultry, eggs, maple syrup, and other value-added products (at an additional cost).

Most CSA farms are certified organic or carry a “naturally grown” designation. The difference is the level of certification, but both types of operations avoid the use of prohibited chemicals and farming practices. There is a “transitional certification” for those farms that are in the process of transitioning over a three-year period from agrochemical-based to organic agriculture. When considering joining a CSA, the following questions could help the decision-making:

  1. What is the cost of a share per household member or per family?
  2. Would any family members consider “getting their hands dirty” in exchange for a reduced share price, and does the CSA farm offer this option?
  3. Is it possible to pay the cost of the share in installments, rather than all up front?
  4. How much produce does a family need or is capable of consuming in a week?
  5. Are family members willing to try new things (e.g. Brussels sprouts, arugula, etc.)?
  6. What range of products does the CSA offer?

Robyn VanEn died in 1997 but her Massachusetts farm continues the CSA model with a new set of dedicated organic farmers. Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, established the Robyn VanEn Center in honor of the founder of the CSA model in the USA. She would be both amazed and pleased to see the phenomenal growth of CSA farms in the past twenty years. And this concept appears to have staying power, unlike the fads and gimmicks that come and go. To find a CSA near you, search the Wilson College database of more than 1,600 farms, or look at an impressive list of CSA farms at or


Steven Jakobi is a Master Gardener Volunteer for the Allegany County Cornell Cooperative Extension.

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