The CSA Craze: What is it?

Do you desire fresh, seasonal produce but want to skip the work of growing it? Are you interested in supporting local, sustainable agriculture? Or are you considering selling what you grow or make, but don’t know how?

If you’re interested in eating or selling local produce, its time to learn about the growing popularity of CSAs!

Why is the CSA model becoming so popular?

CSAs provide stable income to growers while supplying members with quality, fresh, local food. Yum, yum!

What is a CSA?

CSA stands for “community supported agriculture.” It’s a symbiotic relationship between the grower and the local community. 

In a CSA, the members pre-purchase foods and goods from the grower guaranteeing that they will receive fresh, local food throughout the season. 

These pre-purchases provide guaranteed income to the grower and much needed cash at a time when the grower most needs it – early in the season. 

If the harvest is bountiful, the grower shares the bounty with its CSA members. If due to disease, weather, or pests, the harvest is leaner, members receive less. 

In this way, the financial rewards and burdens are shared among the community. CSAs are an important element of creating a healthy and sustainable agricultural future!

How does a CSA work?

There are different models for CSAs, but some common features are:

  • Members pay in advance for food the grower plans to produce. 
  • Members receive a “share box” or “produce box” weekly, typically picked up by the member at the farm or local farmer’s market on a set day. 
  • Typical CSA share boxes include a variety of locally grown, fresh produce. Boxes may also include baked goods, dairy, eggs, or personal care products. 
  • The exact array of products varies depending on the harvest.

Different types of CSAs

There are several different models for CSAs. 

Some offer membership with a single farm that grows a variety of produce. These farms may also offer additional products such as dairy, grain, honey or maple syrup, meat, eggs, baked goods, cut flowers, candles, or creams and soaps. 

Some smaller growers provide CSAs as a collective. The collective may be organized through a local farmer’s market, grower’s association or retailer. Here in Ann Arbor, we have Argus Farm Stop, which sells locally grown produce, meats and dairy at its retail locations while also offering weekly produce boxes. 

Length of membership 

Some CSA memberships run for a full year (more often the case with single farm memberships).

Other CSA memberships, either collective or single farm, run for a distinct growing season. Others offer memberships in chunks of several weeks at a time with members able to opt-in for the next round of boxes or skip it if they choose. 

As a grower, it is possible to run multiple CSAs – some direct, some collective, and some seasonal. 

The collective model is particularly interesting for smaller and emerging growers as it adds another layer of stability with the responsibility for producing the boxes being shared among several growers. 

Click here to watch A Growing Business interview Dillon Krauss about his CSA, Gopal’s Pantry

Click here to learn the steps to starting your own CSA!

Joining a CSA

I have heard it said by growers that there are few words more marketable than “fresh, locally grown” and I’ve noticed that the CSAs offered by our local market sell out every season. 

It is often the case that there are more people interested in joining a CSA than know how to go about it. 

Farmers markets and farm stands are great places to learn about or advertise a CSA. Community boards, email lists and local publications and blogs can also be great resources.

Not everyone knows what CSA stands for, so if you are marketing a CSA, make sure your marketing materials make clear that a regular supply of “fresh, quality, locally grown” produce is being offered. 

How much are members charged?

A typical CSA plan runs from $15 to $60 per week with the price higher for expensive, urban centers like NYC. Boxes that include more sophisticated products like meat and baked goods or are guaranteed organic may cost more.

Here in Ann Arbor, we pay $30/week for our CSA membership. A typical fall box includes 4-5 apples, onions, garlic, two salad greens, beets, sweet potatoes, kale, and a large squash. 

But sometimes the offerings are unexpected. Like that time I got a loofah sponge and learned that loofahs are actually made from the “skeleton” of a tropical plant!

The produce in membership boxes does not have to look perfect, but it is typically high quality and costs less than if purchased at the farmer’s market.

What are the benefits of joining a CSA?

While the benefits to the grower are a guaranteed stream of income, and increased liquidity during the growing season, there are also plenty of benefits for members.

Supporting local agriculture. CSAs support the local economy, the environment and sustainable agriculture practices.

Seasonal, locally grown produce. CSA members no longer have to wander the fluorescent-lit aisles of the grocery store wondering what’s in season. CSAs bring healthy, local, in-season foods right to them!

Healthier menu ideas. Within 5 weeks of joining my first CSA, I had cooked 10 vegetables I had never cooked before. Our CSA box includes a printed sheet with a list of the farms included and a recipe for at least one of the box’s ingredients. 

Excitement. It is exciting to receive a produce box! Members enjoy the experience of discovery and to help them plan, some CSAs send an email a few days before the box is available detailing what will be inside. 

CSA Final Thoughts

CSAs offer an incredible opportunity for growers to increase financial stability while building a consistent, dedicated customer base! Whether you are interested in building a complex growing operation or dream of a side business growing microgreens or flowers – or even if you plan on making baked goods or personal care products from homegrown ingredients – CSAs offer a unique model for profitability. 

For members, CSAs are an exciting and delicious way to stock up on fresh produce while connecting with and supporting their local agricultural community!

Connecting growers with the local community through a CSA model is an exciting undertaking capable of creating a bountiful harvest for grower and member alike! 

Click here to watch an interview with Dillon Krauss about his CSA, Gopal’s Pantry!

Click here to learn the steps to starting your own CSA!

Click here to subscribe to the A Growing Business YouTube channel and learn more about sustainable business practices!

Rosamond Rice is a fiction writer, blogger, and organic microfarming enthusiast living in Southeast Michigan.