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What Is a CSA and Why You Should Join One

A CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is a way to support farmers in your area by buying into a share of food for the growing season. Similar models existed in Europe, Japan and elsewhere before its arrival in the U.S. in the 1980s.

Fresh Fork Market CSA in Cleveland, Ohio aggregates products from about 100 farms within a 75-mile radius. Photo credit: Fresh Fork Market

Inspired by Rudolf Steiner, the philosopher and social reformer who is credited with developing Waldorf education and biodynamic agriculture, a German and a Swiss biodynamic farmer brought the concept to the U.S. and simultaneously but independently established Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire in 1986.

Flash forward to 2015 and there are now several thousand farms participating in CSA programs across the U.S. The popularity of these programs stems from a desire for consumers to connect with and support local growers who are farming in an ecologically sound way.

It's a win-win for consumers and growers because consumers get delicious, fresh and mostly, if not all, organic produce throughout the growing season, and growers have the financial support from their customers at the beginning of the season. Other benefits for farmers include being able to market the food early in the year before the height of the growing season and being able to know the people they are feeding with their food.

Farming has always been risky business. Pests, disease, natural disasters and now climate change can devastate a farm. The benefit of a CSA is that members pay upfront and agree to be flexible with what comes in their share. For example, late-season frost may destroy stone fruits like peaches one season, and customers have to deal with that. Most CSA programs can compensate for a shortage of one crop with other produce.

CSA programs vary. Some are as small as a dozen customers while others have 3,500 customers. There are CSAs made up of one farm and others aggregate products from 100 or more farms in the area.

Fresh Fork Market CSA in Cleveland, Ohio aggregates products from about 100 farms within a 75-mile radius. It operates year-round, providing its 3,500 customers with a weekly share in the summer and a bi-weekly share in the winter. Fresh Fork offers meat, dairy, vegetables, fruits, grains and even value-added products such as pies, salsa and Bloody Mary mix that are made using the area's products. Some of the producers include Newswanger Meats, Eschelman Fruit Farm and Snowville Creamery.

First Light Farm in Petaluma, California, on the other hand, runs a CSA program from their 20-acre farm alone. The farm offers a fairly diverse array of vegetables, herbs and fruits to consumers in Sonoma and Marin Counties. Bay Area residents could, for example, pair that CSA subscription with one to Marin Sun Farms, which offers grass-fed and pastured raised meats, to get more of their food from local sources.

Local Harvest, which is a website that connects consumers with local growers, has a database of more than 6,000 farms to help you find a CSA near you.

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