by Craig Idlebrook
October 2, 2012
More than two decades ago, Scout and Matt Proft decided to try something new at their farm, Someday Farm, in East Dorset. After much lobbying by their customers, the couple began to take paid pre-orders for their produce and free-range meat birds before the growing season started.
“Nobody knew what it was, so we called it a share program,” said Scout Proft.
The Profts didn’t know it at the time, but they were taking part in an innovative new marketing strategy that would sweep through the agricultural community in the United States. Dubbed community-supported agriculture, or CSAs for short, it has become a go-to model for small farms to market to customers.
Like many CSA programs, the Profts began their program by packaging produce in a box for weekly pickups, as well as selling shares in poultry and maple syrup. Since then, their program has grown more sophisticated, with regular newsletters to keep customers informed and pickups at off-site farmstands, where customers get preferential treatment.
Scout Proft says the CSA program has proven invaluable for the couple to raise needed funds in the spring to buy chicks, seeds and feed. It also helps them maintain a deep connection with their customers.
“It would be a lot easier to drop off the lettuce at the local restaurant, but that’s not why we do it,” Proft said.
Someday Farm is just one of dozens of CSA-connected farms in Vermont, according to the website Local Harvest, believed to be one of the most comprehensive online resources for CSA listings. The CSA movement has taken root throughout the United States since 1985, when a pair of farmers in nearby Great Barrington, Mass., is believed to have started the first CSA program in the country.
This fall, thousands of farmers will receive the USDA questionnaire asking about their farming practices. Nestled among the dozens of boxes to check off is a brief question that asks farmers if they “marketed their products through a Community-Supported Agriculture arrangement.”
But a debate has arisen as to how many CSA programs exist in the U.S., as well as what constitutes a CSA. This fall, the USDA will send out a questionnaire that, among other things, will try to count how many farms are involved with CSAs. It’s the second time the USDA has tried to take a headcount of CSA farms, and the first attempt sparked controversy. CSA advocates argued that the original USDA question was too vague and led to an inaccurate count.
This fall, thousands of farmers will receive the USDA questionnaire asking about their farming practices. Nestled among the dozens of boxes to check off is a brief question that asks farmers if they “marketed their products through a Community-Supported Agriculture arrangement.” It’s the exact same wording of the question as was on the previous questionnaire. While the form offers boxes to check for “yes” and “no”, the debate over the number of CSA programs in the U.S. has proven anything but simple.
In 2009, the same question led the USDA to declare that 12,549 farms were involved in CSAs, thousands more than previously thought. But even though the findings cast a favorable glow on CSA programs, farm activists publicly challenged the estimate, saying the USDA figures were wildly distorted. The estimate represented more than four times the farms listed in 2009 by Local Harvest, a nonprofit that many believe has the most comprehensive listing of CSAs in the country.
The 2009 USDA figures seemed especially questionable for Ryan Galt, a professor of Human and Community Development at the University of California Davis. Galt had been researching local food systems in California when the census came out, and he felt he had a good handle on which farms ran CSA programs locally. He believed there were four or five CSA farms operating in Stanislaus County, where he had grown up, but the USDA census said there were 36.
“It just didn’t make any sense to me, the numbers and where they were located,” Galt said.
Galt believes the USDA census question may be unintentionally confusing farmers in two ways. First, the questionnaire did not offer a definition of community-supported agriculture. Secondly, it did not ask farmers if they manage their own CSA programs; it simply asked if they have taken part in one. Such criteria can mean that if a farm sells apricots to a CSA program once a year, it would answer yes to the question.
Despite the pushback over its previous estimate, the USDA chose not to revise the CSA question in its 2012 survey because the question is doing what it was designed to do, said Donald Buysse, chief of the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.
“The intent of the question was not to get at the number of CSAs. The attempt of the question was to get at the number of farms that contribute to CSAs,” said Buysse.
Regardless of whose estimate is used, CSA numbers have grown rapidly alongside the local food movement in the last decade, taking root in places with high population density, few places to garden and a strong network of small-scale vegetable farms, said Barnett.
But CSA distribution is far from even throughout the U.S. CSA markers on the Local Harvest map are so plentiful in Vermont and Massachusetts that they blot out all other geography, but the markers are scarce in the Midwest. Large-scale Midwest corn and soy farmers have little use for the CSA model; it makes the most sense with farmers tending little pockets of land, like in New England.
Some organizations are experimenting with having shareholders acting more like cooperative owners of a farm; other customers have banded together to skirt raw milk issues by collectively “buying” a cow on a farm. Size varies widely, as well. Some CSAs like to cap their shareholder size to 50, while others have some 1,000 shareholders.
“The model lends itself well to the geography,” Barnett said.
It’s also vital to have a population ready to embrace the CSA concept. It’s no surprise then that CSAs are thriving in Vermont, says Erin Buckwalter, direct-marketing coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.
“The local food movement is particularly strong in Vermont,” Buckwalter said.
In fact, farmers in Vermont do a higher percentage of their business through direct marketing models, including CSAs, than anywhere else in the country, she said. A CSA model, while not right for every farmer, has the potential for a high return on marketing investment, Buckwalter said.
“It’s the most bang for the buck,” she said.
The best aspect of the CSA model for farmers is that it offers them access to investment partners, she said. Farmers receive capital in the spring, when they need it most and have the least amount of liquidity. CSA customers also assume some of the risk of farming, and even sometimes help out when disaster strikes. Several farms were rebuilt with donations by CSA members after the devastation of Hurricane Irene. In return, CSA customers get first pick of a farm’s bounty and a connection with how their food is grown, she said.
But CSAs can come in so many different forms, says Barnett. Some organizations are experimenting with having shareholders acting more like cooperative owners of a farm; other customers have banded together to skirt raw milk issues by collectively “buying” a cow on a farm. Size varies widely, as well. Some CSAs like to cap their shareholder size to 50, while others have some 1,000 shareholders.
A few CSAs are actually more like distributors, with farms offering local produce unless it’s not available, in which case they turn to non-local sources. Such a setup can lead to some hard-to-answer questions for consumers about where their food is coming from and how it is grown, which is the opposite of the original purpose of a CSA, Barnett says.
“That just leaves room for huge potential for abuse,” Barnett says.
More often, the CSA model is becoming more sophisticated and nuanced as it is tailored to a farm’s individual needs, like at True Love Farm in North Bennington. Here, farmers Karen and Steven Trubitt have adapted their farm’s organic CSA program to offer greater ease and fun for customers. For their summer CSA program, the Trubitts sell vouchers that customers can redeem anytime at the True Love farmstand on market days. Shareholders get first priority and can call ahead to have food put aside, which gives them more flexibility than the traditional CSA model, said Karen Trubitt.
“It’s pretty in tune with modern lifestyles,” she said.
Their winter CSA program is more traditional, with customers picking up shares of root cellar vegetables and greens at the farm. But each basket of vegetables also contains a goodie, be it a homemade pizza crust or gourmet cheese made from a nearby farm. The treat is a thank-you gift for investing in the Trubitts’ farm and being part of their community, said Karen Trubitt.
“They are the group that allows us to put seeds into the ground,” she said. “That relationship inspires us.”
Results from the 2012 USDA survey are expected sometime in 2014. Whatever number is generated from that survey most likely will not quell the debate over the future of CSAs in the U.S.