What is a CSA & why are memberships decreasing?

Community Supported Agriculture consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production.

-United States Dept. of Agriculture

I wanted to talk a little bit about what exactly a CSA is and how it’s defined. Many people have no idea what a CSA is when you mention it in conversation and there can be confusion to know which programs out there are actual CSA’s. Typically, CSA members purchase a share in advance, committing to the farm for the season and helping cover the initial annual costs of the farm operation i.e. seeds, compost, labor costs, etc. before the produce is available to sell and generate revenue for the farm. In return, members receive boxes of the farm’s produce or products throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and being more knowledgeable of local food production. CSA’s create an expansion of knowledge of food and most often push people out of their comfort zones, introducing them to new ingredients that one would be too intimidated to buy on their own and to varieties of produce that are not found in general stores. CSA farmers use sustainable and organic methods to produce high quality produce to reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment. By being a CSA member your dollars are literally going directly to the farmer at full retail value for their farm products.

However, there are more and more businesses better known as “box schemes” that advertise themselves as CSA’s and will deliver “local” food to your desired pick-up site. Local to the entire state of California? These companies haul in produce from multiple farms around the state and even the from around the country and store the goods in a warehouse before they are packed and shipped out on trucks. The consumer doesn’t build a relationship with any of the farmers involved and may not know exactly where their food is coming from. When you support a real local CSA your box is not a hodgepodge of products amassed from throughout the region or country, but rather a delicious box containing the bounty of your farm, picked, washed and prepared by your farmer, for you. (csacoalition.org)

In 1965 a CSA equivalent, called teikei, which literally translated means “partnership” or “cooperation”, was first developed in Japan by a group of women concerned with the use of pesticides, the increase in processed and imported foods and the corresponding decrease in the farm population. The more philosophical translation for teikei is “food with the farmer’s face”. These women initiated a direct, cooperative relationship in which local farmers were supported by consumers on an annual basis.

Around the same time, a similar model started in Europe. Instead of being formed by concerned consumers, however, in Europe the new model was an outgrowth of biodynamic farming. Biodynamic farming is based on the idea that all living organisms—including land, plants, and animals—are dependent on one another. Cooperative farmers in Holland and Switzerland developed models similar to CSA as an economic and social component to these ideas of interdependence.

In 1984 the CSA model was brought to a farm in Massachusetts and has since spread from the East Coast out to the West. (http://www.justfood.org/csa/history)

Here at Fifth Crow we highly value our CSA customers. We grow crops specifically for our members and many of these crops can not be purchased at our market stalls. We give priority to the CSA when a new crop comes on; for example when our apples, blackberries, rhubarb, eggplant, tomatoes, etc. have been ready for harvesting we’ve doled it out to the CSA before any have gone to market. Have you noticed that we haven’t been selling our dry beans at market for the past couple of months? That’s because we’ve got them set aside for our CSA members. We give our members first priority of our delicious eggs before any are packed for markets. We offer our members access to our wholesale list so if you are throwing a party you can order food from us at a lesser cost than if you were to buy it all at market. For the most part I’m able to pick out and sort through our harvests that come in from the fields to ensure that you are getting the crème de la crème of our produce. I feel like I am your personal shopper and I want to pick out the highest of quality for your shares (with a little edge to it sometimes because as we all know, not all food looks like what we’re used to in the super markets). We strive to make you all feel like this is your personal farm because it truly is.

CSA’s around the country have been seeing a drop in memberships. The New York times recently published an article on this exact topic. www.nytimes.com/2016/07/20/dining/csa-farm-share-community-supported-agriculture.html (Full Belly Farm located in Yolo, CA is one of the farms the article highlights and one that is very similar to our operation here at Fifth Crow). This decline is due to a variety of reasons including meal delivery companies like Blue Apron that deliver a planned meal with the exact portions of ingredients along with a recipe directly to your doorstep as well as the many more flexible options consumers have in accessing fresh food rather than committing to a CSA share that is planned by the farmers and not the members themselves. There are over 9,000 farmers markets across the country now and chains like Whole Foods and small Food Co-Ops popping up as well. While it’s great to have these options available is does affect CSA farms. (www.smallfarmcentral.com/Blog-Item-Will-Blue-Apron-replace-CSA-farms)

One of the issues facing CSA farms is that there are no legal definitions in place to define what a CSA. California is the only state to have actually put into legislature what defines a CSA. I’ve copied and pasted below the basic legal definitions but if you’d like to read more here’s the link… California legislature

I’d love to open this topic up for discussion and get feedback from you eaters out there who decide to support farms like Fifth Crow through the CSA program and what responses you may have when you tell people you are part of a CSA. I know I’m always having to explain what my job is when I talk to people…

SEC. 2.

Article 6 (commencing with Section 47060) is added to Chapter 10.5 of Division 17 of the Food and Agricultural Code, to read:

Article  6. Community-Supported Agriculture


For purposes of this article, the following definitions apply:
(a) “Community-supported agriculture program” or “CSA program” means a program under which a registered California direct marketing producer, or a group of registered California direct marketing producers, grow food for a group of California consumer shareholders or subscribers who pledge or contract to buy a portion of the future crop, animal production, or both, of a registered California direct marketing producer or a group of registered California direct marketing producers.
(b) “Single-farm community-supported agriculture program” means a program in which all delivered farm products originate from and are produced at the farm of one registered California direct marketing producer, and no more than a de minimus amount of delivered farm products originate at the farms of other registered California direct marketing producers.
(c) “Multi-farm community-supported agriculture program” means a program in which all delivered farm products originate from and are produced at one or more farms of a group of registered California direct marketing producers who declare their association as a group at the time of their annual certification or by amending the annual certification during the year.
(d) “Farm” means a farm operated by a registered California direct marketing producer or a group of registered California direct marketing producers.


(a) A producer that markets whole produce, shell eggs, or processed foods through a single-farm community-supported agriculture program or multi-farm community-supported agriculture program shall comply with all of the following:
(1) Register annually with the department as a California direct marketing producer, which shall include both of the following:
(A) A statement specifying whether the producer is part of a single-farm community supported agriculture program or multi-farm community-supported agriculture program.
(B) (i) A declaration by the producer that he or she is knowledgeable and intends to produce in accordance with good agricultural practices, as outlined in the small farm food safety guidelines published by the department.
(ii) A declaration made pursuant to this subparagraph shall not be used to infer that the producer is not required to comply with any other state or federal laws relative to food safety and good agricultural practices.
(2) Label the consumer box or container used to deliver farm products to the consumer with the name and address of the farm delivering the box or container.
(3) Maintain the consumer boxes or containers in a condition that prevents contamination.
(4) Inform consumers, either by including a printed list in the consumer box or container or by delivering a list electronically to the consumer, of the farm of origin of each item in the consumer box or container.
(5) Maintain records that document the contents and origin of all of the items included in each consumer box or container, in accordance with department regulations.