CSAs keeping farms, families in good health

Kai Hagen

July 11, 2003

This week we got blueberries.

Big, beautiful, delicious blueberries.

Even better, they were big, beautiful, delicious, organic blueberries. And better still, they were grown close to home. I enjoyed a generous helping of them on some vanilla ice cream the same day they were picked.

Like virtually everyone else, our family gets most of our food from a big grocery store, along with seasonable stops for fresh fruit and vegetables at local roadside stands. But this year, for the first time, we are getting a sizable share of our fruits and vegetables, as well as eggs and herbs, and even flowers, from our weekly share of the harvest from a new CSA in our part of Frederick county.

CSA stands for "community supported agriculture," a relatively new twist in the business of agriculture. CSA is a unique model of local food production that has steadily grown from its origins in Japan, only thirty years ago. Evolving versions took root in Europe before long. And, as good ideas travel fast, the basic concept was adapted to the U.S. and given the name "Community Supported Agriculture" in Massachusetts, in 1985. By 1999, there were more than 1000 CSA farms in North America, and the number is already approaching 2,000 in the United States today.

While CSAs vary considerably, the basic idea is pretty simple. CSA is a partnership between a farm and members of the local community. Without any middlemen involved in processing, packaging, storing, shipping or retailing, the CSA provides a direct link between the production and consumption of food, at a great price.

Members, or customers, each cover a share of the farm's operating budget by purchasing a share of the season's harvest before the growing season begins. In return for their investment -- generally a few hundred dollars for a share -- CSA members receive a bag (or two) of fresh, locally-grown, usually organic produce once a week from late spring through early fall, and occasionally throughout the winter. A share is typically intended to meet the vegetable needs for a family of four. Depending on the farm, fruit, meat, honey, flowers, eggs and dairy products may also be part of the deal.

Since members prefer a wide variety of produce, a CSA practices integrated cropping and companion planting. These practices help reduce risk factors, such as the drought last year or the heavy rains this year, and give multiple benefits to the soil. Crops are planted in succession to provide a continuous supply of mixed vegetables. And as crops rotate through the summer and beyond, weekly shares vary by volume and content, reflecting local growing seasons and conditions.

There isn't enough room in this column to get into much more detail, but there is a wealth of good information available in the Internet for those who would like to learn more.

Farming can be a tough business in the best of times. It is only made more difficult when you consider suburban expansion and competing land uses, increasing land and production costs, low food prices, the retirement of older farmers and the lack of incentives for young people to stay in or enter farming, as well as the rapidly changing national and global economy, and, as always, the weather.

Americans have long been understandably proud of the most productive agricultural system in the world, and the abundance of choices we have as consumers. It is ironic that hard working farmers are both the foundation of this incredible food production system, and the most vulnerable and suffering part of the agricultural economy.

Community supported agriculture isn't going to solve all of the problems facing farmers or farming today. Even CSA members continue to make regular trips to the grocery store to purchase their other food items, which travel an average of 1,300 miles from the farm to the market shelf. But it is one of those rare ideas that offers a long list of benefits, to farmers, to consumers and to the environment, without any downside.

What's not to like?

Through direct marketing, community supported agriculture gives farmers and growers the fairest return on their products. Certainly much more than the twenty to twenty-five cents farmers usually get out of each dollar spent at the grocery store.

It keeps more of our food dollars in the local community and contributes to the sustainability of our regional farm economy and the preservation of family farms.

Community supported agriculture supports practices that reduce many or most of the environmental burdens associated with modern "factory farming." Certainly, the Chesapeake would benefit from less soil erosion and run-off.

Community supported agriculture increases the connection between the broader community -- consumers -- and farms and farmers, while helping to foster a sense of social responsibility and stewardship of local land.

And CSA members are assured the highest quality, healthy produce, often at below retail prices.

For a number of reasons, Frederick County is an ideal location for community supported agriculture. Not the least of which is that we have a lot of potential customers living close to so many family farms.

All too often, making a difference in our community is thought to require various sorts of personal sacrifice. No doubt, our community benefits immeasurably from many positive contributions made by people who commit some of their skills, time or money to worthwhile projects and causes.

It's nice when you can make a real difference without any sacrifice, at all.

Better still, when you reap the benefits.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at