A Closer Look at What is “Community-Supported Agriculture (C.S.A.)”

Julia Moskin reported in today’s New York Times that, “Community-supported agriculture was originally defined by a very particular relationship between a farm and its customers. Starting in the 1980s (earlier in Europe and Japan), members banded together to support a nearby farm with an upfront financial commitment to buy its produce.

It was a private transaction in which all the money went directly to the farmer. It did not rely on distributors or brick-and-mortar stores, and it gave farmers a crucial infusion of cash for the winter, used to buy seeds, repair equipment and expand into new growing methods.”

Ms. Moskin noted that, “As demand for local and organic produce has ballooned in the last five years, so have other ideas for connecting farmers to customers. Now, online hubs are using sophisticated distribution technology to snap into the food chain, often using ‘C.S.A.’ to describe what they deliver.

The term is not regulated in most states, so companies can define it as they wish…[A]s the ‘farm share’ concept has spread, the C.S.A. has become just another part of the sprawling, messy modern system of knowing where your food comes from and choosing what you want to eat.

The opportunity for confusion is of enormous concern to many farmers in the New York region. Depending on how and where these new businesses buy their produce, consumers can receive all the benefits of C.S.A. membership, while the farmers get only a fraction. Some farmers say that after years of steady growth, their C.S.A. memberships have dropped since the arrival of services like Local Roots or Farmigo.”

Today’s article pointed out that, “‘At first it seemed like these services were going to be great for us,’ said Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht, an owner of Garden of Eve farm on the North Fork of Long Island. Some of them supplied software management programs and marketing tools; others offered premium prices close to farmers’ market rates; others picked up the produce instead of requiring farmers to deliver to a central warehouse.

But the drawbacks can outweigh the benefits. Some say that these hubs have siphoned off their members, partly by offering a more convenient product, but also by blurring the definition of terms like ‘C.S.A.’ and ‘farm share,’ so that customers believe they are directly supporting local farms with their purchases when they might not.”

In her Times article, Ms. Moskin added that: “Now that local food has become big business, Target and Walmart are trying to get a piece of it, and even Amazon is delivering locally grown kale. This new demand has been a boon for many farmers across the country, especially large-scale farmers equipped to sell in bulk; new sales channels have been opened that they could never have accessed independently.

“Small farmers say they have no problem with new markets for local food; they just don’t want them to be called C.S.A.s.

“Paula Lukats is the program director of Just Food, an advocacy and education group for local agriculture in New York State. She confirmed that after a peak in 2010, memberships in community-supported agriculture groups have been going down ‘across the board.’ For the sake of clarity, she said, she wishes that middlemen would stop using the term ‘C.S.A.’ altogether.”

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