Patrick Dunn - Jun 20, 2016

Choosing A CSA That Fits Your Farm

Packing CSA boxes at Love Apple Farm

Community Supported Agriculture programs have been a stronghold in the sustainable agriculture movement for over 30 years. Every winter and early spring, tens of thousands of individuals and families join local farmers in the risks of farming. This model has been integral to the success and growth of sustainable agriculture in America. As farmers, we know the importance of the CSA model: bringing our communities together to support the food system and most importantly, giving us an initial financial investment at the beginning of our season. 

Over the years, technology and popularity have given way to a multitude of CSA models. Depending on what model a farm may offer, CSAs can be overwhelming or enjoyable; time consuming; uneconomical or a pivotal source of financing.

Here we will discuss three main types of CSA models that have been successful all over the country: “Boxed” Subscription Style, On-Farm “Market” Style and Farmers Market “Bucks” Style. All three have strong pros but also may not be the best fit for every farm. With a little bit of forethought you can save yourself money and headaches by choosing the best fit for you.

“Boxed” Subscription Style

This model is typically thought of as the most common type of CSA. The member pays the farmer an allotted amount of money for a particular size “share”. The farmer then delivers a box of produce every week to a common location or stores on the farm where members come to pick it up The customer has little say in this CSA model, but the farmer has more control and it can help give more structure to your season’s crop plan.

This model is great for larger scale farms who already have delivery routes and have a huge diversity of crops to make an abundant and unique box every week. The downside to this model is that often times there is less of a connection between the farmer/farm and its members. One way to address this is by having on-farm work parties to help plant the season’s first crops or CSA Member parties in the Autumn to celebrate the season’s bounty.

On-Farm Market Style

This style is much more interactive and member focused, bringing customers onto the farm, giving them the opportunity to connect with you, the farmer, and the land itself.  In this model, members come and enter a space set up like a market. They then follow directions usually posted on chalkboards listing varieties and quantities. You can even offer U-pick options for specific crops, giving members the opportunity to participate on the farm and have a hands-on experience.
This model is great for farms that are close to highly populated areas and want to have more of a connection to their members. It can be a fun and social time for both parties as well as offer a space for community gathering. It also takes less time filling and loading boxes like the Box Delivery model.

One con is that this model does require having liability insurance and understanding the risks of bringing the public onto your farm. Making sure it is clean and safe is a high priority for this option. Also, staffing the market area and giving tutorials on harvesting U-pick crops can take time away from more high priority tasks.

Farmer’s Market “Bucks” Style

This model is perhaps the most recent iteration of a CSA. In this model, customers essentially purchase credit for use at the farmer’s market later in the season. The farmer still gets the initial investment that is so important, but this gives the customer more freedom to choose the produce they want, when they want it. It also gives the farmer the ability to focus on specific crops, offering a range of produce, but not needing to feel the pressure of extreme diversity that the other two models can often incur.

This model is great for farmers who have many markets and a large following. It is also beneficial for farms that don’t necessarily have the time to make deliveries or are too far away to do the on-farm market style. It is great for customers who travel a lot or have inconsistent availability for share pick-up, but have ample options for farmer’s market visits.

One major con for this model is what to do with unspent credit at the end of the season. The goal is for the customer to spend the entire amount of their share before the season is up. Some farms allow the credit to roll-over and others refund the credit. There are many ways to do this but it is essential to come up with an agreement at sign-up. For the farmer, a major downside is losing regular market sales and the difficulties of keeping track of the credit within the greater sales of the farm.

These three models are unique and also have the ability to be morphed to fit your farm. Some other great models include forming cooperative CSAs with nearby farms; offering value added products; working with other farms to offer add-ons like meat, eggs or grains; flexible week CSAs; work trades and so much more. Taking into account every aspect of your operation, from its location, to time management, all the way to your farming and business ideals, will help you decide which model is best for you.

For further reading on CSAs, check out these articles by:

Chapter 10: The Legal Guide to Direct Farm Marketing

The Rodale Institute:

ASAP (Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project):

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Patrick Dunn has been farming for over 9 years and his experience ranges from production scale market farming to community based urban agriculture. He studied at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UCSC and co-founded Emerald Street Community Farm and Master Street Farm in Philadelphia, PA. When Patrick isn't farming, you can find him dangling from ropes high on the granite walls of Yosemite or jetting off to the mountains for solitude in the wilderness.


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