While large-scale operations dominate agriculture in the United States—and have for decades—smaller farms have been able to find niches where in local and regional markets, as well as providing specialty products on the web.
At one time, especially before World War II, the U.S. had an extensive local food network, but the emergence of supermarket chains, coupled with improved transportation networks and changes in food handling and processing, eclipsed those markets. Food was marketed increasingly as prepackaged products for mass consumption.
Over the past several decades, however, interest in locally grown foods has revived gradually across the country. Several factors are in play, including worries about food safety, environmental damage associated with industrial agriculture, the desire for better-quality foods associated with local producers, and concern that the industrial model of agriculture has harmed rural communities through farm consolidation that encourages population outmigration.
Some communities seeking to enhance local food production have relied on more traditional direct marketing, where a farmer grows the produce, prepares it for market, and then sells to consumers at a roadside stand or farm market. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there were 8,476 farmers’ markets in 2014, up from 2,863 in 2000, and 1,755 in 1994. They tend to be concentrated in populated areas of the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. Other farmers might market to restaurants, schools, or other food outlets. In both cases, the farmer assumes all of the risk.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) offers a direct-marketing alternative. The idea dates back to at least the 1980s, and allows farmers to share production risks with customers in a cooperation-based relationship. Multiple households purchase “shares” or subscriptions from a local farm at the beginning of the growing season. In exchange for the initial investment to capitalize the operation, the farmer delivers baskets of seasonally appropriate vegetables, fruits, and other produce to the households throughout the season. No one knows for sure how many CSAs there are in the U.S., but 6,000 seems a reasonable estimate. This compares with about 2 million-plus farms overall.
Many CSAs feature community involvement in the farming operation, such as volunteer labor in lieu of part of the share price, or social events on the farm. The model has become important to the expanding local food movement in North America, with an emphasis on “civic agriculture” rather than “industrial agriculture.” It is touted as sustainable because the farms are environmentally friendly, supportive of communities, and economically profitable.
The Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs recently published Cooperation and Competition in the Local Food Movement: A Focus on Community Supported Agriculture, a policy brief that examines highlights of a national survey of CSAs conducted in the summer of 2014. The Institute’s Cooperative Development Center conducted the study for USDA.
The survey findings suggest that CSA operations have distinctive characteristics but face some similar issues to larger, more traditional farms. (The results are based on 154 useable responses out of 637 potential respondents, a 25.3 percent response rate. This type of survey can introduce bias depending on who decides to participate, but it’s still a useful tool for learning more about the people who own and operate CSAs. There’s more on methodology in the policy brief.)
Here’s what the survey found:
+ Women operated more than 60 percent of CSA farms, about double the percent of female conventional farm operators.
+ About 45 percent of the CSA operators were aged 41 to 60, and about 28 percent were aged 26 to 40, younger than conventional farmers, whose average age is about 58.
+ CSA operators were highly educated, with about 82 percent holding a college or postgraduate degree. More than 45 percent of those operators had a college degree, and about 36 percent had a post-graduate degree.
+ Like larger farms, CSAs face problems with the “cost-price squeeze” as they work to juggle the cost of running the farm with the income from their sales. CSA operators have increased the number of acres planted. Their operations remain labor-intensive, sometimes using volunteers. They have slightly increased machinery use to keep costs down. In addition, they have, in many cases, raised share prices for consumers.
+ Most CSA operators tended to be committed to environmentally friendly farming strategies.
+ CSA operators appeared to be less motivated by profit than they were by other more idealistic considerations.
+ More than three-quarters of the CSA farmers did not grow up on a farm.
+ Generally, CSAs provided supplemental income for farm families.
While there certainly are idyllic moments in owning and operating a CSA, these are business operations with relatively high turnover. The study found that more than a third of the addresses in the original sample of about 1,000 farms were bad. In addition, a quarter of the final response of 154 operators reported having gone out of business.
CSAs are highly individualized operations, where customers put high levels of trust in the farmer to provide quality food with something of a premium for the personal care that goes into the production. A CSA is very much a personal operation, heavily dependent on the owner’s labor.
The conundrum for today’s CSA operators, like their forebears of a century ago, involves pressure to increase in size and use more mechanization. This is a response to market forces that demand bigger, more efficient operations to balance costs and prices, as well as challenges from within farming operations related to labor and quality of life. Competition and the economic realities of farming challenge altruistic operators.
If nothing else, policies need to be locally oriented with the goal of “letting CSA farms be CSA farms.” Policies should be carefully crafted to avoid encouraging scaling up simply for the sake of scaling up, and should instead focus on increasing the environmental, economic, and social sustainability of individual CSA farms — at whatever scale this represents for any given farm. This approach is accommodated by several programs under the 2014 Farm Bill, including the Farmers’ Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Value-Added Producer Grants, Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance, and national organic certification cost sharing.
CSAs have evolved into a niche of American agriculture. They have continuing potential to fill a growing need for sustainable agriculture on what some would call a more human scale.
Nurturing CSAs so they can operate on a scale that promises reasonable return for labor, high-quality, locally produced foods for consumers, and an emphasis on sustainability is a central policy consideration not only for the federal government, but also for local and state governments.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Other members of the survey team included Christopher D. Merrett, and Fred Iutzi, Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, Western Illinois University; Heather McIlvaine-Newsad, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Western Illinois University; and Tom Sadler, Department of Economics, Western Illinois University. Collins also is the proprietor of Then and Now Media and author of Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.