Real CSAs Only, Please

Mar 6, 2012
Posted by: Small Farm Central

I ran across an article about Andrew Stout at Washington state's Full Circle Farm who has 18,000 subscribers in four states -- including "several remote Alaskan towns that are only accessible by boat or airplane" such as Barrow, Alaska.

I have been aware of Andrew at Full Circle Farm since they were running a paltry 2000+ members in 2004 when he spoke at a NAFDMA conference in Austin, Texas. He was looking at huge growth even at that time, so I'm not surprised to see that he has increased his membership so much over the years. I remember being pretty humbled after hearing about his operation and comparing it to our 130 weekly shares which seemed like a big deal!

For me and many CSA farmers out there, I know there is a lot of consternation about food delivery services that are calling themselves CSAs and watering down the term, so I was heartened by this:

"Stout eventually dropped the term CSA and changed the description of the company’s offering to a ‘Farm-to-Table organic delivery service’. Stout isn’t trying to fool people into thinking they’re getting all local food, and he wants the business to be as transparent as possible, he said."

In the end, it is all about the relationship between farmer and customer, so if you really are a grower growing for a CSA, you will be able to tell your story and differentiate yourself from the non-farmer CSAs. However, it is worrying to see the term watered down and I am glad that Full Circle Farms has decided to change the name of their program to be true to what they are actually doing.

I am not a complete purist -- I feel like it is acceptable for CSAs to supplement with items produced off the farm as long as those products fit the same profile of those that the farm produces and the farm is completely up-front with customers that some products are not grown on farm. This makes sense. As a customer trusts you to grow healthy, delicious food, they may also trust you to source other high quality products like coffee, fish, eggs, or poultry. The key is transparency. If a "CSA" is simply buying off the wholesale market and delivering those goods to consumers, that is not a CSA.

There are other models that I feel are completely valid such as cooperative CSAs, multi-farm CSAs, and selling additional shares for items that are not grown on-farm. The only model is not the one-farm boxed model -- though that is certainly an ideal for me -- there are many farms that do not have the skills or interest in jumping through all the hoops to direct market (think Amish farmers). Also, there is a lot to be said for specialization in crops grown and variety in CSA boxes. It is a very hard agricultural and managerial problem for one farm to grow all the products that a customer may want in a CSA box.

Those farmers that specialize or are not good direct marketers should still have access to this wonderful business model because they are producers of high quality local food, but they do not have the interest in marketing it. Some flexibility in CSA is obviously required as we serve more eaters and it becomes more mainstream. The first CSAs had weekly or seasonal work requirements and that is obviously not a scalable business model as the concept grows.

There is a certainly a place for delivery services and the variety of business models that are sprouting up around this demand for local, fresh food. More fresh food in people's homes hopefully leads to more healthy cooking at home and I am all in favor about that. I just don't want people to be misled to think they are supporting local farms when they are not.

Let me make myself completely clear: for me and Member Assembler, I want to support grower based CSAs and not produce delivery services. Our software is built for the needs of real CSAs and we are not attempting to provide technology to businesses that water down the "CSA" model. I know how hard it is to grow 40+ crops in succession planting to fill interesting, diverse boxes each week because I have done it myself. That's hard enough. We don't need to make the marketing harder by competing with "CSAs" that just buy their food from the wholesale produce market.

Keep telling your unique story and put pressure on those non-farmer CSAs to be transparent about the source of their food. We'll do our part here by developing technology for farm-based CSAs. Long live real CSAs.

Update! Farmers had thoughts on this and I posted a follow up article.


Anonymous wrote 3 years 26 weeks ago


I think the main point in operating a CSA (ours is 90+ members at the moment), is to provide locally grown, organic or chemical free produce and make it available for your members.  They can't get this from the supermarket-  produce, harvested the day before and that is the service that we provide. While we produce a great deal of the what we provide on our farm,  I also vet local farms and resources (such as grass fed beef, local trout, and pork) which we cannot produce but would like to provide.   My CSA is an "A La Carte" model, which means that members can pick and choose when and what they pick up and it is highly successful. We are just beginning our fourth year as a CSA and as a farm- four years ago, our ten acres was a weedy heavy clay soil burdened with an abundance of stone and it has been a challenge to grow anything!  Part of my vision for central Pennsylvania, in the future, is to link up the CSA's and other organic farms in the area so that crops can be traded and distributed more efficiently directly to the local consumer.  Such an association would give added security to the CSA's especially when one experienced a crop failure for example, it would also encourage the exchange of new ideas and thirdly, the point of a CSA is to reconnect people to the farms which serve them.    I always also keep in mind that we are competing with the local supermarkets which constantly barage the consumer with their novel concept of "Fresh" when in fact, it is not.   For someone to tell me that I am not operating a CSA because I am purchasing local produce from another local organic source misses the point entirely. 

Anonymous wrote 3 years 30 weeks ago

Great article and so true!

Great article and so true! Folks get misled so easily by this type of "marketing". We are fortunate that our CSA Members can pick up at our farm so they are part of the farming experience and they can see their food being grown. 

Thanks for putting it out there! It is refreshing to know there are so many of us that feel the same way!

Anonymous wrote 3 years 30 weeks ago

Big Box CSAs

Thanks for your attention to this matter.  I know many local farmers, especially in rural areas, are effected by these big distribution services.  About the only thing we can do, as you say, is put our best foot forward and ask for transparency.

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