Introduction to CSA

What is a CSA ?

A food-ordering system with a community orientation

CSA-Wisconsin.2Led by the growing demand for higher quality food – and increasingly linked to proximity agriculture and organic methods the expansion of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in some countries, mainly USA, France, Canada and Japan, has reached such proportions that in some areas it cannot accommodate the waiting-lists (Aubry et al., 2008). Meanwhile in New Zealand, although farmers’ markets are growing in popularity (Chalmers, 2009) the practice of CSA is practically unknown. With the recent economic downturn though, CSA is bound to appeal to many people in rural situations. A wider uptake of this concept and the general principles could lead to beneficial long-term outcomes for social, employment and sustainability issues.


CSA is a food-ordering system which lends itself to a community orientation. In 1986, there were two known CSA schemes in North American. By 2000, there were over 1,000 (Sharp et al., 2002). According to director Erin Barnett, LocalHarvest in the U.S. had 4,571 active CSAs listed in their directory, as of January 2012. With ten years experience observing the scene, she estimates that the LocalHarvest listings include about 65-70% of all the CSAs in the US. She and her colleagues also feel that their directory’s growth rate over the years has tended to mirror the growth rate of CSAs in general, claiming over a thousand more were being added each year. The movement in the U.S. has self-organised itself to the extent that local producer networks and hybrid ordering systems are linking into regional and national bodies (Adam, 2006:3).

In the U.S. there are other trends accompanying the vigorous expansion of CSA: rural drift of non-farming professionals into suitable farming areas (Johnson & Fuguitt, 2000); growth in the numbers small rural blocks of 1-25 hectares (Hancharick & Kiernan, 2008); an increasing numbers of rural women seeking a first or second family income (USDA, 2009). Some of these trends will likely become evident here in New Zealand.

In Australia an earlier effort to popularise CSA amongst farmers by the Department of Primary Industry in Victoria (Francis, 2003) was abandoned. A subsequent Melbourne-based study (Lea et al. 2006), exploring consumer attitudes found the CSA concept was unknown but was received with enthusiasm. Similar findings are likely in New Zealand. Historically both countries were colonial suppliers to the British empire and subsequently remained focused on export-led commodity agriculture. But drivers for change are coming into many aspects of ordinary life. A cross-state CSA system, Food Connect has recently started in Australia, 2012.
In New Zealand a few ‘food-box’ schemes (such as Ooooby , & Organic Box Connection), have begun to appear taking weekly orders. These are organised more like online retail coops focused on supplying organic produce, and possibly representing the beginings of a CSA. As far as CSAs operating in New Zealand we could find only one – Wairarapa Eco Farm – near Masterton. The Simply Good Food project started in Wellington in 2010 appears to have since folded.

CSA members havesting

CSA members helping out at harvest time on the farm

How does CSA work?

In popular usage the term CSA refers to either the concept itself, or to a CSA enterprise, as in ‘WestGardens CSA’. A CSA always involves one or more producers linked to a group of consumers through a formal supply agreement. The producers agree to provide an ongoing amount of food to each customer who has pre-purchased share for that season. Shares contribute to the costs of production, and provide a guaranteed income for the farmer. This spreads any risk amongst the investors, who typically get delivered a box of vegetables, a weekly ‘food-box’ in return. Subscribers also have the potential to build a closer relationship with the grower, the land, and other members. Many CSAs include social elements such as on-farm events like feasts and regular gatherings. Work details may be expected, especially at certain times of the year, but this prerequisite is potentially exclusionary for some people.

The four basic CSA models:

  1. Farmer Managed: The grower owns, organises and markets the programme, recruiting subscribers and determines all management decisions;
  2. Shareholder/Subscriber Managed: The members organise and manage the CSA scheme, hiring a farmer to grow specific crops or products;
  3. Farmer Co-operative: Multiple growers organise and market the CSA programme. This arrangement benefits the growers and their subscribers;
  4. Co-operative: Consumers and growers jointly own and manage all aspects

Hybrid schemes are also appearing in the U.S; such as workplace CSAs, or the relatively new Mercantile Cooperative, where share fees become vouchers to spend at a local farmers’ market.

What it’s like running a small CSA (40-55 shares)

Why should we be interested in CSA?

Promoted primarily because they are predicated on healthier food, (organically-grown or at least upon low external inputs), alternative outcomes are socially accessed through CSA. For example the rise in their popularity signals a significant drive towards sustainability. Goodman offers this perspective,

Thus, for CSA members in the pursuit of ordinary health their everyday interactions also gain significance in terms of raising awareness of issues, and for sharing views and sources of information – from eco-friendly products to raising political awareness.

CSA schemes have been particularly highlighted as possible sites for developing networks and building capacity to address broader goals (Cone & Myhre, 2000; Sharp et al., 2002; Cox et al. 2008) have explored the potential to challenge social and economic inequality and to support an agenda of social change through CSA and other alternative food networks.

Whatever the reasons why people join a CSA project they will find that they are also, at least nominally, a member of a land-based community network and this begins to shift the commitments and priorities of their ordinary lives. CSA has, in some countries, reached the potential for far-reaching social change beyond the reach of bureaucracy and politicians.

Characteristics of CSA

CSA shares the ideology of food localism with direct sales (farm-gate, farmers’ markets, restaurants) which can be applied to any produce; organic, welfare-friendly produce, and even ‘conventionally’-grown. Thus advocacy for CSA can be rationalised politically, socially and economically from any or all of the following perspectives;

  • Defensive – includes chemical-input farming; promotes only freshness and local solidarity (local labour and tenure) values … which tends to be anti-import and pro-export.
  • Alternative – includes sustainability issues, organic growing; promoting freshness with extended health values … the more European perspective.
  • Oppositional – includes political; promoting post-industrialised agriculture … the more U.S. perspective.

There have been a lot of surveys, studies and literature reviews of CSAs (mainly U.S. Canada and France) and much is known about the CSA phenomenon: the ways that they form and operate, members’ experiences, ecological value sets, why shareholders join, complain or leave; and about the practical problems; farmers’ values, operational experience such as produce distribution methods, and community-building activities and intentions (Bougherara et al., 2009; Brehm & Eisenhauer, 2008). There is enough consistency in the findings over the last decade. to predict some generalised outcomes.

Target Market – Member profiling

1. Demographics. CSA members tend to be the better educated and professionally employed on average. Having the means to pay more for quality their values typically incorporate environmental sensitivities. Suitable family indicators are the number of cars, (positive correlation) and the number of small children (negative correlation).

Some CSA groups have taken issue with the class-ism indicated by this and have sought ways around it (Greene et al. 2001).

2. Principles. Members initially subscribe to a CSA based upon a blend of principles e.g. (Bougherara et al., 2009), usually ranked as follows:

  1. Health, implies quality nutrition and food security.
  2. Localism, implies seasonality, fresh and social solidarity.
  3. Ecological citizenry, implies a turn to sustainable values.
  4. Political, implies opposition to industro-corporate influences.
  5. Social capital, implies trust, networking, and communities of interest.

Attitudes toward and the influence of these principles do vary by country, and are known to shift over time as a group evolves and its member relationships evolve. Deliberate community-building objectives are generally more apparent within growers’ perspectives and objectives. New members seldom regard community as a reason to join, but long-term members suggest that it becomes a reason to stay. In groups which run on-farm events these are often regarded as a highlight by members.

3. Location. CSAs most often appear near the interface between rural and urban lifestyles, at sites where professionals have settled based on personal lifestyle choices. Such clusters might be characterised as peri-urban sites – the metropolitan outskirts in proximity to commercial growing areas – such as Titirangi & Oratia; or the peri-rural sites – the lifestyler-zones within commuter rural areas – such as Alfriston, or Kapiti Coast.

4. Size. Depending on the enterprise’s scale its production gardens may vary from ½ to 30 hectares, supplying vegetables (mainly) for 30 to 400 members. Many CSAs start up cautiously with part-time sales to friends, and evolve to a full-time business using as little as one hectare. Working at this scale appeals to peri-rural dwellers, especially women seeking home-based extra income.

5. Seasonality. Most CSAs only supply produce during the main growing season, although the larger and better established ones are increasingly likely to supply all year round. In the U.S. there is a statistical correlation between member-years and private food-storage capacity, indicating that more experienced shareholders take up food preserving practices.

6. Food variety. CSAs mostly focus on vegetable production. A well-developed operation might grow up to 30 varieties of vegetables over a season. In areas where the concept is evolving fastest producer networks have emerged. There growers specialise in crops and increasingly link their customers together with meat, milk and honey producers.

7. Newcomer concerns Non-members are usually concerned about a lack of choice or variety, excessive quantities, and inconvenient distribution systems. Non-CSA growers may express some concerns about possible inability to meet consumer post-payment expectations. (Lea, et al., 2006).

8. Involvement. In general the sense of community is neither sought nor highly valued in most CSA groups. Instead, members would rather express an appreciation of the sense of growing social capital within their group. Typically the grower-consumer relationship is the primary involvement; the family having a ‘grower’ like it has a family doctor.

Discussion of sustainable agriculture has turned increasingly to “growing” as a practice that is constructed through struggles between agricultural knowledge systems … By linking these struggles over knowledges, we begin to see the politics of the food system as involving alternative “modes of ordering” in which food is an arena of contestation rather than a veil of reality (2002:15).


Small-scale farming according to the methods and principles of agroecology is one of the most viable forms of sustainable self-provisioning within a western economic context. A number of socially beneficial outcomes can be projected.


  1. Adam, K. (2006). Community Supported Agriculture. Retreived from on 10/10/2010.
  2. Aubry, C., Kebir, L., & Pasquier, C. (2008). The (re) conquest of the local food supply function by agriculture in the Ile de France region. Second International Working Conference For Social Scientists, Paper presented at the Second International Working Conference For Social Scientists, “Sustainable Consumption and Alternative Agri-Food Systems”, Arlon.
  3. Bougherara, D., Grolleaub, G., & Mzoughic, N. (2009). Buy local, pollute less: What drives households to join a community supported farm? Ecological Economics, 68(5), 1489-1495.
  4. Brehm, J. M., & Eisenhauer, B. W. (2008). Motivations For Participating In Community Supported Agriculture And Their Relationship With Community Attachment And Social Capital. Southern Rural Sociology, 23(1), 94-115.
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  6. Cone, C. A., & Myhre, A. (2000). Community Supported Agriculture: A sustainable Alternative to Industrial Agriculture? Human Organisation 59(2).
  7. Cox, R., Holloway Lewis, Venn Laura, Dowler Liz, Ricketts Jane, Moya Kneafsey Hein, et al. (2008). Common ground? Motivations for participation in a community-supported agriculture scheme. Local Environment, 13(2), 203–218.
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  13. Lea, E., Phillips, J., Ward, M., & Worsley, A. (2006). Farmers’ And Consumers’ Beliefs About Community-Supported Agriculture In Australia: A Qualitative Study. Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 45, 61–86.
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Recommended Resources

  1. European CSA Research Group, (2016). An Overview of Community Supported Agriculture in Europe
  2. Connell, D., Smithers, J., & Joseph, A. (2008). Farmers’ markets and the “good food” value chain: a preliminary study. Local Environment (3)3, 169–185
  3. Lockie, S., Lyons, K., Lawrence, G., & Mummery K. (2002). Eating green: Motivations behind organic food consumption in Australia. Sociologia Ruralis, 42(1) pg:23.
  4. Allen, P., FitzSimmons, M., Goodman, M., Warner, K. (2003). Shifting plates in the agrifood landscape: the tectonics of alternative agrifood initiatives in California, Journal of Rural Studies, 19 (61–75)