What Makes Community Supported Agriculture Thrive?


Recently, I read that Community Supported Agriculture supports only a small minority of families in the States. And that CSA memberships are declining. The reason, I believe, is largely due to lack of choice. With competition from Blue Apron and other meal delivery services and with the convenience of grocery stores, why bother with a CSA? Especially when you find all of that (often strange) produce overwhelming (Confessions of a Community Supported Agriculture Failure)?  

As many of you know, we sell our produce primarily through our Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA). And, of course, I believe there are plenty of reasons to join. That is IF you’re up for trying new foods, and IF you like to cook fresh veggies, and IF you don’t mind passing along or composting what you don’t end up using. Even beyond that, it is a beautiful way to connect directly to where your food came from. And I welcome farm visits and love when people offer to help out or want to become involved in some way. Our mission after all is to build community through healthy eating, healing work, and sustainable agriculture.

The CSA concept was brought to the States in the mid 1980s. Rooted in cooperation and partnership, the CSA model connects people, it networks farmers, and it reunites community members not only with the farmers who grow their food but also with the practice of eating in season.  I started the CSA here at Amazing Heart Farm in 2009, directly after I graduated from Harvard Divinity School. Something that I thought about frequently while at Harvard was the importance of setting down roots and of really coming to know and to love a place, a community – and by community I mean our neighbors as well as our local watersheds, and foodsheds. Having a sustained commitment to one place means that we’re responsible for that place. And if everyone cares about and for where they are, I think that our relationships with each other and with the earth would be much healthier.   

I believe that Community Supported Agriculture is one tool that we have to help make our communities whole again. Because big agriculture is unsustainable. As our population continues to grow, as the demand for healthy food increases and as we continue to face the consequences of climate change, our communities need to be strong and resilient. Small scale, natural farming is adaptive and climate-resilient and if we help them to thrive, Community Supported Agriculture programs can be a powerful piece of this resilience.

I’d love to hear from you – how can we help CSA programs thrive? If you’re a member of a CSA, what do you like or not like about it? What keeps you coming back? Or if you are no longer a member, why did you leave?

Enjoy these last days of August…


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Bill says:

    I’ll share with you why we dropped our CSA program. I’m not trying to discourage you (I think in the right situation CSAs are wonderful), but just in the hopes that our experience might be helpful in your planning.

    We ran a CSA for a few years and were true believers in the model. But we eventually dropped it in favor of a menu-based method. Now we send an email every week with a list of what we have available. People place their orders and we deliver to a drop spot (same as with the CSA). Now they get exactly what they want, in the quantities they like. We charge based on what they order and there is no upfront payment. We have a few customers who preferred the CSA, because they liked being surprised and because they don’t like to have to make an order each week (as opposed to just buying the CSA share once and not having to worry about that anymore). Most of our customers prefer the new method. Of course it can be hard to get people to try something new, but we’ve adjusted our growing to put more emphasis on the more popular items.

    The CSA method created stress for us. Some people soon tired of getting a large bag of produce every week and it was creating stress for them. Some didn’t adjust to seasonal eating well. For some it was way too much food and for a few it wasn’t as much as they expected. While almost all of our members were happy and satisfied, the few who weren’t ruined it for us. I worried every week that someone was going to be dissatisfied with the selection or quantity. Now I don’t have to worry about that anymore.

    It was nice to get paid upfront, but that also created pressure. One year our tomato crop failed and I felt terrible. Even though that was part of the deal, and it wasn’t our fault, I felt like I’d let people down.

    I’m still a fan of the model and if you get a good core group of adventurous food-lovers as members it will work. But we’re happier now that we don’t do that anymore and fortunately.

    Hoping you have great success! Best wishes.

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