05/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Community-Supported Agriculture: Great Cheap, Green Veggies

The following is an excerpt from Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen's Guide to Community Supported Agriculture by Elizabeth Henderson and Robyn Van En. It has been adapted for the web. Reprinted here with permission from the publisher, Chelsea Green.

Community Supported Agriculture is a connection between a nearby farmer and the people who eat the food that the farmer produces. Robyn Van En summed it up as "food producers, food consumers, annual commitment to one another = CSA and untold possibilities." The essence of the relationship is the mutual commitment: The farm feeds the people; the people support the farm and share the inherent risks and potential bounty. Doesn't sound like anything very new--for most of human history, people have been connected with the land that fed them. Growing (or hunting and gathering) food somewhere nearby is basic to human existence, as basic as breathing, drinking, and sexual reproduction. If this basic connection breaks down, there is sure to be trouble.

For the masses of people in the United States today, this connection has been broken. Most people do not know where or how their food is grown. They cannot touch the soil or talk to the farmer who tends it. Food comes from stores and restaurants and vending machines. It has been washed, processed, packaged, maybe even irradiated, and transported long distances.

Farmers alone have been shouldering the risks of this increasingly ruthless global market, which has forced millions of them from the land. CSA offers one of the most hopeful alternatives to this downward spiral, and it is the only model of farming in which customers consciously agree to share the risks and benefits with the farmers.

Most CSAs are either organic or biodynamic in their method of production. A few are in transition to organic or to a lower use of chemicals. The CSA concept has spread from farmer to farmer and from consumer to consumer through the organic and biodynamic networks, and only recently have a few organizations and Extension agents reached out to conventional farmers. Nothing about the structure of a CSA dictates that the food be organic, but most consumers who are willing to become members do not want potentially toxic synthetic chemicals used on their fresh, local produce.

The very first CSAs in this country, Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and the Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire, both initiated in 1986, established the model of the "community farm," which dedicates its entire production to the members, or sharers. Indian Line divided its produce so that every sharer received an equal share or half-share. Temple-Wilton allowed sharers to take what they needed regardless of how much they paid. Only about a quarter of the farms that have adopted the CSA concept have emulated this model. Out of the forty-five CSA farms in Vermont, only one produces exclusively for sharers, while the others continue to sell to a variety of markets.

The level of member participation in either growing or distributing the food varies tremendously from farm to farm. At one extreme are CSAs like the Genesee Valley Organic in New York, for which I am one of the farmers, and Fair Share Farm in Missouri, which require all sharers to do some work as part of their share payment. At the other end are what have come to be known as "subscription" CSAs, where the farm crew does all of the work and members simply receive a box or bag of produce each week. Most CSAs range somewhere in between, with members volunteering for special workdays on the farm, helping with distribution, or defraying part of their payment with "working" shares.

To find a CSA near you, check out the following links: