Can a CSA get too big?

A CSA share from Kent Family Growers in Lisbon. Photo courtesy Megan Kent.

A CSA share from Kent Family Growers in Lisbon. Photo courtesy Megan Kent.

The number of CSAs – Community Supported Agriculture – in New York State has tripled since 2007 to 400 CSAs this year, according to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York. The basic idea is consumers buy into a farm and pay up front for what is essentially a basket of goods delivered regularly over the course of the season. There are fruit and vegetable CSAs, meat CSAs, and CSAs that deliver food through the winter.

There's a really interesting two-part series from our public radio friends, Harvest Public Media, about the challenges of CSAs. One story details how one of the country's biggest CSAs – topping out at 5,000 members – went bankrupt. The second discusses the growing pains and risks of growing bigger as a CSA – including sharing the bad news of a bad harvest with members who may not have as much empathy as those in a small, tight-knit CSA might:

“The CSA model is probably the deepest commitment a customer can have with a farm, but it’s also very difficult to run well,” said Dawn Thilmany, a professor of agricultural economics at Colorado State University. “It’s just a richer relationship. And any time there’s a richer relationship in any form, but mostly in business, it’s going to mean you have to do a lot of planning to make sure you can honor all of your promises.”

[snip]

The problem comes when things go wrong. Small farms can usually communicate that risk to members, Thilmany said, but it can be a tougher task for bigger farms with a less engaged group of members. One bad season could sour even the most loyal members.

“Once you have a ding on your record that someone was disappointed, it’s really hard to get your reputation back,” Thilmany said.

I've spoken with CSA owners around the North Country for years about this issue of growth, and about the structure of the whole enterprise. On one hand, some farmers root their CSAs in the origins of the idea – that members invest their money and time in the farm, contributing sweat-equity in addition to dollars. And there's only so big a CSA can grow under those conditions. littleGrasse Foodworks in Canton is an example of this style.

On the other hand, some farmers focus more on the convenience to the consumer by offering essentially a subscription of home-grown food in exchange for the upfront financial investment in the farm. Members can even be hundreds of miles from the farm. A successful North Country example of this style is 8 O'Clock Ranch's meat CSA.

The CSA model is proving to be a very popular one with consumers. It addresses a routine or regularity that can supplant the regularity of going shopping for groceries to feed a family.

Are you a member or owner of a CSA? How big do you think one should be? How important to you is having a direct connection to your farm? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

 

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4 Comments

  1. When I saw the headline "Can a CSA Get Too Big," I thought o would be an article about what to do with the seventh bulb of kohlrabi in two weeks…

    We've been lucky as a subscriber to a local CSA for several years that although the variety of vegetables has changed,the overall quantity has remained about the same. But, as an educated and responsible consumer I understand the difference between a share and a subscription. Should a bad season come, I'd want the farm managers to show they did their best under adverse conditions and were responsible with my investment, but beyond that they have my trust. They are producing my food after all.

  2. Is a CSA a shared risk, or a weekly subscription? Is it one farm, or several pitching in to cover each other's shortages? If several, how do I know which farm I am supporting?
    I am hearing more of these questions lately. There is a vagueness in the term that makes me uncomfortable, like the "all natural" labeling we see in supermarkets. Shareholders – ask more questions, and farmers – keep things clear!

  3. My family has been a member of a CSA for years now. We've been lucky to find local farmers, and all 3 of the CSAs we've supported have been small. We've also been lucky to find farmers who are on our usual routes, because part of the fun of a CSA to me is to reduce the carbon footprint on our food. We're on our third year with David & Kathy Rice, Sweetcore Farm, and feel that we get a right-sized bundle of excellent quality food each week. The CSA habit has taken hold so strongly that our daughter has joined a CSA in Montreal.

    That said, it's obvious that running a CSA is a lot of work. One farmer had to give it up due to health issues, and another had to relocate their operation closer to their home (and farther from ours). A bigger CSA operation with a larger labor force may have some increased stability along with greater growing power.

  4. where do i begin?

    check out this article (with comments) by steve mcfadden.
    http://thecalloftheland.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/unraveling-the-csa-number-conundrum/