photo © Tim Sackton via Flickr Creative Commons

As the season’s newest vegetables appear at our markets and grocery stores, many New Yorkers are renewing their annual CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) memberships, preparing for a delicious season of fresh produce. In light of the changing seasons, NPR recently examined how CSAs have been changing since 1986, when the first CSA formed in the United States. More and more consumers are seeking local, seasonal food, and many have taken to this model of sustainable agriculture. The number of CSA organizations in the U.S. has grown from 2 to an estimated 4,000 in only 26 years, many of them cropping up in major cities such as New York City, which is home to more than 100 CSAs. However, as they have grown, so has the definition, sparking concern among traditionalists who point to what they call “fake CSAs.”

csa, community support agriculture, new york city csa, sustainable food, sustainable agriculture, local csa, csa definitionphoto © Laura Loesch-Quintin

What began as a community who pledges support to a farm, has since been reinterpreted by some to include organizations with many farms from larger, regional coops in an effort to appeal to a wider audience. As a result, traditionalists are concerned about the direction in which CSAs are headed.

Traditionally, CSA organizations are meant to foster a relationship between a community of individuals and a farmer, to reconnect those individuals to the land, and to support that farmer at the risk of a poor harvest. For an upfront, bulk payment, members receive a share of vegetables on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, typically from the months of June to November.

Yet, many consumers demand more variety than just vegetables, and farmers have high costs to keep up with. These factors have led farmers to supplement their shares with produce from other farms, including fruit, eggs and flowers, and to create partnerships with a wider network of farms. While this can enhance many CSAs, like the Crown Heights Farm Share, which connects a wide range of local purveyors, these modifications can also take away from the direct and personal connection between farmers and consumers originally intended in Community Supported Agriculture.

One farmer, who warns against “fake CSAs,” states: “If you don’t know your farmer you are not in a CSA.” This farmer has created a Facebook group to educate the public about fake CSAs.

However, can all farmers rely on a supportive core community of CSA members? In some cases, without the ability to supplement their shares or divide administrative costs among others, farmers might not have the support necessary to make ends meet, as both the cost and risk of running a farm are high. Last year, after Tropical Storm Irene wiped out the crops of many upstate New York farmers, many city-based CSAs had to be canceled.

As Community Supported Agriculture evolves, and the model becomes commonplace, it is up to farmers and consumers to redefine the purpose of CSA, whether that means reinforcing its original intent, or extending its definition to include a broader range of interpretations. The Slow Food Movement has grown and the idea of a “local diet” is much more widespread than when CSAs began in 1986. It only makes sense that the CSA model grows, too, especially in places like New York City. CSAs, whether for produce, eggs, dairy, or coffee, allow us city dwellers to more deeply connect not only with produce farmers, but all local agriculturists and artisans.

+ USDA | National Agricultural Library