Community Supported Agriculture*

File C5-37
Updated May, 2010

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Community Supported Agriculture or CSA is quickly becoming a direct marketing alternative. In a CSA system, the farmer grows food for a group of shareholders or subscribers, who pledge to buy a portion of the farm’s crop that season. This arrangement gives growers up-front cash to finance their operation and higher prices since the middleman has been eliminated. Most CSAs are organized with produce, but some are adding meat products.

There are four types of CSAs:

  • Subscription or farmer-driven. The farmer organizes the CSA and makes most of the management decisions. The shareholder or subscriber is not very involved in the farm. This kind of CSA is quickly becoming the most common.
  • Shareholder or consumer-driven. Consumers organize the CSA and hire the farmer to grow what they want. The consumers make most of the decisions. This model is often used in the Northeast.
  • Farmer cooperative. This is a farmer-driven CSA in which two or more farms pool their resources to supply customers.
  • Farmer-consumer cooperative. The farmer and consumer co-own land and other resources and work together to produce food.

Most CSAs have between 35 and 200 members. A typical offering would be 5-10 pounds of produce per week, or enough for 2 or 3 people. One detailed three-year study showed that CSA shareowners would have paid 37 percent more at their supermarket for conventionally grown food.

Some of the barriers to entry and other considerations in a CSA are:

  • Organizing farmers to be part of a CSA. Additionally, you may have several farmers who are willing to grow produce and perhaps have other species such as poultry, eggs, lamb, etc., to provide consumers diversity throughout the year.
  • Finding consumers who are willing to be part of a CSA.
  • Constant and varied supply of produce and products.
  • Seasonal aspects of CSAs are difficult to overcome. They can’t compete with year-round availability in grocery stores.
  • Need to ensure that the meat products sold have appropriate approvals.
  • If marketing is done prior to planting and harvesting, this helps to lower risk for producers than many other marketing options.
  • Lower risk, since participants share cost with others.
  • Ease of facilitation if the group lives close together.
  • Risk shared with consumer CSA members.
  • May be difficult to organize with other farmers.
  • May be difficult to convince consumers they should participate. May be less choice for consumers than is available at supermarket, which have a wide array of products.
  • Variables that decrease the likelihood of someone joining a CSA are people with children under 12 years of age and people with teen-agers.

The following marketing themes and trends have been found helpful for groups wishing to promote their CSAs:

  • Connecting farmers directly with consumers.
  • “Food with a Face” themes.
  • Marketing to groups with social consciences, such as churches, environmental groups and civic groups.
  • Lower cost per share.
  • Marketing to individuals who want organically-grown food and who are socially conscious.
  • Marketing to individuals who are well educated. Education level was found to be a very significant predictor of membership status, with members generally having a higher level of education.

* Reprinted with permission, Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Iowa State University.


Mary Holz-Clause, former co-director, Ag Marketing Resource Center, former associate vice president for ISU Extension and Outreach