CSA Farm Shares: A Locavores Best Deal

CSA_Radishby Bonni Miller

Tell me that you’re sold on the importance of buying locally grown food. Tell me that you understand the impact it has on your health and the health of the environment, the robustness of our economy, and the overall stability of our communities. Then ask me about CSA shares, and I’ll tell you about one of the biggest ideas in sustainable agriculture.

What It Is
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It’s a business model based on investment, securing a share of a given farm’s output for a set price and a set period of time. The consumer’s carrot (so to speak), is that they get fresh food at a lucrative price. The potential stick is that the buyer also assumes some of the farmer’s risks. If there’s a hail storm, there’s no spinach that week. If the cabbage loopers are bad that year, there might not be any broccoli at all. You get the best of what the farm has.

And still, the truth is that if you’re truly interested in eating the very best fresh food of the season, there are few better ways to do it.  In the nearly 20 years that I’ve been following CSA’s, all I’ve seen are people getting a good deal. Early in the season, the boxes might be a little light. But in a very short time, most folks are amazed by the bounty of excellent food.

“The flavor of local food really cannot be compared to that which has been shipped over 1000 miles,” said Brigid Ferkett, who co-owns Gravel Road Farm in Waupaca with her husband, Ross. “The word ‘fresh’ gets tossed around willy nilly in the grocery store aisles. But imagine spinach and lettuce picked in the morning and on your table the same day. That is fresh!”

To pique your appetite and help with the occasional unfamiliar vegetable, most CSA farms include a weekly newsletter with recipes and preservation tips.  These notes often provide news of what’s going on at the farm, offering a deeper connection with the farm and its other members.

CSA farms typically have harvest parties, “you-pick” days for bonus bumper crops, and the opportunity to get a winter-harvest share of storage crops to fill your pantry for the long months when the garden is snow-covered.

Beautiful View of the Sunny Sky Farm in July

Beautiful View of the Sunny Sky Farm in July

Additionally, many offer “worker” shares, which trade food in exchange for labor. Sometimes the workers get more than food, they get a vocation. “We’re now in our 20th year, going strong, and the longest running CSA in the area, and we’ve had some amazing staff pass through here over the years. Many have gone on to start their own farms,” said Mark Anderson, owner of Sunny Sky Farm in Amherst.

Like all good ideas, the CSA model popped up like mushrooms in several places at once. It’s the source of some dispute exactly where and with whom it originated, but instances of CSA food distribution can be found going back 40 to 50 years, in Japan, the United States and elsewhere.

Regardless, since it’s inception the CSA model has taken the sustainable agriculture world by storm and while there’s no official count of how many CSA’s exist in this country today, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), estimates that there are at least 6500. Considering that there are more CSA’s in the immediate Central-Wisconsin area than we have room to list here, that number doesn’t seem unreasonable. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were far more than that.

In recent years, the CSA model has been extended to everything from milk, cheese, and meat, to freshly roasted fair-trade coffee, baked goods, and ready-to-eat meals. The benefits are the same all around. Food buyers can be fickle, and many food-entrepreneurs are happy to trade a little from the profit line in exchange for a steady income.

The Dark and the Light
According to USDA statistics, most direct-to-consumer outlets, such as CSAs and farmers’ markets, are highly labor-intensive and, on average, not very profitable for farmers.

Also according to the USDA, disparity in profitability is driving vendors to urban markets. I know of farmers delivering CSA vegetable shares from Central Wisconsin to Chicago.  That means not only that the small town farmer is driving their product to the city market to get a better price, but that they’re doing it because they don’t have enough business at home.

The work starts early in the greenhouse in March and April at sunny sky.

The work starts early in the greenhouse in March and April at sunny sky.

Yet, small farmers enjoy a benefit that most small business owners don’t, in that the argument has already been, and continues to be, well-made for their support.
According to the USDA, in 2014, 87.2% of consumers regard availability of locally grown produce as “very or somewhat important,” up from 79% in 2009. And several non-profit organizations exist to promote their well-being:  Farmshed in Stevens Point, Trust Local Foods in the Fox Valley, Reap Food Group in Madison, to name just a few.
And Slow Money Wisconsin, a group advocating for the flow of capital to local food systems, has made the CSA or  “prepayment” phenomenon the theme of their 2015 annual gathering. Offering attendees the opportunity to learn about cooperative and prepayment-model investments in Wisconsin’s local food scene, they ask, “What would the world be like if we invested 50% of our assets within 50 miles of where we live?”

Ponder that, locavore.

Bonni Miller is the manager of the Waupaca Saturday Farm Market, which operates year round on the public square in Waupaca. She’s also the owner of Chez Marche Foodworks, which provides local food sourcing and personal chef services. She hates her phone, but she wants to hear from you. Your best bet for reaching her is to send her an email at

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