Thinking of Starting a CSA Farm?

Thinking of starting a CSA farm? Or growing your current CSA operation?

How “big” is "too big" for CSA? 

While the genesis of community supported agriculture (CSA) in the United States is a tad fuzzy, to the best of my knowledge, it began with two farms in the mid 1980s in the northeast United States (see more here). In 2007, the United States Department of Agriculture documented over 12,000 farms in the United States marketing at least some products using the CSA model. As the model spread, it was adapted by different farmers in different ways. While all CSA farms share some basic characteristics, there is diversity in these CSA operations. Of which, one element of diversity is size (which may refer to number of shareholders and also, in turn, number of acres dedicated to those shareholders). This post is a response to, and a reflection on, Grace Hood's recent article Community Supported Agriculture: How Big Is Too Big? (published for “The Salt” a program on National Public Radio). The question of size and growth is probably an important one for any business owner to ask. But, it’s a particularly sticky question for CSA which, by seeming definition, should be community-based and community-supported. So, we run into questions such as how we define “community," including how big a “community” can be, how circumscribed or how vast?

Grace Hood seems to dance around this question without providing a definitive answer throughout her article, and perhaps that’s all one can do. The most helpful information she is able to summon to the inquiring farmer is from John Hendrickson, an outreach specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. From Hendrickson: “‘If you’re going to take seriously the ‘community’ component of it, and if one of your goals is to have strong ties with your members and have your members have strong ties with you, maybe there is a point where the CSA can’t really get any bigger.’” But here, of course, Hendrickson does not offer anything concrete.

Ultimately, we learn that Hendrickson helped conduct a nationwide study of farms in 1999, which use the CSA model. The survey found, according to Hood, that the CSA model worked for a wide range of farm sizes as a primary or secondary enterprise. Indeed, the study mentions as much, but subsequently notes: “It will be interesting to see how these patterns change over time and what combinations of farm and enterprise size provide the best odds for long-term viability.” More than a decade since the study was published, neither Hood nor Hendrickson help us understand what models have been most “successful” or how one is defining “success” in the first place.

If one is empirically-minded, perhaps what one needs is more and better data. Or perhaps there is no simple answer – whether size matters in the CSA context is in the eye of the beholder (in this case, the beholder is the CSA farmer or CSA shareholder). What do you think? Is there anything more definitive we can say about CSA farm size? Is focusing on numbers of shareholders a moot point, or perhaps tangential to the most important questions about how to operate a CSA? Or is “how big” a central question?

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