Creating Connections Through Community-Supported Agriculture

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CoThe community-supported agriculture (CSA) model is an important aspect of our local food system. According to NC State Extension, “CSA is a marketing model whereby local farmers offer unique farm products to buyers who will subscribe to receive a weekly or monthly box of fruits, vegetables, fresh flowers, eggs, meats, cheeses, or any assortment of local farm products.” Essentially, community-supported agriculture is one option to directly support farmers in your region. In addition to produce boxes, some CSAs will also offer educational resources and opportunities for its members. These can include recipes, farm tours, newsletters, and more. CSA boxes are particularly helpful if you can’t make it out to the farmers’ market each week but still want to purchase locally!

There are over 2,500 CSAs across the United States, with 100 of them right here in North Carolina! Each CSA operates slightly differently, but there are four typical formats in which CSAs are organized: producer-initiated CSAs, member-initiated CSAs, multiple-producer CSAs, and organization-initiated CSAs. Most commonly, CSAs are producer-initiated and led by the farmer themself. Occasionally, a group of consumers will come together and approach the farmer, which is the member-initiated style. Alternatively, a collective of farmers can come together and approach the consumer, which falls under the category of multiple-producer CSAs. The last format, organization-initiated CSAs, are created by businesses, churches, clubs, and other groups that bring their members to farmers. These distinctions are helpful in understanding which farms and farmers you are supporting when buying into a CSA program.

CSAs have evolved over the last few decades, and there are a few different histories across the globe. One origin story dates back to Japan in the 1960s when a group of women noticed an alarming increase in imported produce and pesticide use along with a loss of farmland due to development and migration to cities. These women decided to approach a local farmer to see if the farm would provide fresh produce for them and their families. The farmer agreed under one condition: that the women recruit more families to join the system. So, they did just that. Eventually, this system flourished across the region and is called Teikei in Japan, which translates to partnership in English.

Around the same time in the United States, community-supported agriculture was practiced and promoted by Booker T. Whatley, a Black horticulturist and agricultural professor at Tuskegee University. Whatley was a staunch advocate for Black farmers, especially because they were systematically denied farmland and loans by the federal government. In turn, Whatley developed the idea of “clientele membership clubs” for Black farmers. Similar to the way CSAs run today, community members would pay Black farmers in advance of the growing season. This ensured that the Black farmers running the membership clubs had enough business to sustain themselves and could predict demand for the growing season. Whatley underscored that you need your community for support, and in many ways, CSAs were a means of survival and resistance within the Black community— particularly during a time when Black farmers weren’t being supported by the federal government.

These histories and contexts in which community-supported agriculture emerged highlight its significance: these partnerships ensure local farms and communities can thrive. If you are able, consider joining a CSA near you! There are many ways to learn about local CSA programs. One way is to ask a farmer at your local farmers’ market to see if they have a subscription program. Another is to use the USDA’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Directory to search for CSAs in your region.

For more information on community-supported agriculture and opportunities to buy local food near you, contact North Carolina Cooperative Extension – Lee County Center and ask for Meredith Favre, our Local Foods Coordinator, for more information.

Sarah Beck is the Food Inspired Resilience and Equity Intern for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.