Posted April 20, 2004: The NOFA-NY all-day CSA
School session opened with a packed classroom at 8 a.m. sharp.
Thick, green three-ring binders loaded with source materials were
stacked high on tables next to the registration desk. This wasn’t
your basic CSA 101 (community supported agriculture, to the unititiated)—most
of the attendees were experienced organic growers looking to augment
their farm’s existing CSA programs or wanting to start up
new ones. The four instructors at the front of the room had accumulated
more than 40 years of CSA experience between them. Clearly, the
CSA movement has matured significantly since its beginnings in 1986—possessing
deep roots and a substantial body of knowledge that is leading to
rapid growth worldwide.
A wealth of experience
Instructor Janet Britt, for example, headed up a pioneering CSA
farm venture in 1988 after working for a season with Robyn Van En
on Indian Line Farm in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Robyn was
a founder of the CSA movement in this country in 1986, the same
year the Temple-Wilton Community Farm was independently started
in New Hampshire. A group of consumers in New York State’s
Capital District region were inspired by Robyn’s work and
after meeting for a year helped put it all together, including finding
suitable farmland for the farmer and organizing distribution centers
in neighboring areas (since the farm is located “20 miles
from everywhere”). Originally called the CSA of the Upper
Hudson-Mohawk, the Schagticoke, N.Y. farm evolved into Buttermilk
Falls Organic Farm, LLC, under Janet’s management. The CSA
serves 100 families a year and always has a waiting list.
Scott Chaskey also started out in 1988, with 10 families at Full
Circle Farm on the South Fork of Long Island, N.Y. In 1990, the
CSA concept was presented to the Peconic Land Trust in nearby North
Amagansett on the Atlantic coast. A hybrid stewardship project was
created where the CSA was joined to a conservation land trust. After
two years of positive experience, the project evolved into a separate
entity, with Scott as head farmer. Quail Hill Farm CSA now encompasses
25 acres of land trust land, serving 200 households. Talking about
the CSA concept, Scott said that it was “a ’60s idea
that worked,” and he would farm no other way. He paid tribute
to Robyn Van En, who died suddenly six years ago at the age of 49,
describing her as the Johnny Appleseed of CSA farming.
Further south in Accokeek, Maryland, Shane La Brake has been the
CSA farm manager of the Ecosystem Farm since 1995. It is situated
in the midst of National Park Service land directly across the Potomic
River from George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, 10 miles
south of Washington, D.C. The 8 acre certified organic farm is a
project of the Accokeek Foundation and is designed to train apprentices
and sell vegetables through the CSA. Since the park rules require
that no structures, power lines or cultivated ground be visible
to Mount Vernon’s viewscape, the farm’s fields, solar-powered
packing sheds and irrigation system are tucked behind tree lines
and hedgerows. Historically, the area was extensively used to grow
tobacco for colonial exports, although its clay soils and high water
table present considerable challenges for vegetable farming.
The newest farmer to CSA was David Hambleton of Sisters Hill Farm,
a 190-member nonprofit CSA in Dutchess County, N.Y. David was hired
by the Sisters of Charity in 1998 to start the CSA farm on their
land; he has expanded the operation to 3 acres using concentrated
cultivation and hoophouse-growing techniques. David’s intensive
growing methods are very productive, demonstrating that CSAs can
feed large numbers of people from small acreage. In 2003, for example,
the farm produced 65,000 pounds of high-quality vegetables for its
shareholders, as well as for nearby low-income families, through
a project run by the Sisters. David spent a number of years working
on other farms to gain experience before launching this endeavor.
Central to his approach is designing in quality of life and family-time
up front so that the farm doesn’t end up consuming all his
Exploring the CSA option
The CSA Grower’s School was part of the 2004 NOFA-NY Conference
held January 30 through February 1 at the Holiday Inn Conference
Center in Liverpool, N.Y. (just outside Syracuse). Although the
session was set up as a separate Friday pre-conference, the CSA
thread was woven throughout the main conference schedule Saturday
and Sunday. Another 13 workshops covered everything from “College-based
CSAs” and “CSAs for Low Income People” to “Restaurant-Supported
Agriculture” and “Organizations Helping to Build CSAs”.
The all-day school session, however, allowed participants extra
time to dig deeply into the many aspects of creating, managing and
growing crops for a CSA.
The instructors put together the day’s curriculum by topic,
with well-organized co-presentations. They engaged in a cooperative
dance, frequently exchanging slide trays on the carousel projector
as they took turns presenting differing perspectives on the various
CSA operations. The green binders were designed to supplement and
back up each section and contained such practical information as
actual farm shareholder outreach materials (including newsletter
examples and member response forms) and internal farm record-keeping
tables and crop rotation plans.
“Is CSA Right for You” was the catch-all title covering
the importance of designing the CSA to fit one’s location,
skills and resources. Just as important is an assessment of the
personal attributes farmers need to make it work. Shane stressed
that the farmers not only need to be competent growers but must
also be good people-persons (or have someone in the organization
who is), as an interactive partnership with shareholders is key.
Dave said CSA revolutionized the way he deals with consumers. It
allows him to preset the size of the farm he wants and to generate
the income and lifestyle he needs without having to think further
about money or pricing. For those getting started, he quoted the
the Harvest by Elizabeth Henderson with Robyn Van En that “farmers
should start small and grow into it.” The instructor added
that CSA works on the large scale too—with the 2,500 member
Watershed Organics CSA in N.J. and a 40,000-member “box scheme”
organization in Denmark as major examples.
The team also delved into the “scary part” –
CSAs that fail due to their inability to deal with common pitfalls.
In addition to the lack of grower skills and financial resources,
a dearth of people skills is again at the top of the list. Ongoing
communication problems cause shareholders to lose confidence in
the farmer and the program. The risks (including the possibility
of adverse weather, crop problems and pest outbreaks) should be
clearly presented up front so shareholders understand what they’re
getting into. Realistic assessments of resources and capabilities
are important so farmers don’t overextend themselves—such
as taking on too many shareholders with too few crops.
The personal challenges to running a CSA are physical (being healthy
and in good shape); mental (making valid appraisals and continually
learning from experience); emotional (having the ability to handle
varying situations); and financial (having adequate capital and
cash flow). There was general agreement that newsletters are the
most important regular communication tool growers have to reach
and retain shareholders. Someone in the CSA should have the writing
skills necessary to generate regular issues to educate members and
keep them connected to the farm and the farm community.
Farmers also need to realistically assess their land’s growing
capacity. Shane testified to his experience that you can grow good
crops on poor ground but it takes much more time and resources.
The general formula in “Sharing the Harvest” of being
able to generate 20 shares per acre can be ratcheted upward the
more the soil is built up and balanced. Overall, however, the panel
agreed that one acre of fertile soil is better than five acres of
poorer ground any day.
Building a successful CSA from the ground up
Section II dealt with “Finding Members and Setting Up the
Organization.” Here a “core group” of shareholders
can play a decisive role in handling both aspects—there’s
nothing like a satisfied membership’s word-of-mouth to bring
in more people. Janet recounted the story of an enthusiastic shareholder
who was instrumental in signing up many state workers from adjoining
offices. There are numerous working models to choose from, however,
from the single farmer working alone to member run CSAs that hire
a farmer. Member involvement in producing newsletters, farm events
and recruitment tasks can free the farmer to spend more time farming.
Shareholders often possess many valuable skills and professional
expertise that can help out with everything from advertising to
The instructors carefully covered the legal structures available
to CSAs. A "sole proprietorship" limits the liability
to the farmer or owner and is appropriate where members and others
do not want to take on the business risk. A "general partnership"
(with a spouse or others) is a way of sharing risk among the principals
without indemnifying others, while a limited partnership limits
the liability to how much each member invests. The "corporate
structure" covers multiple owners and limits liability to what
is contained in the business, protecting personal assets. There
are increased regulations and fees for this model, however, and
owners are taxed twice via corporate and individual assessments.
"S corporations" also offer protections but income is
only taxed once, as a partnership. Finally, the "Limited Liability
Company," or LLC, combines several positive elements in one
easy package, including liability protection with far fewer compliance
Regarding insurance, the team recommended business liability insurance
that is traditionally available to U-pick operations for covering
CSA members on the farm. Some policies can cover shareholders as
“volunteers”. The operating concept is “due diligence”—a
demonstrated good-faith effort to provide safe conditions on the
“Retaining Members” was the last segment before lunch.
The panel again underscored that newsletters are the number-one
tool for making the CSA experience more meaningful for shareholders.
They can help generate enthusiasm for Swiss chard in the middle
of the summer while keeping a focus on the bigger picture. Shane
said many of his farm’s newsletters center around three main
themes: “What does it mean to eat fresh, eat local and eat
in season.” There was general panel agreement that the newsletter
writing task should not be left until the last minute, where it
can suffer with conflicting harvesting and packing operations.
Many CSAs offer a work-share option at a lower price, which helps
shareholders to connect more deeply to the farm if they so desire.
Some shareholders only want to “pay and pick up” and
it was stressed that this should be an acceptable option for everyone.
It is key, panel members agreed, to not make people feel guilty
about their level of involvement. Overall, they said, it’s
wise to reinforce positive messages and not whine too much about
the weather and other vicissitudes in the newsletters. Bartering
CSA memberships with artists for brochures and artwork or for skills
such as welding are another means of meeting the farm’s needs
and engaging members in the larger community.
Putting on farm events is a fun way to get people to the farm and
inspire community. Farm tours, speakers, tomato tastings and seasonal
celebrations are all effective draws to the farm. The instructors
also urged the class to think outside the box. Scott, for example,
works with a local restaurant to produce an annual benefit dinner
that is widely advertised and well attended. The benefit is designed
to raise capital for buying additional farm equipment as well as
attract new members.
The school’s buffet lunch break offered a relaxed opportunity
for participants to mingle and compare notes with fellow classmates.
The instructors were available to answer questions and lead informal
discussions. Then it was back to work and the afternoon session
shifted gears to address crop production considerations.
Farming to feed a CSA
In a segment titled “How to Plan Crops for CSA,” Dave
underscored the importance of surveying the membership—formally
through written questionnaires and informally through conversations
at the pick up centers—to find out what they want. End-of-season
feedback forms are an important tool for determining customer preferences.
The instructors found that the more they could support less familiar
crops like kohlrabi with newsletter write-ups and recipes during
the summer, the higher their ranking that fall and the more shareholders
looked forward to reconnecting with them the following season.
In addition to producing a diverse amount of crops and varieties,
CSA farmers need to grow numerous successions of the most popular
crops such as lettuce and broccoli so they are available on a regular
basis throughout the season. It is a constant balancing act for
the grower to keep from producing too little or too much of any
one crop. No matter what the crop, however, a constant commitment
to delivering high quality is the key consideration.
Dave stressed the importance of not relying on memory but keeping
detailed records of crop planting, harvests and quantities packed
for shareholders. A harvest sheet hangs on a clipboard over the
scale in his packing shed, and workers are trained to diligently
log in everything produced. Over the winter this information is
extracted from the daily logs and entered into a database that can
be sorted by crop, seed quantity, harvest date, rotation sequence,
etc., in order to form the basis for the following year’s
The instructors all said that it is most cost-effective for them
to produce their own seedlings in greenhouses on the farm, although
start-up operations may wish to purchase seedlings if they are not
well set up to do this at the outset. Janet sows extra quantities
of herbs and tomatoes for plant sales to the public as a means of
generating extra springtime income. Scott talked about reclaiming
the lost art of growing in cold frames as a means for hardening
off seedlings and alleviating overcrowding in the greenhouse. Quality
seedlings produce quality crops. Transplants also get the farm’s
production off to an early start when crop selection is limited,
and they help generate regular crop successions when direct-sowing
conditions in the field are less than optimal.
Another option is to plant some pick-your-own crops for shareholders.
For labor-intensive crops like peas, beans, strawberries and cut
flowers, this option widens the choices to members while cutting
harvest costs for the farmer. Some farms also sponsor gleaning events
where the fields are opened at the end of the season and any remaining
crops are free for the taking.
CSA production and pricing
Next, the panel briefly covered tillage, agreeing that less is
more in terms of promoting soil health and building organic matter.
Scott drew some nods of agreement, however, when he went into the
problems of using a spader, a popular implement a few years ago.
While it can produce better soil effects than many tillage tools,
it operates at very slow speeds and turns out to be a very high
maintenance piece of equipment.
Despite the over-abundant rainfall of the 2003 growing season in
the Northeast, the instructors agreed that an irrigation system
is a necessity in this era of weather extremes. Lettuce and leaf
greens require an inch of water a week, for example, and overall
crop production suffers during periods of drought. Standard-overhead
and drip systems were compared, but the most elegant was David’s
quick-connect zone system. The water supply is controlled by inexpensive
solenoid valves and zone boxes, allowing him to preset a timer and
systematically cover the entire farm automatically once the nozzles
are in place.
While insect and disease pressure seems to have lessened over the
years on the mature organic farms, weeds require constant vigilance.
David takes a zero tolerance approach utilizing a bare fallow/stale
seedbed approach to exhaust the weed seed supply in the soil coupled
with not letting any weeds go to seed. Smother crops like buckwheat
in the summer and oats over winter protect bare soil and out-compete
weeds. Rotational planning was also high on the list to break both
weed and pest cycles. Culivation implements of choice ranged from
the Lely tine weeder, basket weeders and propane flamers, to hand-operated
wheel hoes and stirrup hoes, using the biggest tools first and fine
tuning by hand.
All the instructors make use of high tunnels for earlier lettuce
and greens production in the spring and for extending tomatoes and
peppers into late fall. Good airflow is a major consideration for
preventing diseases. Scott provides a winter share from Thanksgiving
until the end of February using unheated greenhouses (with row covers
to further protect crops) and a root cellar.
The final segment addressed pricing the share. While the actual
farm budget should form the basis, farmers need to be realistic.
Supermarket prices establish a food price relativity as does competition
from nearby CSAs. The bottom line is the farmer must be paid a living
wage with farm costs covered. Recent studies show shareholders generally
benefit by paying a wholesale price (or less) in return for their
upfront dollars. The resulting “associative economy”
is based on much more than bottom lines, however. CSA goes way beyond
a financial arrangement—offering community, a link to nature,
participation in growing one’s food supply, a tie to place
and a real connection to farm life.
The school session concluded with breaking the class into four
smaller groups centered around each instructor. Ample time was allotted
for questions and more focused discussions. Classmates agreed that
the CSA Growers School covered a lot of ground in the intensive
session and provided a solid overview of the current state of the
art of CSA in the Northeast.
Steve Gilman is a long time organic farmer and organic farming
writer, with a special interest in CSA.