Community Supported Agriculture was introduced from Japan and Europe in the late 80s and experienced a swelling of support for the farms that began offering weekly boxes of seasonal produce that represented the share of food from their gardens. While, the original concept was close to Wiki's definition: "Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a socio-economic model of agriculture and food distribution. A CSA consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes the community's farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production". For most CSA's it is the season's vegetables that belong to the community, not the land. But I sure do like Wiki's definition and there are exciting movements toward that vision.
CSA's offer a stability for farmers that is difficult to find with other markets. With funds accessible in advance, a contract for the volume of food to plant, and often, a supporting community to assist with the work and planning for the endeavour, CSAs can provide the assurance of continuity. Once the shares are secured, the farmer can get to the work of farming and leave off with the marketing hat. Of the tonnage of government reports that seem to have been produced to analyse the phenomenon, this one, is particularly good in describing the variety of models that have developed and describes the the paradox between stability and profit. Wholesale and farmer's markets provide a bigger monetary return (but not necessarily profit as the expenses are higher) and so enable operating loans.
When I farmed in BC and sold at the Vancouver Farmer's market, we had 10-15 csa shares every year. It helped us get started with seed orders and scrape through until the market sales began. It was a lot of work for the volume of food, but the relationships that developed between our CSA family had a value beyond monetary..the trust and solidarity was a powerful motivator that reminded me about why I was doing this kind of work. When the Organic Delivery Businesses started in the mid 90s, a number of CSAs fell away: it was difficult to compete with delivery to the door, imported out of season fruit and produce, and custom boxes.
There is a resurgence in the CSA model that is moving back toward's its origin. Steven McFadden writing about the history and future of CSAs in a Rodale report , talks about cooperative farm csa's (like this one near Montreal) and land trusts (here) that will invigorate sustainable food communities:
"If CSA is going to have a solid and progressive third wave of growth and development, it’s not likely to be generated by a government program or by the publicity campaign of a well-intended nonprofit, or even so much by fear of terrorists or corrupt food. A solid third wave of development ought by rights to rise instead on merit: from a real assessment of the benefits that can come from creating and supporting community farms.
After 18 years, CSA has proven itself. Now many of the forces that have brought it to its state of early maturity are conspiring for what might well be another big wave of development. There is tremendous potential.
CSA can play a substantial part in a sustainable future. It has the potential to establish thousands of cells of environmental vitality in cities, suburbs and countryside, and to extend basic, healthy linkages among the people who make up a community.
As we know from its beginnings, CSA is not just a clever, new approach to marketing. Community farming is about the necessary renewal of agriculture through its healthy linkage with the human community that depends upon farming for survival".
Links to BC CSAs, Ontario CSA Directory