Strengthening CSA in the Northeast: Next Steps

Final Report for LNE98-112

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1998: $57,733.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2001
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Kathryn Ruhf
Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group
Expand All

Project Information


Overview: Community supported agriculture (CSA), wherein producers and consumers establish seasonal partnerships, provides a compelling alternative for agricultural production and distribution. This project strengthens the regional network of CSA stakeholders. We established a regional CSA service center with a national directory, information and referral and technical assistance. We designed and implemented a national “census” of CSA farms. We sponsored a second NE CSA conference for 400 participants, half of whom were farmers. We provided information to Extension professionals and solicited their involvement in providing TA. Through a survey tool, we developed a research and policy reform agenda focused on CSA.

Methods/Approach: Our approach to strengthening CSA was to build both regional and national networks of service and support, and to promote CSA. We created the Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources, a virtual service center to support existing and new CSA farmers, provide referral, information and technical support, and promote the CSA movement. To enhance networking, we held the 2nd Northeast CSA conference in Tamiment, PA in November 1999. At the conference, we collected survey data from farmers and shareholders regarding research and policy priorities, and their interest in offering technical assistance (TA) and support. We reached over 300 extension professionals in the NE with a mailing about CSA. We had a regular column about our activities in the "Community Farm" national CSA newsletter. We worked in partnership with USDA (SAN) on a web-based directory. We investigated options for ongoing sustainability for Van En Center services. Our approach was to capitalize on existing networks and services, to build capacity, and to collaborate.

Results: The Robyn Van En Center was firmly established as a regional and national CSA service center. The web-based national directory of CSA farms was created and co-managed by RVEC and USDA, and received national attention. We developed and administered a census tool that gathered and analyzed data from over 400 farms on operator characteristics, land tenure, farm economics, etc. We developed a multi-page, interactive website that houses services such as technical assistance and referral. Over 350 people learned and networked at the 2nd Northeast CSA conference held in November 1999. From survey data, we identified CSA-related research and policy priorities. We produced a feasibility study/business plan outlining options for ongoing sustainability for Van En Center services.

Impacts and Potential Contributions: This Project's contributions are substantial. The services that we established, such as the national CSA farm directory, the CSA farm census, technical assistance and support, and resource and referral, and the website, are used by thousands of farmers, potential shareholders, writers, and interested others. The census information enables CSA advocates to develop increasingly sophisticated understandings about the models, successes and challenges of this innovative farming arrangement. We have impacted hundreds of farmers and thousands of "consumers" through the conference, the directory, mailings, and articles. Our identification of research and policy priorities enables us to make future impacts in these arenas. Farmers have improved their CSA farm enterprises from attending conference workshops, calling the Van En Center and from the CSA network. Thousands of consumers learned about CSA (for example in Yes! and Parade magazines) and hundreds have invested in CSA and become shareholders by locating CSA farms through the national directory and RVEC.

Project Objectives:

Objectives: The purpose of this project was to strengthen the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement in the Northeast and nationally, and to develop support and services for existing and new CSA farms. The objectives were to:

1. Maintain and develop the regional network of CSA stakeholders and, in turn, link the region's CSA advocates to other regional and national efforts

2. Provide services to the CSA network, including technical assistance, resource and referral, newsletter linkages, and a regional conference

3. Strengthen and expand the roles of Extension professionals directed toward meeting the identified needs of existing and new CSA farms

4. Set a research agenda specific to the needs of CSA in the Northeast

5. Set and implement a policy reform agenda specific to CSA in the Northeast.


Materials and methods:

Objective 1. Maintain and develop the regional network of CSA stakeholders and, in turn, link the region's CSA advocates to other regional and national efforts.

This project established the Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources (RVEC) at the Center for Sustainable Living at Wilson College (PA). The approach was to create a virtual service center to support existing and new CSA farmers, provide referral, information and technical support, and promote the CSA movement. The Project Team, consisting of four CSA farmers, three representatives from land grant institutions, and three from grass roots support organizations, oversaw RVEC development and management along with coordinator Jayne Shord who took over from CSA farmers Steve and Carol Moore. We reached out to Extension professionals (see below), consumers and the general public through targeted mailings and articles in the popular press (see attachments). We worked in collaboration with USDA (SAN) and 16 grassroots support organizations across the country to create the national CSA farm directory. Although a national database was already being developed by the RVEC, an opportunity to fast track this project was provided when "Parade Magazine" approached USDA to provide a national listing of CSA farms at a USDA-managed URL. USDA contracted with RVEC to work together to generate a confirmed list of CSA farms within a very short timeframe. USDA and RVEC worked with 16 grassroots organizations across the US to identify and contact CSA farms which were then posted on the newly created website. Despite the frenzy of the task at hand, the collaboration was smooth, and provided the groundwork for future transfer of the directory back to the grassroots -- at the RVEC.

Where specific support services existed, we added value (see below), rather than duplicate or compete. One of the main networking tools was to implement the "CSA farm census". In collaboration with researchers at the Universities of MA and WI, Project Team members designed a sophisticated instrument modeled in part on questions from the USDA farm census. Part I was information specifically for the national CSA farm directory. Part II asked for data about operators, farm finances, land tenure, business structure, etc. (see attachments). This was a very time-consuming task, both in the design stage and in collecting and entering the data. We received census surveys back from over 600 farms. Special thanks go to Dr. Daniel Lass (MA), Dr. Steve Stevenson and John Hendrickson (WI) for their in-kind contributions to this effort.

At the outset, the Project Team recognized that developing a long-term strategy for sustaining these services was imperative. We retained a development specialist who worked closely with the Project coordinator to analyze the RVEC cost centers and propose options for income generation. Budget analyses and proposed revenue options were presented in a report. The next step is to test for feasibility.

Objective 2. Provide services to the CSA network, including technical assistance, resource and referral, newsletter linkages, and a regional conference.

The first activity was to launch the RVEC website which is the heart of service delivery. With respect to resource and referral, we selected a strategy that would complement the excellent collection of resources inventoried by USDA by emphasizing electronic links. RVEC handles over a dozen inquiries per week; they are received by phone, surface mail and email. Often, the inquirer is referred to the USDA/AFSIC website where a comprehensive list of resources and links is posted, and maintained by USDA. However, many inquirers are looking for information or assistance that only a human being can supply. Phone-based assistance is provided daily, and mailings of farm lists, resource materials, brochures, etc. are done on a weekly basis. An inventory of publications, videos, and other standard items is maintained. Rather than create a new newsletter, we decided to work with the "Community Farm" newsletter out of Minnesota. RVEC provides a "Northeast Page" in every issue.

A Conference Planning Committee consisting of CSA farmers, shareholders and service providers and conference coordinator supervised by Just Food, organized the 2nd Northeast CSA conference that was held in Tamiment, PA in November 1999. Four-hundred and twelve people attended, nearly half of whom were farmers. The event featured Marty Strange as keynoter, plus thirty-five workshops and a day-long "open space" facilitated conference design that allowed attendees to create their own workshops. In a conference survey, we collected names of farmers and shareholders who were interested in offering technical assistance and support. We followed up with a detailed questionnaire. Respondants were listed on the web-based TA service, with a description of their areas of expertise, and the terms of their service (e.g. volunteer or fee-based; by phone or season-long mentoring).

Objective 3. Strengthen and expand the roles of Extension professionals directed toward meeting the identified needs of existing and new CSA farms.

At the first CSA conference in 1997, SARE Chapter 3 funds were available to Extension professionals to attend. This time, we could not provide such an incentive, but we did a mailing to each land grant PDP coordinator to encourage them to use their funds to get Extension folks to the conference. We mailed a packet of information about CSA and a survey to over 300 extension professionals in the NE. The mailing was signed by the two Extension professionals on the Project Team. It included materials about CSA, a listing of CSA farms in their state, some relevant articles, information about the RVEC, and a survey. From the survey, we compiled a listing of nearly two dozen Extension professionals who will offer information and technical assistance to CSA farmers and shareholders through our web-based TA service.

Objective 4. Set a research agenda specific to the needs of CSA in the Northeast.

At the November conference, we distributed a survey to all attendees. One side was addressed to farmers; the other to "non-farmers" -- shareholders and other stakeholders. We asked them to identify and prioritize research topics of importance to them. With a return rate of about 30%, we were able to analyze a substantial amount of input and reach conclusions about the research interests of the CSA community. Given our commitment to participatory research, we also asked participants to indicate whether they were interested in (1) participating on the research design and implementation team, and (2) participating in a research study as a subject.

Objective 5. set and implement a policy reform agenda specific to CSA in the Northeast. In the same survey to conference participants, we inquired about their priorities in the area of policy. In addition, we had a workshop on policy at the conference; it was attended by about 25 people. Based on workshop dialogue and survey results, we could draw some conclusions about policy barriers and opportunities at the local, state and federal levels. Also, we solicited names of farmers and others who were interested in policy development and advocacy.

Research results and discussion:

In two years, this project created a service and support infrastructure that serves existing and new CSA farmers, current and potential shareholders, and CSA advocates in the Northeast and nationally. The vision for a vibrant national CSA network that nearly died along with Robyn Van En was given life with the creation of the Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources. We developed positive collaborations with USDA and a network of grassroots organizations to create the national CSA farm directory, and coordinate resource and referral services. Responsibility for the web-based directory was transferred from USDA to RVEC in January, 2001. SAN is providing in-kind technical support. There are 612 farms listed (with an additional 100 to be logged in), and a mechanism is in place for continual updating. The conference was an incredibly high-energy, inspiring event. The gathering of farmers from nearly every NE state was striking for its youth and vibrancy, and the interaction among farmers, and between farmers and shareholders about everything from practicalities of newsletters, to changing the food system was truly impressive. (Please see conference participant list, Appendix 6.) We created a website to house the directory, electronic referral, basic information about CSA and mechanisms to order products and publications.

With respect to information and referral services, between 1998-2000, the Van En Center received 485 requests to locate a CSA farm, 331 requests for literature and 165 other requests. 40% were via e-mail, 38% by phone, with the remainder being written requests. Requests increased by 50% in the second year.

We established a web-based technical assistance and support service that lists CSA farmers, veteran shareholders and Extension professionals. We have collected census data on over 400 CSA farms -- information on land, operator characteristics and family and farm income. For example, the average CSA farm responding to the survey has been in operation 5.3 years. Fifty-nine per cent of farms are sole proprietorships, while 10% are not-for-profit. Nearly 70% of CSA farmers own their land; and 5% farm on land held by land trusts, and CSA groups own the land in 2% of reporting CSA farms. About 20% of responding farms report gross farm income of $10,000-$19,999; an equal percent report gross farm income between $40,000-$99,999. This is just the tip of the research iceberg, as further analyses and a final report are under development.

We reached 300 Extension professionals, and received responses from over 10% of them expressing interest in knowing more about CSA and/or offering to provide TA.

We learned that CSA farmers are most interested in research on farm economics and production, while shareholders prioritize social, legal and economic issues. With respect to policy development, we found that farmers were most concerned with land use, followed by labor and health regulation, while members shared concern with land use, and added food access and environmental issues.

Our examination of long-term sustainability concluded that a variety of approaches is necessary to generate income, and that an important component to test is soliciting contributions from CSA shareholders, and possibly web-based advertising, while continuing to seek foundation and agency support for core services.

Participation Summary


Educational approach:
Outreach and dissemination

Many of the Project's outreach deliverables are web-based. CSA received nation-wide attention as a result of the efforts of this Project and USDA to assemble the national CSA farm directory. The directory was mentioned in Parade Magazine, several news releases by USDA, and articles in other magazines. Jayne Shord, Van En Center coordinator, appeared on a radio interview for a National Public Radio piece on community supported agriculture. Articles about the Project and its products appeared in "the Community Farm", a national CSA newsletter, where a full page "CSA News from the Northeast" described activities as they developed, promoted the conference, and solicited participation. Regular updates about the Project appeared in the NESAWG NEWS. Mailings for the CSA farm census went to over 1000 farm addresses. (One consequence of this was to "clean up" the database of CSA farms and remove defunct entries.) We posted information about the census and about Project products on the CSA list serve which is a very active, national electronic community. We designed a display about the RVEC that was set up at the CSA conference and at other regional farming conferences, and distributed brochures at over one dozen other conferences and events over the two years. Over 3,000 brochures advertising the 1999 conference were mailed. In addition, the event was promoted via the website, and several national and regional electronic list serves. Reports summarizing analyses from the census are in draft form and will be posted on the website in the next six months.

No milestones

Project Outcomes

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

Community Supported Agriculture began in Massachusetts in 1983, and the Northeast has taken the lead in promoting the model and in the number of CSA farms. Yet, the movement is young, and the concept -- which has enormous potential as an alternative model for the economic and social relationship between food producer and consumer -- is "under development". This Project has built the network and the movement by reaching every CSA farm in the US. It has had substantial impact in many ways. By creating concrete, accessible services with a visible home at the RVEC, it has strengthened and empowered the CSA community and provided a locus for future support, outreach and networking. We reached out to and worked with farmers, consumers, agencies, extension professionals, grassroots organizations, academicians and the media to gather data, disseminate information, and coordinate services. Project activities built the capacity of those engaged in CSA (in all ways) and increased exposure to and awareness about it. As it turned out, this Project also created an excellent model of government-grassroots cooperation: the "Parade Magazine challenge" made us all work together under pressure. A positive spirit of cooperation enabled the national directory to achieve national exposure and then move from its temporary house at USDA to its grassroots home within the CSA community. The project was not "federalized" and at the same time, USDA continues to provide valuable technical support services.

The conference gave nearly two hundred farmers information and skills in such areas as
whole farm planning, land acquisition, appropriate tools and equipment, integrating animals into the farm, core group development, soil and nutrient management, water and irrigation, high intensity diversified cropping, and multiple farm CSAs, for example. Workshops focused on new and future farmers, and on building community addressed quality of life issues for the farm audience. At the same time, CSA is about relationships between producers and consumers and about community. The spirit of community, innovation, and optimism at the conference was palpable, but hard to describe. More than the nuts-and-bolts suggestions about crop rotation and budgeting that gave farmers new tools to succeed were dialogues about multiple-farm and multiple-product CSA ventures, about commitments to reaching low-income eaters, and about use of farm newsletters to communicate about food system issues such as genetic engineering and consolidation.

If CSA is to gain momentum as a significance alternative marketing arrangement (if not truly alternative economic model), it needs to move beyond inspiration and glorification to some "hard core" examination of the realities, successes and failures of CSA farms in ways that are meaningful to farmers who use or are considering the model, as well as other stakeholders. This Project took a significant step in that direction by collecting input about research priorities. Fifty-three farmers and 34 shareholders were conference survey respondents (a 25% return rate). Farmers told us that production and economics (tied) were the top priorities followed by social/community topics, while members ranked social, legal and economic issues as the top three priorities. Input is not enough, though; engaging farmers and members in research and policy activities is essential to empowering the CSA community. So we went further: we asked for and collected names of farmers and members who were interested in (1) designing research projects (28); (2) participating in research studies (38); (3) reviewing policy initiatives (17); and (4) signing onto action alerts (such as those broadcast by the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture around federal farm bill and appropriations activities) (28). Here is a nucleus of participatory researchers and of policy advocates.

The Project made a commitment to investigating long-term sustainability for RVEC activities to serve the CSA community. The impacts from this Project -- the vitality of the network, the reliance on assistance, will fade if we can't keep them going. And, while the budget for maintaining the RVEC is modest, it cannot depend on single sources of grant monies. So, our overall impact will depend on our success in implementing several strategies recommended in the business plan prepared by a development specialist. Preparing this report was a challenge -- to capture the hard numbers for cost centers for the various Van En Center activities -- and to generate reasonable, appropriate options for revenue. The resulting report is a sobering commentary on the realities of sustaining support services for a farming community that cannot afford to purchase those services without them being subsidized in some form(s). Our next phase will be to test the feasibility of proposed options for income.

Areas needing additional study

As described above, we have a defined a research agenda, and we have collected a core of stakeholders to participate in the design and implementation of one or more research studies.

A next step will be to engage these stakeholders in partnership with researchers to carry on a research study. In fact, another round of NESARE funding has been awarded to the Project Team; it includes a research project focused on CSA economics in which these self-identified stakeholders will participate. CSA farmers on the list, and on a national list serve will be polled as to more specific priority topics. Overall, there are many critical research topics related to CSA, such as: comparing different variations of the CSA model for their economic and social impacts; looking at relationships between shared risk, decision-making and economics; examining land tenure and business structure; and changes in attitudes and behaviors on the part of shareholders.

Similarly, in the area of policy development, we need to build upon the policy agenda feedback and the core group of policy advocates to promote policy development that fosters CSA. For example, allowing food stamps to be used at CSA farms, policy incentives to make farmland more affordable and accessible (e.g. tax incentives for land rental), and removing policy barriers regarding on-farm processing and farm apprentice labor.

We applied for but did not receive a national SARE grant to do some national organizing of grass roots CSA support organizations. The best (indeed the only) way to truly build and empower a CSA network is to engage stakeholders and support at all levels, from local to regional to national. The services provided by RVEC are national because they can be accessed by phone or internet. The conference is regional because there are travel limitations. But the local and regional support organizations are in the best position to provide other kinds of critical services, to provide other levels of networking, and a sense of local and regional identity. An important next step is to strengthen the connections among the support organizations that were first identified when they assisted USDA and RVEC in establishing the web-based national directory. We furthered cooperation with the census (which all organizations co-signed). A next step is to co-fundraise in pilot partnerships in three states in 2001.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.