Community Supported Agriculture: Research and Education for Enhanced Viability and Potential in the Northeast
This project provided direct education and mentoring services to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farmers, and conducted the first in-depth evaluation of the economic viability of CSAs in the Northeast. In a CSA, members purchase a share of the harvest up front, which they receive weekly during the growing season. The economic analysis suggests that CSA operators do cover explicit cash costs with their CSA share price, but costs associated with operator labor and fixed inputs are not always adequately covered by CSA share prices. We also found evidence that CSA operations that use a core group form of organization were more likely to cover the total costs of operation and to be successful in the long term. Outreach from the project has been provided through publications, peer mentoring workshops and conferences. The activities have supported growth of the CSA movement and supported the success of individual CSA farms.
1. Determine the extent to which Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) constitutes an economically viable production and marketing strategy in the northeast region.
2. To print an annual CSA Farm Network publication to link CSA projects with area specialty production farms and resource providers and disseminate research-based information developed under objective 1.
3. Provide direct education and mentoring to CSA farms to help solve specific CSA problems by: engaging CSA farmers, core group members and sharers in peer education and mentoring to help address common CSA concerns; developing a wider network and greater connection among Northeast CSA members; helping each CSA project develop toward its fullest potential; helping to ensure the staying power of CSA in the Northeast region.
Cost and return data were collected via mail survey from CSA operations across the Northeast Region for three years: 1995, 1996 and 1997. Response rate was 44 percent the first year, 35 percent the second year and 31 percent the third year. Despite an offer of $100 to complete each survey, participants believe the length of the questionnaire and the detail that was requested inhibited participation. Analyses of the 1995, 1996 and 1997 data have been conducted and provide interesting results.
On average, share prices charged by CSA operators did cover cash costs as reported on the survey responses. In 1995, the average share price was about $445, while the average reported costs were $408.50. The average 1996 share price was $460 while costs were $365. In the final year of the study, average share price was $350 and costs were $260. This is consistent with the CSA concept; the share price should cover the farm’s budget. Further analyses suggested that CSA operations did not cover their full economic costs of production. A number of operators were not paid a competitive wage for the hours spent working at the CSA. We imputed additional wages of $197 in 1995, $163 in 1996, and $149 in 1997. When these additional costs are added to the CSA budget, the share prices would need to be higher by $161 in 1995, $68 in 1996, and $59 in 1997.
In addition, we studied the organization of the CSA as a factor that may affect success, and determined that core-group CSA operations were more likely to be viable. Core-group CSA operations were typically larger and produced more produce for their shares. These differences in amount of product were apparent in the price of a full share. Core group CSAs generally have higher share prices, but the price per pound for produce is lower. Eleven of the 23 CSAs in 1995 had a core group. Seven of those CSAs had income that met or exceeded costs. Of the 12 non core-group CSAs, only two had income that met or exceeded costs. In 1996, a similar picture emerged. Further analysis showed that core-group CSAs had higher net incomes by more than $7,000, even after controlling for farm size and human capital measures for the operator/manager. This result was statistically significant at the 10 percent level or better.
The core-group management style was also analyzed in terms of risk management using stochastic efficiency criteria. The results confirmed that most CSA operators would find the risks associated with the core-group farms to be preferable to risks associated with non core-group farms. Mean-variance, stochastic dominance and mean Gini analyses were performed using the data. The analyses showed that the core-group farms dominated non core-group farms when levels of risk associated with each were considered.
Research was also conducted on the value of CSA shares. Results suggest that retail values for the produce, for the 1995 crop year, were as much as double the CSA share prices.
Two volumes of the CSA Farm Network book have been published, and volume III is now in production. Copies of the first two volumes can be obtained by contacting Stephen Gilman, 30 Ruckytucks Road, Stillwater, NY 12170 (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org). More than 2,000 copies of the 1996 and 1997 CSA Farm Network publications have been distributed. We are investigating the use of the Internet to disseminate Volume III. The shift to an ongoing CSA Farm Network web site will allow rapid updates and is expected to overcome limitations associated with printing. This will give the project a life of its own beyond the scope of the initial Project. A CSA Farm Network web site will provide a direct and efficient means of disseminating information to larger numbers of CSA farmers, shareholders, researchers and resource providers as well as to consumers looking for a CSA to join in their area through their own personal Internet access, or through Libraries.
Based upon requests from CSA farmers, the direct education and peer mentoring components of the project were developed. These services were provided through forums for groups of CSA farmers and members, individually in response to telephone inquiries, and through a large CSA conference held in 1997. CSANA created a comprehensive resource list of publications, organizations, periodicals, and on-line services to assist CSA farmers and members develop to their fullest potential. Many of these resources can be found via the CSA link at the national SARE website: www.sare.org.
The Northeast CSA Conference was attended by 320 people representing more than 134 farms. More than one-half of the participants were CSA growers or current farmers thinking of moving in the direction of CSA. The remaining participants were CSA members, university, USDA and extension personnel, and members of the general public. All states in the Northeast Region were represented as well as Alaska, Florida, Minnesota, Montana, California, Washington, Oregon, Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The conference also attracted an international audience with attendees from Japan and Canada.
Conference planners organized the schedule to maximize discussion that would allow for peer mentoring and trouble shooting. Attendees responded positively to the panel format of the conference, which allowed in-depth discussion and reflection. Attendees loved the sole focus on CSA rather than including other farming issues. For many, the conference was, as one woman put it, “Confirmation of our experience that there is tremendous variation among CSA farms, rather than one true ideal.”
Research on CSA costs and returns are crucial to assess the long-term viability of CSA. The data provide useful budget information for farmers, both CSA operators as well as those considering CSA as an option. In addition, detailed information on labor requirements is being developed. Total labor requirements per share will be developed to guide CSA operators in predicting their labor requirements at different times of the growing season. One important part of CSA operation is developing an accurate budget in order to determine share price. These cost and return data are important for that planning process; they illustrate to operators the various costs involved in operating a CSA and the importance of capturing these costs for long term viability. By emphasizing the importance of including all economic costs in share prices, the long-run viability of CSA will be enhanced. Information provided by the analyses of farm costs and returns can be coupled with the retail price valuation of CSA shares in determining share prices.
The data set and analyses are also useful to other researchers and Extension personnel. Analyses of the costs and returns for CSA operations are generally not available, the analyses are some of the first conducted for CSA operations and will be useful in advising on CSA budgeting issues. CSA farms seeking finances for the purchase of land, machinery and other capital items needed for production have found the lack of knowledge about CSA by traditional agricultural lending institutions to be a problem. The results from the study conducted by this project can be useful to educate lending institutions.
The CSA Farm Network publications have resulted in increased contact with CSAs in other parts of the country, particularly the South and Midwest, as well as with researchers interested in CSA. The network established for CSA has grown far beyond the northeast network that was originally envisioned. Development of a web site will further extend the network and facilitate future publications and contacts.