What is Community Supported Agriculture and How Does It Work?

community supported agriculture farm title

How important is food to you? How important is buying good, local, fresh food that supports nearby producers and businesses?

As the general public become more educated about where their food comes from, how it’s grown and transported, and the environmental impacts all this has, it’s almost a natural next step to want to go more local.

This is what Community Supported Agriculture is all about.

The number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes in the UK and the amount of people using them has been growing steadily since the 1990s but they’ve surged in popularity in recent years. There are now over 100 CSA farms in the UK with around 15,000 people eating from them.

In 2013, the first, and still only, CSA national network was launched in the UK after a five year Local Food Work project run by the Soil Association came to an end.

The CSA Network UK has gone from strength to strength and provides a national platform to promote, support and train CSA projects in the UK.

What is Community Supported Agriculture?

Community Supported Agriculture is all about reconnecting people with local food and local farms.

Broadly speaking, Community Supported Agriculture schemes are community-based organisations that develop direct and co-operative agreements between producers and consumers on a local scale.

There’s no standard definition or set model to a CSA, but there are a number of main operating types which we’ll look at shortly.

All CSAs have a variety of common principles in common including:

  • More sustainable land management and ecological practices
  • More transparent food production
  • Less plastic packaging requirements
  • More environmentally friendly
  • Community strong
  • A focus on training and education

CSA farms produce a wide range of plants, crops and food produce. The most common type of produce from a CSA farm is vegetables but they can also produce fruit, meat, eggs, honey, dairy, wheat, bread and willow. There’s also decidedly less food waste as all vegetable shapes and sizes are perfectly fine!

Alongside the food being local and direct from the farm, it’s also grown seasonally as intended by nature. Overall, CSAs are many times more productive per hectare than the national average, including from large industrial farms.

fresh organic vegetables csa farm
Fresh, local and often organic vegetables is a major benefit of CSA Farms

How does Community Supported Agriculture work?

A CSA system works by a consumer buying locally produced food directly from the farm. The system is created by the farmer offering memberships, shares or subscriptions to the public in return for food on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. For example, after buying a membership to a CSA farm, you might receive a box of seasonal vegetables every week.

This type of community agriculture allows the farmer to limit their risk of business financially and provides the consumer with the freshest food, all whilst building up a real sense of community that benefits farmer and consumer. Many CSA farms also offer opportunities for members to volunteer, learn about farming and put on events.

Any excess food produced from a CSA farm that isn’t used by the members can also be sold at local food markets.

What are the different types of CSA?

A Community Supported Agriculture can come in a variety of different forms and types. There is no set model when it comes to a CSA aside from a few common principles of producing food where the risk, reward and responsibilities are shared.

There are four main types of CSA:

  • Producer-led – This is where a farmer sets up and produces food in return for a membership-style subscription for the consumer. In order to increase future security, long term subscriptions are preferred. According to the latest statistics, this accounts for around 42% of CSA farms.
  • Community-led – A farm is set up and owned by the community as a co-operative. Here it’s the community, rather than a farmer, who takes responsibility for producing food. Depending on the set-up, looking after production may be done on a volunteer basis or with employed workers. The food produced may be divided amongst the community or, if there is extra, sold at a local food market with the proceeds going towards the community.
  • Producer-community partnerships – In this model, a type of enterprise is set up between the community and farmer. Working closely together, this model aims to provide long term financial security and environmental sustainability.
  • Community-owned farms – A farming enterprise is set up thanks to investment from the community. Here the farm is owned by community, who in turn is made up of stakeholders, but pay a farmer to manage the land. A community may own a number of different farms.
a walled garden CSA farm in monmouthshire
Old Lands CSA – a walled garden Community Supported Agriculture scheme in Monmouthshire

CSA examples

There are now over 100 Community Supported Agriculture farms in the UK, meaning there are plenty of CSA examples to choose from covering all CSA types.

There are CSA farms covering the whole of the UK: from Transition Turriefield CSA up in the Shetlands to Tyddyn Teg in Snowdonia, Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm in Suffolk and Bosavern Community Farm right down at the western tip of Cornwall near Land’s End.

It’s not just in rural areas where CSA farms exist either. More and more are popping up in urban city areas. For example, Platt Fields Market Garden just outside Manchester city centre, Iona Local Food CSA in Nottingham, Meanwood Valley Urban Farm in Leeds, Regather in Sheffield and Growing Communities in Hackney, North London. I can’t wait to see more local CSAs in urban areas across the UK.

map of community supported agriculture farms in the uk

You can find the full map and list of CSA farm examples on the CSA Network UK website – https://communitysupportedagriculture.org.uk/csa-search-results/

CSA Benefits: Why is Community Supported Agriculture important?

Community Supported Agricultural schemes are powerful and beneficial on many levels.

Firstly, it gives communities full control over their food supply, how it’s grown (mainly organically) and what is produced. It’s super fresh and it’s super local.

CSAs are also a fantastic way to build a community and help local economies, all whilst being eco- friendly, sustainable and having a very low environment and carbon impact. Communities are coming together now for many different reasons, including on Rewilding Britain to support community action in the local area.

Community Supported Agricultural schemes give a community full visibility of where their food has come from and develops real connections between people, their food and the land, which has been lost in recent generations. It also instigates more healthy eating habits as people are eating fresh, organic food and thinking more carefully about good, healthy recipes.

For the small-scale local farmer, there are plenty of benefits to running a CSA farm. Many of the CSA models offer a more sustainable and stable future to the farmer where people and the community are invested in the farm through ‘shares’. The upfront funding from members, allows a farmer to plan ahead and make more efficient production decisions.

CSAs also employ many more people per hectare than industrial farms and turnover a greater income per hectare. There is no middleman or long supply chain when it comes to a CSA, so all of the proceeds from food sales goes straight to the grower.  

For those who volunteer or play some kind of active role in the food production, it also plays a hugely significant role in giving people a true purpose and getting outside in amongst nature and wildlife. This has been proven to enhance feelings of wellbeing and mental health. That isn’t just a throwaway, off-the-cuff statement either, it’s true. Over 70% of CSA members saying their quality of life has improved since being a member.

CSA summary

I hope you’ve managed to learn a little more about Community Supported Agriculture. This may even be your first introduction to the term, which is great!

The CSA movement is still in its very early days and at a grass roots level, so spread the word. Community Supported Agriculture members account for just 0.01% of the population. Compare this to just the ‘big 4’ supermarkets alone, which account for around 70% of all grocery sales, and it’s almost negligent.

On the bright side, CSAs are growing in numbers as public awareness increases and as more people seek out locally produced food as their own way forward in becoming a more conscious and environmentally aware member of society.

CSA farms are local, operated sustainably, often organically and provide real value to communities. It’s for these reasons why Community Supported Agriculture is growing and working in the UK.

Learn more about Community Supported Agriculture and where you local CSA farm by visiting the CSA Network website. Main image used is from the CSA Network UK facebook page.

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