Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is growing in popularity, with more farmers establishing such arrangements and more customers demanding them. Briefly, CSA means that customer contract with a farm to supply a weekly share of fresh produce through the growing season, however long the farm defines it. Customers typically pay some to all of the annual cost up front, giving the farmer income when it's needed most (in the late winter and spring) and a sense of economic stability, while the customer gets a steady supply of produce from a known source without the potential hassle of visiting farmers markets. CSAs are often cheaper overall than even grocery stores.
It's a good system, and one that works well for many folks. I know of at least two startup farms planning to offer CSAs within the next several years, as well as at least five established in the area. But we don't currently offer a CSA, and after numerous inquiries, I'd like to explain why.
1) I like going to market. I like the interaction with consumers, the energy of a bustling market, and the chance to reach new customers. I like the challenge of throwing my hat in the busy ring of a friendly but competitive marketplace. I like the dynamic by which different growers can feed off of and support each other while still competing; we make a point of referring questions to other growers if we don't have the item, and we're happy to suggest someone else's product if it will complement our own. There's just something innately appealing to me about the openness and energy of selling at a farmers market.
2) I think market sales fit well with our business plan right now. We are still actively expanding our farm, moving into new growing areas, trying many new varieties, and learning the subtleties of the soil, pests, microclimate, and other variables that affect agriculture in our valley. I feel that market sales are more flexible for newer growers; if you make a mistake or have a crop failure, you're not under contract to anyone. While the income isn't as stable, it's more flexible.
3) A good CSA requires a serious commitment to a set of customers who are going to trust you with a significant amount of money for a long-term benefit. That is a trust I would hold very dear, and do not want to take it on until we are sure we can deliver. Right now we don't feel that we could promise a set quantity of enough products for enough time to meet our internal standards for "good CSA". If/when we launch a CSA, it will be with years of consistent production records from which we can properly estimate our ability to meet our standards.
4) We like to grow diverse, unusual, and hard-to-find items like edamame, sorghum, and rare heirloom varieties. These are best offered at a farmers market where those people who might be interested in them can find them and buy them at a desired quantity. We could certainly introduce our CSA customers to more eclectic things, but within that small population would have no idea how many would want them, while not making them available to the wider market. I like giving customers as much choice as possible, and selling at market lets us cast the widest net and offer the widest variety of items to those who want them.
5) All that being said, we will likely begin to offer a small CSA a few years from now. But we don't ever plan to stop selling at market; it fits too well with our practical and philosophical approach to farming. See you at market!