Unraveling the CSA Number Conundrum

by Steven McFadden – January 9, 2012

In the beginning it was easy to count. The year was 1986, and there were only two Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives in the USA: Indian Line Farm in western Massachusetts, and the Temple-Wilton Community Farm in southern New Hampshire. But not long after that, as the CSA concept spread across America and around the world, the number of farms became a bit of an enigma.

No one was ever quite sure how many CSAs there were. The federal government didn’t track the number; at the same time, for a variety of reasons, many CSAs wanted little to do with government or larger systems.

Now however, thanks to several sources, it’s possible to gain a fair idea. Estimating conservatively, there are currently over 6,000 CSAs in the US, possibly as many as 6,500. Meanwhile, the trend of growth continues onward and upward.

I arrived at this estimate after contacts with a range of knowledgeable sources, including Erin Barnett of LocalHarvest, CSA author Elizabeth Henderson, Professor Ryan Galt at UC-Davis, Jill Auburn, Senior Advisor for the USDA’s Ag Systems, and others. No one specifically cited the 6-6,500 number — but after considering all the expert input alongside my own observations, it’s a number that seems about right.

CSA farms and the networks they establish are in so many ways a positive, creative response to the swift and fundamental changes taking place in the world, in our food, and in the way the land is held and treated. CSAs are becoming a significant alternative to the industrial agrifood system. For many reasons, their steady proliferation over the last 26 years is noteworthy.

Alternative Visions

Back in 2006 I had an opportunity to speak at the Kettunen Center in Michigan at a conference marking the first 20 years of CSA in the US. As part of the talk I offered alternative visions of the next 20 years.

On the hopeful side it was possible to envision CSAs prospering in virtually every town and city: providing people with clean food, enabling dignified work for growers, building healthy community relationships, and establishing oases of environmental health.

On the shadow side it was possible to envision a totalitarian ordering and tightening coming about in all sorts of systems. Clean food and direct farmer-household connections might well be encumbered with harsh, unreasonable rules, requirements and regulations, and thereby quietly, steadily marginalized. I could picture a time when industrial processed food was the only “officially safe and allowable” option, and the good food movement had been demonized, strangled and driven underground.

Back in 2006, even I had to wonder whether I wasn’t stretching my nightmare vision a bit too far into the realm of paranoid hyperbole. But now in 2012, in the light of ongoing trends and events, it no longer seems so far-fetched.

Within this context, one of the many intriguing aspects of CSA came home to me again when I reflected on a passage from Chapter 13 of Michael Pollan’s, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He notes therein that the Soviet state foundered on the issue of food. The government sacrificed millions of small farms and farmers to the dream of a vast system of collectivized industrial agriculture. But the state’s imperious industrial ag plans soured and foundered.

“By the time of its collapse,” Pollan wrote, “more than half of the food consumed in the Soviet Union was being produced by small farmers and home gardeners operating without official sanction, on private plots…”

He goes on to report what he heard while interviewing American farmer George Naylor: “…during our conversations about industrial agriculture, he [Naylor] likened the rise of alternative food chains in America to ‘the last days of Soviet agriculture.’ The centralized food system wasn’t serving the people’s needs, so they went around it. The rise of farmer’s markets and CSA is sending the same signal today.”

CSA Waves

An estimated 60 CSAs had come into being in the USA by 1990. That’s the year the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association (BDA) published the first book on the subject, Farms of Tomorrow: Community Supported Farms, Farm Supported Communities by Trauger Groh and me. The activity of the BDA, the book, and the advocacy of Robyn Van En, helped spur growth through the 1990s so that by the year 2000 the number of CSA in the US was perhaps 1,000.

In the latter part of the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, the impetus from the developing local food movement and from economic uncertainties helped grow the number of CSAs. Two other factors played an important role: the publication of Sharing the Harvest in 1998, and the establishment of LocalHarvest.com, a website hub for local food.

Sharing the Harvest: A Guide to Community Supported Agriculture by Elizabeth Henderson and Robyn Van En brought the story of CSA to a diverse audience, and inspired many to take a step in a new direction economically, environmentally, and socially. The book was widely acclaimed and eventually translated into several languages, including Japanese and Chinese. For an increasing number of households, CSA was being recognized as an effective response to the globalization of the food supply.

Shortly thereafter the website LocalHarvest went online in 2000 and became a key resource for the buy local movement. The website is a searchable directory of CSAs, farmers markets, and other local food sources.

Eventually, in 2007 the federal government took a crack at a national count of CSAs through a question on the Agricultural Census. They came up with the number of 12,549. That stunned most observers. It was more than three times greater than anyone had imagined.

Ryan Galt, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Agricultural Sustainability and Society at UC-Davis, was among those surprised by the USDA estimate. He noted a wide discrepancy between CSA counts by LocalHarvest, the internet hub with the most comprehensive CSA listing (2,932 at the time) and the ag census number (12,549). He set out to study the matter using a critical cartography/GIS approach and multiple CSA data sets.

His research in this and related matters led to a couple of well researched and highly informative papers on CSA. Galt observed that significant overcounting of CSAs by the 2007 ag census likely occurred because of ambiguity in the relevant question. The ag census, as read by many, seemed to be asking how many farms are, to one extent or another, involved with CSA, rather than how many farms are in fact actual CSAs.

After applying his analytical tools, Galt arrived at an estimate of 3,637 CSAs nationally for the year 2009. While he reckoned that this was a more reliable estimate than the census data, he noted that his number was based on extrapolating from California to the nation. This could be problematic, he cautions readers, because of differences in land rent, structure, political orientations, and other factors.

By now, of course it’s 2012, not 2009. By all accounts, CSA has continued to proliferate. The growth has been spurred by a deepening crisis of confidence in Big Ag, Big Food and Big Chem, by a sharper sense of economic and environmental uncertainty, and as always by ideals, including a deeply rooted desire to eat clean and healthy, and to do something positive for the earth.

According to director Erin Barnett, as of January 2012 LocalHarvest had 4,571 active CSAs listed in their directory. With ten years experience observing the scene, she estimates that the LocalHarvest listings include about 65-70% of all the CSAs in the US. She and her colleagues also feel that their directory’s growth rate over the years has tended to mirror the growth rate of CSAs in general.

If one accepts the 4,571 active listings on LocalHarvest as representing approximately 70% of the total number of CSAs, then it could be posited that there are, in fact, well over 6,500 active CSAs. But allowing for unknowable fudge factors, and because I prefer to choose an estimate on the conservative side, I am — till further informed — going with the 6-6,500 range.

 CSA Prospects

In his research papers Professor Galt writes convincingly that he sees the likelihood that CSA will continue to grow and develop. “Community supported agriculture (CSA) stands as an important social invention to address many of the problems of industrial agriculture,” he notes. He describes CSA is a bright spot in the current economy.

Jill Auburn, the former director of SARE, currently the USDA’s Senior Advisor for Ag Systems and Acting Director Office of the Chief Scientist, observes that in general CSAs are continuing to grow and develop. “I’ve not studied the numbers,” she said, “but looking through the lens of USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program, we see that local and regional markets overall are continuing to grow…We see lots of increasing interest.”

Author Elizabeth Henderson also sees growth, and not just in the US. In 2010 she gave a talk entitled “The World of CSA” at a conference held in Kobe, Japan. She said that what she sees globally is that in some countries CSA is catching on at breathtaking rate. She notes that CSA has found acceptance in Canada, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Italy, England, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, and China. She also noted that in Japan, CSA (Teikei) has become a mature movement with millions of members.

The conference Henderson spoke at was organized by URGENCI, an international network of participants focused on community supported agriculture. They provide informational resources for CSA initiatives worldwide with the intention of contributing to the food sovereignty movement. Henderson notes that URGENCI has brought CSA to Eastern Europe and North Africa, notably Mali and Morocco.

“For whatever reason,” LocalHarvest’s Erin Barnett told me, “whether it’s the economy or the availability of oil, how crops are grown and where, or whatever, people will very likely be turning to their neighbors for a network of support. That’s where CSA stands right now as a wise response.”

In the overall context of 2012, of the burgeoning Occupy movement, and of the ongoing emergence of CSA, some words that Trauger Groh and I wrote in Farms of Tomorrow back in 1990 still resonate. “CSA is not just another clever, new approach to marketing for farmers,” we wrote. “Rather, community farming is about the necessary renewal of agriculture through its healthy linkage with the human community that depends upon farming for survival. From experience we also see the potential of community farming as the basis for a renewal of the human relationship with the earth.”

17 thoughts on “Unraveling the CSA Number Conundrum

  1. Tammy

    What a great post. This also reflects my own experience with CSA. I think we’ve been participants for about 9 years when there were two to choose from and I used to drive a really long way to get my share. Now, Local Harvest has choices and it’s awesome. I’ve also been reading about community supported bakeries and community supported breweries on the transition network.


  2. Paul

    I’ve been a CSA farmer for almost 20 years, and while the growth has been very position, I would also like to see some coverage of what I call “fake CSAs”, distribution services that pay farmers wholesale prices yet charge full retail. In the SF Bay area, these services are using the positive image of CSA while simultaneously competing with real CSA farms. They are confusing to consumers and create falsely high expectations of what a CSA farm can produce. With their clear and predictable profit margins, they can also provide services such as home delivery or “build your own box”.

    Incremental evidence from northern CA CSA growers is that demand is slipping, not growing, and fake CSAs appear to be a factor.


    1. Steven McFadden Post author

      Thank you for your post. I have heard similar stories about this in other parts of the country. If you would like to talk about what you see going on, I’d like to listen. Just get in touch. – Steven


  3. andrew

    Love this post. As a market farmer building a multi farm CSA in Australia, it is heartening to see the model’s strength over time elsewhere. We still have much ‘teaching’ of our wider community here in Oz.


  4. allanballiett

    Hi, Steve,

    Great, heartfelt work, as usual.

    I, too, am upset that the issue of FAKE CSAs was not addressed, particularly when we are trying to ‘count’ CSAs. What good is it to have counted enterprises that are distracting from the CSA movement as though they are indicators of the success of the CSA movement?

    I’ve brought this issue up with Erin. To have an Local Food initiative like Local Harvest being used by resellers posing as farmers is a disgrace. It brings the tools created by our movement into competition against us. Erin has the power to stop these frauds, but it’s not getting done.

    In Erin’s defense, Local Harvest has assumed, as many of us would, that by publishing ‘consumer reviews,’ for farms, the public would expose FAKE CSAs, that is, Local Harvest (which doesn’t have a lot of resources) cannot afford to vet every farm that joins their listings but consumer feed back should out the ‘fakes’ rapidly. It doesn’t happen that way, mostly because most people simply do not look deeply enough when they ‘vote with their forks’ to make votes that really count for something. Yes, it’s an issue of education but, jeesh, how much more LOCAL FOOD education could be offered to the American Public? Unfortunately, it appears that they chose their food the way they chose their politicians, not by facts but by some other factors, all of which are self-destructive in the long term.

    I’m a CSA farmer because I’m committed to the value of Real Food in the production of Real People. This commitment brought me into being a CSA farmers. CSA is pure genius, of course, as a means that a community can come together a produce food of a quality that is not supported by the market. It’s beautiful in that. Does this prove or disprove open market economic theory? I’m not really sure, but I’m sure about this:

    When a community comes together to support a farmer on a piece of land producing foods of the highest nutritional quality possible, the money paid for that food, which, of course, if more valuable to the CSA members than any food they can buy anywhere else because of the freshness of the CSA harvest-to-consumer assures the highest nutritional content possible, the same dollars buy all sorts of really important things with no additional cash outlay. Your supporting a family in farming, a farmer who is training interns and his non-CSA member neighbors, your making it possible for a piece of land to be husbanded in a restorative fashion, building top soil rather than depleting it, you’re supporting a non toxic and, if biodynamic, energized, piece of land that supports local fauna and flora and purifies the air that flows over it and the water that flows under it.

    But when those same dollars are removed from the CSA movement and go to a commercial food retailer posing as a farmer, none of those things are accomplished. The dollars are not simply wasted, they are actually destructive to nutritional and restorative farming.

    I heard a book review on NPR the other day of the book on olive oil, Extra Virginity. One of the issues the real food olive oil industry is facing is FAKE OLIVE OIL in the united states. When you go to your discount grocer and buy fake olive oil, not only are you paying about the same price for what’s an excellent food and instead receiving something that’s bad for you, (olive oil is a food, soy oil and the other vegetable oils that olive oil is ‘cut’ with are industrial products that, at best, prompt obesity and carry none of the phytochemicals that make olive oil so good for us), but you are also denying your olive oil dollars to the producers of quality olive oil. Guess what? Quality olive groves are starting to go out of business in Italy because fake and low quality olive oils are taking the US dollars that used to come to them.

    There’s a face book page IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHO YOUR FARMER IS THEN YOU ARE NOT IN A CSA. It’s a great place to whistle-blow on fake csas in your area.

    If you are a person looking to buy a CSA share this year, realize that your relationship with the farm family and the farm are such valuable benefits over and beyond the food you receive. You’re body and your mind are built from the food you eat. I know we don’t usually think that way, but, heck, it’s the truth. Joining a CSA is an opportunity to support something really good for the world and really good for you. Please take the time to make sure that the CSA you are joining is really a farm family and a farm that is growing for you. That’s what you want from a CSA. And what you want to vote with your dollars to support in your Local Food community.


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  6. vallisanstrom

    This fits with Mangrove Action Project’s (MAP) ‘Question Your Shrimp’ campaign. We are asking the public to pledge they will eat only wild shrimp sustainably harvested in North America, also getting chef’s to sign the pledge as well and only serve the same.

    This is better for one’s health and the health of the planet.


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  13. Ted White

    Dear Steve, farmer Paul and Allan Baillet;

    Steve, I deeply appreciate and value your book collaborations with Traugher and your excellent CSA history pieces. They are such useful and well-written resources. I have to chime in with Paul and Allan Baillet here and agree that many of the projects getting counted as CSAs are certainly not farms–but merely distributors. For me personally–this kind of “CSA” is not something I want to be part of. The CSA I am part of is a five minute bike ride from my house, I know my CSA farmers well, and I love to spend time in the pick-your-own fields. However, I don’t believe that these “fake CSA” projects are inherently wrong, or damaging to the sustainable farming movement. They represent a huge diversity of strategies and intentions that may or may not promote increased connections between people who want to eat healthy food, support farmers, educate themselves and be responsible stewards of the earth. Here’s an example of a very worthy project that could be construed as a “fake CSA”: Pioneer Valley Heritage Grains CSA grew out of local bakery whose owners wanted to try and revive a long-lost practice of growing grain in Western Massachusetts. They do grow some of the grain themselves but I believe most of it comes from other local growers. In one way, they could be seen mostly as just a distributor–but in truth they have done a wonderful job at educating the public about the history and future of local grain production, resource use in agriculture, and climate change and they have hosted many public hands-on events on growing, grinding, etc.

    I too am concerned about the integrity of the CSA concept being
    weakened by the growing numbers of distributors calling themselves CSAs. The importance of direct sales–and knowing your farmer– is crucial to the CSA movement. But one amazing aspect of CSA has been the great diversity of its approaches and models. So many personalities and perspectives have collectively built CSA. Imagine the ugliness of trying to create a CSA certification standard–where some authority is telling people “yes, you can be a CSA”– or “no, you can’t be a CSA.”?

    I hope and believe that what we might call “real CSAs” can remain as the backbone of the movement–but perhaps there is an inclusiveness and creativity that these other CSA projects could contribute to the movement–if we consider them as potential allies,
    and engage in dialog with them.

    Ted White


  14. Uri Bekker

    Thank you for this heartwatmer of a post. I’m in South Africa deperatly hoping to start a similar movement here.


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