Organic SquashHaving trouble buying the highest-quality seasonal organic produce? Unable to find a wide variety of natural and organic fruits and vegetables to bring home? Lack the backyard space to grow your own natural and organic foods?

If you live in an area where shopping for organic food poses a challenge, don’t throw in the all-natural kitchen towel! Many Americans in similar circumstances have found the perfect solution: community supported agriculture, or “CSA.” First popular in Japan and Switzerland in the 1960s, the CSA movement has — pardon the pun — taken root with a vengeance in the United States, where it is sometimes referred to as “subscription farming.”

How, exactly, does a CSA work?

By definition, CSAs are composed of “a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Community members — usually referred to as farm “shareholders” — pledge to share the expected costs of a farm’s operation, including the farmer’s salary. Members can stipulate that all produce must be grown under the strict tenets of organic farming and organic gardening practices. Each individual’s investment yields a share of farm crops — not to mention a close connection to freshly picked organic produce that hasn’t been sitting on grocery shelves for days or even weeks.

Perhaps CSA expert Elizabeth Henderson, author of “Sharing the Harvest: A Guide to Community-Supported Agriculture,” puts it best: “Starting a community supported agriculture project is a little like having a baby — you unleash biological and social forces that may take you in directions you never expected.” As a shareholder, you demonstrate respect for the earth by taking responsibility for organic farming practices, energy-efficient production and distribution, paying local farmers a decent wage, controlling the land in your area and elevating environmental consciousness.

“Most CSAs offer a diversity of vegetables, fruits and herbs in season,” the USDA notes. “Some provide a full array of farm produce, including shares in eggs, meat, milk, baked goods and even firewood. Some farms offer a single commodity or team up with others so that members receive goods on a more nearly year-round basis. Some are dedicated to serving particular community needs, such as helping to enfranchise homeless persons. Each CSA is structured to meet the needs of the participants, so many variations exist, including the level of financial commitment and active participation by the shareholders; financing, land ownership and legal form of the farm operation; and details of payment plans and food distribution systems.”

Luckily, the Internet has made it easy to track down a CSA in your area. Several excellent online directories provide CSA listings:

  • Santa Cruz, California-based Local Harvest, a supporter of “buying local” and organic farming since 1988, has a wonderful, comprehensive online search engine. You may also search for farmers’ markets, organic restaurants and food co-ops.
  • The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program at Utah State University in Logan has a fully searchable CSA locator, organized by state. Links to individual farms are only a mouse click away.
  • The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, headquartered in Junction City, Oregon, also has a great guide. It specifies whether farms are conventional, organic or biodynamic (a more “cosmic” approach to farming; click here for a thorough description).

These websites also allow you to add your local CSA to their resource guide so you can publicize your community’s efforts — a move that will attract more shareholders.

For additional information on setting up or joining a CSA, visit the SARE online store, where you may purchase a wide range of books and reference guides for developing a sustainable agricultural solution in your hometown.