The first generation of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs invited consumers to buy shares of local farm harvests in advance and then reap the benefits in the form of fresh produce every week. These programs have grown significantly in recent years as thousands of independent small and midsize farms across the United States realized the potential opportunity in marketing their fresh fruits and vegetables directly to consumers at a fair price. And now a new trend within the CSA movement—meat CSAs or buying clubs—offers consumers one more way of providing their families with fresh, local foods produced in a sustainable manner.
What is a CSA?
In a CSA program (generally called “a CSA” and sometimes referred to as subscription farming), a community of individual consumers interacts directly with one or more food producers. CSAs are membership-based and founded on a relationship of mutual support. Members pay an annual or seasonal fee toward the producer’s operating costs and, in turn, receive weekly or monthly shares of the harvest.
Estimates of the number of active CSA programs in the United States vary, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest agricultural census found more than 12,500 farms marketing products through CSAs in 2007, with such farms operating in every state. The National Center for Appropriate Technology estimates that CSAs supply food to more than 270,000 households each year. They vary widely in size—from small farms with a few dozen subscribers to large CSAs such as Angelic Organics, which serves many hundreds of households in the Chicago area. CSAs also vary in length of subscription season (summer only or year-round), types of foods offered (produce, eggs, meat, and/or dairy products), and method of distribution (delivery or on-farm pick-up). CSA farmers often, but not always, practice organic methods.
Whether they sell primarily produce or meat and other animal products, most CSAs have several basic principles in common:
Community investment. Payment for an entire season of shares is generally made before the growing season begins (for example, vegetable growers in many parts of the country typically accept payment between January and March). This arrangement provides farmers with financial capital when it is most needed to buy seeds, repair equipment, and make other investments for the season ahead. And food dollars stay local, which strengthens communities.
Risk and reward sharing. Throughout the season, members receive as much food as nature and good farming practices provide. Sharing the burden of crop losses due to bad weather or pests helps farmers weather bad times, but when there’s a bumper crop, everyone wins.
Diversity. CSAs often introduce new members to unusual vegetables, rare heirloom varieties, and unfamiliar cuts of meat. Having a guaranteed market gives growers room to experiment, and raising a variety of foods helps ensure there will always be plenty in members’ boxes even if disaster strikes one or two crops. Many CSA farmers include cooking tips and recipes with each box to help members learn to appreciate
Seasonality. Fruit and vegetable CSAs tend to run from spring through fall except in the warmest climates, and harvest shares are typically delivered (or picked up on-farm) weekly. Meat CSAs may operate any time of year, with shares usually doled out on a monthly schedule.
A smarter source for meat
In the past few years, dozens of meat and egg CSAs have sprouted up across the country and appear to be thriving. They range from small five-acre farms with a flock of laying chickens to much larger spreads raising cattle, sheep,
Meat CSAs have emerged in response to increasing demand for foods produced locally and with concern for the surrounding environment. As consumers have learned more about the environmental and health risks associated with raising food animals in large, overcrowded CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), they have sought out meats produced in ways that avoid these costly problems. A growing number of livestock farmers are now raising animals efficiently by working with nature rather than against it.
Pasture-based farms are one example. “Smart” pasture operations not only raise a variety of animals using low-cost grasses for feed, but also improve animals’ health, maximize cost-efficiency, and minimize farm pollution. Animals’ health improves because they are allowed to move around outdoors, and cattle and sheep are better able to digest grasses than grain-based feed. Efficiency is maximized because well-managed pastures require less maintenance, energy, pesticides, and water than feed crops, are less susceptible to erosion, and absorb more of the nutrients applied to them. And pollution is minimized because manure, which CAFOs produce in unmanageable and hazardous quantities, can be used to fertilize pastures or nearby crops in the smaller quantities generated by pasture-based farms. Furthermore, grass-fed beef and milk are often more nutritious than beef and milk from CAFOs.
Hog hoop barns offer a sophisticated alternative for raising pork that does not require large pastures. These arched structures are bedded deeply with straw and offer freedom of movement that is much healthier for the animals than small confinement pens. For poultry, mobile chicken coops that can be moved easily from pasture to pasture enable producers to raise birds outdoors while also providing shelter and nest boxes.
Many meat CSA farmers are raising their animals on pasture and in hoop barns, enabling members to reap the rewards of these modern production practices.
Challenges and benefits of meat CSAs
Meat CSAs can be more challenging to operate than vegetable CSAs, for a variety of reasons. Meat is highly perishable, and once frozen it must remain so until the consumer is ready to defrost and cook it. CSA managers, therefore, must carefully organize deliveries and pick-up locations and times. Access to slaughtering and butchering facilities for meat CSAs can also be difficult, as large plants are often closed to smaller producers, and facilities that are open may be located far away. Another challenge is what to do with lesser-known, “exotic” cuts of meat such as pigs’ feet and organ meats. To stay profitable, small producers must be able to sell every part of their animals, requiring creative marketing and a willingness on the part of members to try new products.
Members face certain challenges as well, beginning with the need for sufficient freezer space to store a month’s worth of meat at a time. Most CSAs offer two or more share sizes to accommodate families of different sizes, but even with the smallest share, some members may find themselves with more meat than they can consume.
Even with these challenges, the rewards can be great for both the operators and members of a well-run meat CSA. The arrangement especially suits small and midsize farms that raise a variety of animals and crops for feed. CSAs provide guaranteed markets for these farms and allow the farmers to market directly to consumers, which helps make it affordable for consumers to buy high-quality meat and eggs that have been produced in a sustainable manner.