Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) — farms that regularly provide fresh produce directly to members — is growing rapidly in California’s Central Valley and surrounding foothills, according to a new study published in the January–March 2012 issue of the University of California’s California Agriculture journal.

Total membership in the CSAs surveyed (n = 46) increased exponentially from an estimated 672 members in 1990 to 32,938 members in 2010. Most CSAs in California’s Central Valley and surrounding foothills were relatively small (20 acres on average), produced a broad range of crops (44 on average) and adhered to organic or sustainable growing practices.

Likewise, 54 percent of the CSA farms surveyed were profitable; of the rest, 32 percent broke even and 15 percent operated at a loss. Gross average sales for the CSAs surveyed were $9,084 per acre in 2009; this compares with average gross sales of $1,336 per acre for California agriculture in general.

Despite their increasing popularity, little is known about CSA farmers and their operations. UC researchers conducted a comprehensive study of CSA farmers in the Central Valley and surrounding foothills about their growing practices, farm economics, demographics and other characteristics. The article in full and the entire January–March 2012 issue of California Agriculture can be found at http://californiaagriculture.ucanr.org.

CSAs eliminate distributors, forging direct connections between farmers and consumers. California has about 275 CSAs and there are more than 3,500 nationally. The researchers found that CSAs are adapting and changing to meet consumer interest in and demand for locally produced food.

“Together with farmers markets, farm stands, U-picks and agritourism, CSAs constitute a ‘civic agriculture’ that is re-embedding agricultural production in more sustainable social and ecological relationships, maintaining economic viability for small- and medium-scale farmers and fulfilling the non–farm-based population's increasing desire to reconnect with their food,” Ryan Galt, UC Davis assistant professor in the Department of Human and Community Development, and co-authors wrote in California Agriculture journal.

The CSA model has undergone considerable change and innovation, the researchers found, with growers offering new products such as meat and dairy and making payment options more attractive to consumers. When the first CSAs were started on the East Coast in the mid-1980s, members paid in advance and received a share of the farm’s crop in return, and they also shared in production risks. Today’s CSAs allow consumers more flexibility and less risk.

“Twenty percent of CSAs in the study had no minimum payment period, allowing week-by-week payments, which extends membership to a broader population, including those hesitant or unable to commit to extended payments,” the authors wrote.

The study team also interviewed CSA farmers about what motivated them. “Even though a CSA is hard work, farmers tend to find it rewarding,” Galt and co-authors noted. “The vast majority were happy with their work and continued to view the CSA as a viable option for small- and medium-scale farmers.”