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Community supported agriculture has potential study finds

Published by Russ Grayson 2002

A RESEARCH PROJECT has found that community supported agriculture (CSA) could provide a viable market for city fringe farmers.

Released in December 2001, the project was funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation and was carried out by Adrian Parker, Farm Diversification Officer with Victoria’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

Exploring the potential

The objective was to explore the feasibility of CSAs as a market for farmers and as a food disribution channel.

“I was a little surprised to discover how well known the concept was in Australia and yet there were so few farms around, said Adrian.

“I believe that, in the not too distant future, this is going to change”.

Defining CSA

Ardrian describes CSA as: “ …a partnership of mutual commitemnt between a farm and a community of supporters which provides a direct link between the production and consumption of food.

“Shareholders cover the yearly operating budget of the farm by purchasing a share in the season’s harvest… and assume costs, risk and bounty of the harvest along with the farmer.

One of the CSAs described in the report, Nicholas Pook’s Primrose Hill Farm at Mangrove Creek, to the north of Sydney, serves Sydney subscribers by providing weekly deliveries of organically grown, in-season produce to a distribution point in Marrickville where members collect it.

Adrian found that CSA membership costs between $700 and $1000 a year — the fewer the members, the higher the cost.

Families that share a membership make joining a CSA more affordable. This benefits farmers as it softens membership fluctuations. The sharing of excess or unwanted vegetables among members maintains demand.

CSA resources

Soil, water and shareholders are  the prime constitutes of CSA.

As little as 0.8ha is all that is needed to  to grow vegetables for a CSA if the land is intensively farmed and if soil replenishment, such as green manuring and crop rotation, is practiced.

Adrian says that “Those farms that have spent time considering their soils, market and method of production often choose to go organic”.

Organic production is a consistent practice among CSA farmers.

Maintaining good relations with shareholders

Of all the skills necessary to the successful operation of a CSA — administration and farming, marketing, sales and operation — none is more important than relations with shareholders. This is probably the most difficult task and can consume a great deal of time and effort.

Initially, market research is necessary to gauge the potential viability of the CSA model. It should identify the preferences of the potential market and and whether the farm can produce what is in demand.

“The CSA farm managers interviewed”, said Adrian, “suggest that there are sufficient numbers of interested people within the community that would support a small CSA. All they need to know is that the CSA exists”.

Competition between CSAs is unknown in Australia although it is found in Canada and the USA. The main competition in this country is likely to be farmers’ markets and fruit and vegetable retailers. These, Adrian found, would most likely compete on the basis of cost although this is not the most important element in the buying equation for CSA patrons. Freshness and quality are regarded as more important.

Managing a CSA

Life values, a sense of community and the moral and philosophical values of food production are considerations for farmers thinking of getting into CSA production. These are reflected in the preference for going organic and its landcare ethic.

Adrian warns CSA farmers against growing too big.

“CSA farms can become a management nightmare if done at too large a scale.

“It is quite a task to keep up with all the different varieties maturing and packing dozens of individual orders”.

CSA farmers have to be able to deal with the main components of the production cycle — growing, picking, boxing, distributing — and the increased record keeping that is part of CSA operation.

There are options for distributing the produce. Members might come to the farm to collect their food boxes. The farmer might deliver to member’s homes, though the feasibiity of this declines with the increase in the number of subscribers, and there is the option of delivering to a central collection point in the city from where members take delivery of their food boxes.

The future

Adrian’s report says that CSAs are likely to become more common.

Although brief, the report is useful reading for those interested in the possibilities of the CSA model of food distribution, in local food and community food systems.

CSAs in Australia identified in the 2001 report:

  • Allsun Farm, Gundaroo NSW
  • Primrose Hill Farm, Mangrove Creek NSW
  • Terremah Farm, Kingston Tasmania
  • Woodbrook Farm, Harcourt Victoria.

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