Fresh, healthy and locally grown food has long been a mainstay of the environmental movement and has manifested itself in the increasing popularity of organic foods in the supermarket, as well as the prevalence of farmer's markets in many parts of the United States. In a growing trend, many environmentally conscious consumers are beginning to take this notion one step further by purchasing shares of local farms in what is known as "community-supported agriculture" (or CSAs). Under this system, people pay an upfront fee to a local farm before the season starts, and in return receive weekly or biweekly packages of fresh produce as the various crops become available.
Community-supported agriculture was first put into practice in Europe and Asia during the 1980s, but didn't gain popularity in the United States until the more recently. The Internet has greatly helped many of the programs get off the ground, as online communities discuss the benefits of local agriculture and can to readily organize CSAs. According to a recent article in the New York Times, "there were fewer than 100 such farms in the early 1990s, but in the last several years the numbers have grown to close to 1,500."
CSA programs have been successful at eliminating many of the barriers associated with operating small sustainable farms. Paying an upfront fee, which on average is between $500 and $800 per season, eliminates the need for a middleman, in turn bringing more revenue to the farmer. In addition to this, receiving payment before the crops have been harvested can help to alleviate the pain of having a bad season, effectively splitting the burden between the farmer and the customer. Unfortunately, this does come at a cost for the consumer, many of whom admit they pay a premium for participating in a CSA, according to the New York Times.
Yet most participants agree that the advantages of eating locally and sustainably produced food far outweigh the disadvantages. People appreciate the environmental and health benefits of eating local organic food, particularly in the reduction of waste and energy associated with transportation and packaging. By receiving packages of different harvests every week, customers also gain a better understanding of the natural cycles that dictate agriculture, something that is lost to the vast majority of customers shopping in supermarkets.
While it is unlikely that community-supported agriculture will completely replace commercial agriculture (there will always be a demand for imported fresh fruit in the winter, at least in the foreseeable future), it does represent an interesting model which could potentially be replicated in other sectors. In addition to produce and meat, some farms also include fresh cut flowers as part of their CSA program. A group in Vermont has been experimenting with using a similar model to supply sustainably harvested firewood to Vermonters as a source of fuel. As a large segment of the population becomes increasingly concerned with the benefits of decreasing their ecological footprint, it is likely that community-supported agriculture, and other similar programs, will continue to gain popularity.