Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is the practice of focusing on the local production of high quality foods with the support of a consumer group that is willing to fund a whole season's budget in order to get quality foods.
The more a farm embraces whole-farm, whole-budget support, the more it can focus on quality and reduce the risk of food waste or financial loss. Most CSAs have a transparent whole season budget for producing a specified wide array of products for a set number of weeks a year as well as a 'shared risk and reward' agreement, i.e. that the consumers eat what the farmers grow even with the vagaries of the growing season.
CSA is a relatively new model of food production, sales, and distribution aimed at both increasing the quality of food and the quality of stewardship for the land, plants and animals - while substantially reducing financial risks. CSA's focus is usually on a system of weekly delivery or pick-up of vegetables, sometimes also flowers, fruits, herbs, milk or meat products. An advantage of the close consumer-producer relationship is increased freshness of the produce, because it does not have to be shipped long distances. The close proximity of the farm to the members also helps the environment by reducing the “ecological footprint” - i.e. the pollution and consumption of nonrenewable resources - caused by transporting the produce.
Typically, CSA farms are small, independent, labor-intensive, family farms. By providing a guaranteed market through prepaid annual sales, consumers essentially help finance farming operations. Individuals, families or groups do not pay for x pounds of produce, but rather support the budget of the whole farm and receive weekly what is seasonally ripe. This allows farmers to not only focus on quality growing, it can also level the playing field somewhat in a food market that tends to favor large-scale, industrialized agriculture. The cost of a share is usually competitively priced when compared to the same amount of vegetables conventionally-grown, partly because the cost of distribution is lowered.
A good online tool for searching CSAs, as well as meat processors, farms, farmer’s markets and fresh produce other outlets by zip code is Local Harvest.