CSA Farm Sales in California Exceed State-Wide Average, UC Davis Study Finds
September 16, 2011 | Andrew Burger
Establishing direct connections between local farmers and residents, community supported agriculture (CSA) has been a growing form of direct marketing in California’s Central Valley, with the number of California CSAs growing steadily since the early 1990s.
Researchers at the University of California at Davis’s Agricultural Sustainability Institute conducted a wide-ranging and in-depth study of CSAs in and around California’s Central Valley.
“CSA is a very bright spot in the current economy,” the report authors’ write. “It meets rapidly increasing demand for a localized food system and the need for environmentally conscious food production.”
According to the report, “while highly diverse in many of their specific characteristics, CSAs are simultaneously powerful economic engines in terms of gross sales per acre and employment, arrangements that support strong environmental stewardship, and ways of building meaningful connections between farmers and eaters.”
Though only one of a variety of marketing channels, CSAs are a “crucial direct marketing channel for small- and medium-scale farmers who participate,” the researchers concludein the report, which was released in August. Other marketing channels, direct and indirect, include farmers’ markets, you-picks, wholesale and restaurants.
Report Findings and Details
Among their findings, the UC Davis researchers found that CSA farms on average yielded $9,084 in gross sales per acre, much higher than the average for California farms as a whole, whose average sales per acre totaled $1,336. California organic vegetable production averaged $2,087 in gross sales per acre. Some farms require no minimum payment for weekly boxes while others require payment for the entire season up-front.
CSA farm membership varies, with the smallest reporting fewer than 20 members and the largest more than 1,000. All, regardless of size, reported experiencing growth, or unchanged membership numbers from 2005-2008. Some experienced a loss in membership in 2009 in the midst of the recession. Membership turnover and retention was a major concern for CSA farmers.
Larger farms participating in CSAs were found to be less reliant on CSA sales for revenue. Positive relationships were found between farm size and reported profitability, as well as between farm size and farmers paying themselves a formal salary.
Good salaries and profitability aside, many farmers cited the tangible and intangible benefits they receive from farming as being as important as the monetary reward, if not more.
CSA farmers were found to use a wide range of information sources, and labor, to keep their operations up and running. Their most valuable sources of information fell into three categories: member and community relations; production and the CSA box; and CSA management. They drew on the knowledge and expertise of specialists, such as UC Cooperative Extension agents, agricultural consultants, conservation agents and input dealers, but other farmers and farmworkers were found to be the information sources that they relied on most.
The majority of CSA farms offer a weekly box of produce that’s available year-round and most commonly filled with vegetables, though they sometimes contain add-on food produced on or off the farm. Fruit, eggs, flowers, grains, processed food, such as preserves, and meat were among the latter. A few CSA farms that specialize in meat, dairy or grains and their weekly boxes reflect their specialties.