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Your 'mystery' ingredients: A look at the CSA concept

For several decades, certified farmers markets have been the primary business model to satisfy the growing demand for fresh, locally grown produce, but in the last several years an alternative model -- community-supported agriculture (CSA) -- has spread rapidly in Southern California. The consequences for consumers, growers and farmers markets seem mostly positive so far, but the potential for controversy is also starting to emerge.

The CSA concept, which began in Europe and Japan in the 1960s and took root in the United States in the 1980s, calls for consumers to buy a share in the production of a farm and receive a box of produce in return. Many variations exist: in the size of the box (for one to six people), the frequency of shipments (typically weekly), the duration of the plan (monthly, seasonally, yearly) and whether the farm buys from or links up with other growers to diversify its offerings (a vegetable farm often supplements with fruit, for example). Most CSAs drop off the boxes on set days at locations such as schools, businesses and farmers markets, but some deliver directly to homes.

Many consumers are attracted by the direct connection to a particular farm and its growing practices; to encourage this link most CSAs offer farm visits and tours to their members. The CSA box can also be convenient to those who lack time to shop at farmers markets. Vendors say their prices are about the same or a little lower for CSA shipments compared with farmers markets, and definitely lower than for equivalent items at supermarkets.

On the other hand, to the extent that they no longer shop at farmers markets, CSA customers miss out on socializing with other shoppers and farmers, which is a major attraction for many market-goers. In addition, the CSA model limits choice because CSAs usually provide a set box of what's in season on their farm. Read more in this week's Market Watch report.

-- David Karp

Photo: California-grown kiwis. Credit: David Karp

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