Kentucky Ag News

New USDA publication features UK CSA research


University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which first appeared in the U.S. in the 1980s, is now a prominent direct farm marketing channel across the country. A USDA publication released in April features CSA research conducted in the University of Kentucky (UK) Department of Agricultural Economics, under a cooperative agreement with the Agricultural Marketing Service.

The report, which UK wrote with Debra Tropp at USDA, provides insight into CSA operations and innovations across the U.S. It details a national survey of CSA managers and farm operators and provides an updated description of CSA operations nationally. The report also features case studies of innovative CSAs in Colorado, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Most CSAs are small – 60 shares or less – but growing in size. Most farms complement their CSA sales with farm market, restaurant and other direct sales. More than half projected their CSA sales would increase over the next two years and expressed optimism about growth in most other direct markets in their area.

One of the main findings of the report is that farms are creatively adapting the CSA model to unearth new marketing opportunities and grow existing markets. Today, a straightforward example of this innovation is how most CSA farms rely on some form of social media as a primary means for member communication, retention and recruitment. The CSA managers also identified using season extension technologies, and offering a wider variety of products, as becoming more important.

CSAs are also pioneering new uses for online engagement, including e-commerce ordering platforms for adding on products to shares and even adjusting share sizes in the middle of the season. Our look at Farmer Dave’s, a Massachusetts CSA with substantial membership in low-income Boston neighborhoods, showed the importance of a flexible and nimble share structure for bringing CSA membership to populations with less established access to local food.

CSA farms can benefit from working with one another. We took a close look at Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance, a group of farms in western Pennsylvania that came together to serve the Pittsburgh market. They have maintained a successful and growing presence by pooling resources and creating efficiencies in ordering, transportation and delivery. These would have been impossible for any single smaller farm to achieve.

We also documented innovations in the CSA model related to institutional and corporate wellness initiatives. Insurance providers in Madison, Wisconsin, worked with an alliance of CSA farms in that area, providing vouchers toward CSA membership as a wellness benefit. A similar program is being piloted in Kentucky involving employer vouchers to employees in university, government and commercial business wellness programs.

Additional information on research supporting the CSA voucher program can be found on the UK Center for Crop Diversification site.


This article was written by Tim Woods, a UK Extension Professor of Agricultural Economics, and Matt Ernst, an independent writer contracted with the CCD and a former UK Extension associate. The article first appeared in the May 2017 edition of the Center for Crop Diversification newsletter.