Inspired living

Farming for the future: Community-supported agriculture

Community-supported agriculture

Emiel Molenaar, Unsplash

Many people think of community-supported agriculture as a fruit and vegetable box delivery or a bulk meat purchase. But at its very heart, CSA is a partnership between farmers and the people who eat the food they produce — and the benefits go well beyond just that relationship.

Sally Ruljancich and her husband Colin started their community-supported agriculture (CSA) scheme by accident. Already farmers, they had a small flock of organically raised lambs ready to go to market, but prices were so low that Colin didn’t think it would be worth spending money on freight. So Sally put a call out on her personal Facebook account to see if friends wanted to buy. She sold the entire flock in 10 minutes. This success led the family to start Colin and Sally’s Organic Lamb and Beef in 2013, and their farm in South Gippsland, Victoria now feeds 112 households through a CSA scheme — with a waiting list of many hundreds.

“I’ve never done a farmers’ market. Our shareholders understand that when your whole lamb or half beef is ready it’s go time! They’re all used to the fact that no animal leaves unless it has a home in a freezer,” she says, describing the nature of their enterprise.

… the more people learn about the problems with the food system, the more inclined they are to seek out a direct connection with the people who grow the food they eat.

Their CSA scheme is just one of many that are growing in numbers and popularity across the country. Although not every CSA project is the same, all enterprises share the same core principle: producers and consumers share in the risks and rewards of the food production each season. Farmers grow food (usually organic vegetables or meat, but sometimes fruits, eggs and other products) to feed people who have already committed to buy. In turn, those people pay a fair price up front and accept whatever quality and quantity they receive during the season. Produce is distributed by some kind of direct meeting between the two — like a home delivery, collection point or farm visit.

There are currently 35 CSA farms in operation in Australia and numerous other quasi-CSA schemes with similar benefits. These quasi-CSA schemes usually involve multiple farms contributing produce to a weekly box co-ordinated by a not-for-profit or social enterprise. Although such operations offer similar benefits to both producers and consumers, the presence of a “middleman” means that they don’t meet the main criteria of CSA.

Reliable, local food

Community-supported agriculture has its earliest history in Japan. In the 1950s and 1960s the country was undergoing rapid industrialisation that resulted in environmental destruction and pollution-related disease. The idea of teikei (literally meaning “cooperation” or “link-up”) emerged in the 1960s as a way of establishing an alternative system. Underpinned by 10 principles, teikei captures the idea that producing and consuming food are a joint operation and the shared responsibility of both growers and eaters. Although community-supported agriculture developed separately in Europe and North America (closely associated with the biodynamic farming movement and heavily influenced by Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy), many of the principles of teikei are also implicit in these Western enterprises.

Underpinned by 10 principles, teikei captures the idea that producing and consuming food are a joint operation and the shared responsibility of both growers and eaters.

The development of CSA in Australia is much more recent. There have been separate enterprises in operation over the last 15 years, but the CSA Network of Australia and New Zealand was formed in 2018 to give CSA farmers and advocates a collective voice.

There has been increased interest in CSA schemes in Australia in the last few years, driven by a changing understanding of food and farming within the community, a resurgence of small-scale farms and, most recently, the fragilities of long supply chains that things like the 2020 bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic have uncovered. It seems that the more people learn about the problems with the food system, the more inclined they are to seek out a direct connection with the people who grow the food they eat.

Good for farmers

The connection provided by CSA is a stark contrast to the industrial food system dominated by large supermarkets, where producers and consumers are separated by a raft of other in-between enterprises. Restoring that direct relationship is incredibly beneficial for farmers. The upfront payment from customers (usually called subscribers or shareholders) means that producers have reliable, regular income to support their family as they farm. They also get their money at the point in the season when most financial investment is required, allowing them to avoid going into debt in the hope that they will be able to recoup their losses by their sales.

In the Ruljanciches’ case, the subscription model creates consistency for their businesses. They can focus on growing using organic and regenerative techniques knowing that they have the support of the community that they are feeding. “It gives us financial security that allows us to make better farming decisions,” says Sally.

A matter of trust

CSA farming methods have direct environmental benefits. According to a review conducted by ANU scholar Bronwyn Wilkes in 2018, of the 35 farms across Australia involved in CSA around 80 per cent use organic farming methods. Those that don’t use organic methods describe their farms as using permaculture or regenerative agriculture practices (that is, restoring and enhancing natural ecological systems to support biodiversity above and below the soil). Eaters who support CSA are generally investing in a low-chemical, environmentally enhancing form of agriculture, but the spirit of partnership means that producers don’t necessarily need to seek formal certification for their practices. The closeness, openness, transparency and communication between producer and consumer engenders trust and makes formal certification redundant.

The closeness, openness, transparency and communication between producer and consumer engenders trust and makes formal certification redundant.

That trust is key to consumers understanding that the CSA model expects them to take on the rewards of farming as well as the risks. Sally recalls how she had to introduce the idea of risk to her shareholders very early in their CSA relationship. “In our second year we gave them more risk than we anticipated. We had a very, very dry year and we could not get lambs up to weight. We just had to be very open and say, ‘You are about to hit the risk. Last year you got the rewards and you took far beyond the kilos of meat that you paid for, but this year we are just going to have to see how it goes.’”

The trust was tested, but the value of the partnership proved its worth. “Everyone got their meat eventually, but it came when it came and everyone took a lesser amount of meat. All those people stayed with us for years afterwards,” Sally confides.

Customer satisfaction

Anecdotal reports suggest that interest in CSA surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several farms reported filling out previously undersubscribed schemes, while several multi-farm schemes saw an increase in numbers. Perhaps it was because supermarkets became a whole lot less convenient during the pandemic, or perhaps it was due to the many benefits that a relationship with the farmer can give consumers.

Canberra-based mum Evangeline Lam knows these benefits well. She has been sourcing her fruit and vegetables from BurraBee Farm CSA, a small family operation specialising in heirloom vegetables located just outside Canberra for several years. Lam was committed to supporting local farmers but found it too hard to get to the farmers’ market with her young children. She was trying to follow her ethics as she shopped in a supermarket, when a friend challenged her to consider trying a CSA box.

“BurraBee is my compromise [between the farmer’s market and the supermarket]. They do home delivery, so I don’t have to go out, and while it doesn’t supply all my fruit and veg needs it supplies most of it. It’s also local and it forces me to eat a wider variety of vegetables. And it’s organic,” she says, which for her is a priority.

Each week she gets a box of organic vegetables including everything from onions to salad greens delivered to her door. The exact contents of her box changes with the season, and sometimes includes other products like honey or kombucha which are also made on the farm. Lam admits she is spending more money than she would at a supermarket, but says that she gets bang for her buck with the heirloom vegetables that BurraBee supplies. “It’s value for money, considering that it’s organic. And we get things in lots of different colours. They have some greens that aren’t easily available elsewhere but have more flavour and better textures,” she explains.

The benefits Lam experiences are confirmed by research. One 2017 study demonstrated that CSA shareholders in Kentucky ate more fruit and vegetables, felt healthier and took fewer trips to the doctor than average. They also have a better understanding of seasonality and an increased appreciation for farming. But the drawbacks are also real. When you are sharing the risk with farmers, you share in the heartbreak caused by a freak weather event or uncontrollable pest infestation. “Because it’s local and dependent on the seasons, sometimes you might not get much because of a poor harvest or pests or hail, but I think it’s a minor quibble. It’s something that’s expected with a CSA. Or you might get things that you don’t know what to do with, but for me that’s a plus,” says Lam.

Building a better food system

Bronwyn Wilkes, a PhD candidate at ANU who recently conducted a review of CSA in Australia and New Zealand for her research into food system transformation, says that benefits of CSA go beyond the individual benefits for consumers or producers. Her research is looking at biosensitivity (defined as living more in tune with, sensitive to and respectful of the life processes that we depend on). She considers not just the ecosystems that yield the things that we need biologically to survive, but also the humans and “earth-others” that share the planet.

The current highly industrialised, global food system is neither biosensitive nor sustainable, but CSA offers an alternative to that. “I think if we are to be able to endure as a human society, then the majority of us and particularly affluent middle-class people living in Western societies will need to reduce the impacts of their consumption. So they’ll need to consume less. But also, the systems that provide us the things that we need will need to be slower themselves,” Wilkes says. CSA is one example of this. “CSAs help reorient relationships between consumers, producers and ecosystems, as well as reorient people’s expectations,” she says. In other words, they help shift our view of what we want from the food system. They encourage us to think beyond the buy-what-you-want-when-you-want-it consumer/producer exchange. They provide a mechanism to repair the food system so that it provides nutritious food grown in a healthy environment by people who are treated fairly — if eaters are prepared to give up a degree of convenience, choice and control of every purchase.

Feeding people good food

CSA provides a way for consumers and producers to work together to create a food future that benefits everybody. CSA farmer Sally Ruljancich describes it best when she talks about how she measures the success of her CSA enterprise. Although her husband might talk about metrics like ground cover or lamb weight, she sees things through a different lens.

“I measure success by how much feedback and connection I can create with our members. The healthy relationship that comes from feeding people good food is the measure for me,” she says.

10 principles of the teikei system in Japan

Japan’s teikei system is not necessarily the model for CSA enterprises everywhere. In fact, CSA developed in different ways in different parts of the world. But the 10 founding principles of teikei help illustrate the potential benefits of CSA programs worldwide. They are:

  1. Principle of Mutual Assistance — Producers and consumers have a supportive and mutually beneficial relationship, with a shared understanding of the others’ needs and desires.
  2. Principle of Intended Production — Producers should intend to produce the maximum amount and diversity of produce that their farms can support in consultation with consumers.
  3. Principle of Accepting Produce — Consumers should accept the produce that has been grown on as a result of their consultation and depend upon this produce as much as possible.
  4. Principle of Mutual Concession in the Price-Setting — Share prices are determined by open discussion of the true costs and benefits of the CSA enterprise for both consumers and producers.
  5. Principle of Deepening Friendships — Continual contact and communication between producers and consumers is encouraged so that relationships can grow and strengthen.
  6. Principle of Self-Distribution — Distribution of the produce is done among the group without reliance on external transporters.
  7. Principle of Democratic Management — Democratic decision-making and shared responsibility is encouraged.
  8. Principle of Learning Among Each Group — In order to stop the group being exclusively trade/commodity based, this principle encourages friendship and sharing non-material culture.
  9. Principle of Maintaining Appropriate Group Scale — Groups should stay at a size where all of the above is still possible.
  • Principle of Steady Development — Understanding that these conditions might not be possible from the beginning, everyone agrees to continually work to achieve them, for everyone’s benefit.


For a full list of CSAs across Australia, visit csanetworkausnz.org/directory.html.


Jennifer Richards

Jennifer Richards is a freelance writer and sustainability researcher based in Canberra. Find her online at jenrichardswriter.com or on Instagram at @jenrichardswriter.