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CSA: More for your money than fresh vegetables (Research Brief #52)

Posted January 2001

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms provide their members with more than fresh produce. CSA farms engage their members in agriculture through newsletters, farm celebrations, and you-pick days. Some CSA members may realize significant financial savings, as well.

CSA farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin wanted to find out how the cost of a CSA membership compares to retail prices for fresh produce. John Hendrickson and Marcy Ostrom, researchers at the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS), compared CSA produce prices to those at several other retail outlets. Hendrickson and Ostrom also surveyed CSA members for two years.

CSA: one choice of many

The researchers collected price information on the vegetables delivered by the three CSA farms for 13 weeks of the 1996 growing season. Each week, they recorded the type and quantity of produce delivered by each farm. They then traveled to each retail market to collect and record the prices for those items.

The study compared similar, but not necessarily identical, foods. Hendrickson made a few substitutions, such as green leaf lettuce for red leaf lettuce. When an item was unavailable and a substitution could not be made, Hendrickson averaged the prices at those markets where it was available. Substitutions and averaged prices were used more frequently for the grocery store and supermarket because they carried a more limited variety of vegetables.

Not all produce in this study was local or organic.

  • CSA produce was local and organic but it was not certified organic in all cases.
  • Farmers market produce was local and certified organic.
  • All produce from the retail food cooperative and natural foods store was organic and approximately 75 percent was local.

  • Grocery store produce was not local or organic.
  • Supermarket produce was not organic and only occasionally local.

Price comparison

The three CSA farms delivered over 60 different types of vegetables, fruits and herbs averaging eight items each week. Membership fees for these farms ranged from $306 to $415 for 22 weeks.

Table 1 (below) shows the average price per delivery that members of each CSA would have paid for similar food at the other markets. The shares provided by the three farms had relatively similar market values. This table also shows the price differences between the various markets. The natural foods store was consistently the most expensive place to shop. The supermarket featured the lowest produce prices.

If the monetary value of optional produce had been included in these price calculations, the cost of CSA membership would compare even more favorably to produce prices at other sources. However, not all CSA members took advantage of special offers. Fruits and vegetables that were unique, seasonally abundant (like green beans), or appealing to a limited number of people (like hot peppers), were often delivered separately.

CSA 3, which appeared to provide the poorest dollar value, held free you-pick days almost every Saturday. The value of this additional produce was not included in this study. Given the high value of some of the items, the total value of the food was significantly higher than shown in the tables.

Table 2 (below) shows how the CSA membership fees compared with produce prices at the five other outlets. For each CSA, the average delivery value was multiplied by the total number of deliveries. This figure was subtracted from the membership fee. Positive values indicate how much more, and negative values how much less, a CSA member paid relative to the other options.

Without including extras and you-pick produce, CSA provided a better dollar value in six out of 15 cases. CSA 1 accounted for four of these six cases. The produce delivered by CSA 3 could have been purchased more cheaply at all of the other outlets. But members of all three CSA farms enjoyed benefits like convenient neighborhood delivery sites and informational newsletters.

Many benefits of a CSA membership cannot be quantified. The member survey indicated that CSA members highly value extras such as you-pick days, whether they take advantage of them or not. Other members place a high value on neighborhood delivery sites where they can walk to pick up their produce. People also look forward to the weekly newsletters describing life on the farm and providing vegetable recipes and information.

The value of food

“While many people base their food purchasing decisions firmly on price and appearance, some people are willing and able to pay more for food believed to be healthier and safer,” says Hendrickson. Many members feel that CSA produce is fresher and better tasting than what they find in supermarkets.

CSA members directly influence their food supply and contribute to the local economy. With a CSA membership, people are not just buying produce: they’re making a commitment to support a farm, farmer, and farm family. Members assume a portion of the risk of farming: in good years there will be bounty and in poor years smaller harvests.

Farm production costs, which are passed on to CSA members, influence the price of CSA membership. Larger, more mechanized farms often have lower production costs, and these savings can be passed on to members. But some CSA members think that it is easier to build close relationships as members of a smaller farm.

Long-distance produce

Hendrickson says that the modern food system tends to bypass local farmers and misleads consumers into believing all foods are naturally available throughout the year. At the supermarket in June (the peak season for peas in Wisconsin), he found shrink-wrapped snow peas flown in from Costa Rica. He also found tomatoes from Holland available at the grocery store through the summer.

Year-round availability of fresh produce is an important difference between CSA and the typical food shopping experience. Hendrickson observes that long-distance produce incurs hidden costs. Commercial fruits and vegetables are bred, grown, harvested, and packaged for long distance shipment and shelf life, not taste and nutritional value.

True costs and hidden costs

On a CSA farm, members share the full costs of food production and local, sustainable agriculture. The CSA movement aims to educate consumers that supermarket prices do not reflect the real costs of our industrial agricultural system. These costs include packaging waste disposal, soil erosion and groundwater contamination, pollution caused by long-distance transport, and fair farm labor wages.

Hendrickson points out that government subsidies for road and water systems favor the industrial food system. Such subsidies help keep food prices low, even as the real costs to produce, process, transport, and market food increase. Wisconsin fresh-market vegetable farms struggle to compete in this system and its tendency to offer competitive advantages to large-scale industrial-style farms.

Table 1: Average market value per CSA delivery*
Farmers market $14.95 $15.22 $14.75
Food cooperative $17.24 $18.10 $15.94
Natural food store $18.75 $19.04 $17.87
Chain grocery $14.97 $16.76 $15.52
Warehouse supermkt. $11.84 $10.87 $10.25
* These values do not include produce delivered as optional extras by any of the CSA farms or produce picked by members at regular you-pick days at CSA 3.
Table 2: CSA produce cost compared to other markets*
Based on a 13-week comparison. Positive values show how much more, and negative values show how much less, a CSA member paid for produce relative to the other outlets.
Farmers mkt. Co-op Nat. food store Grocery Supermarket
CSA 1 -$52.80 -$107.76 -$144.00 -$53.28 $21.84
CSA 2 $55.16 -$8.20 -$28.88 $21.28 $150.86
CSA 3 $90.50 $64.32 $21.86 $73.56 $189.50
*These values do not include produce delivered as optional extras by any of the CSA farms or produce picked by members at regular you-pick days at CSA 3.

Published as Research Brief #52
January, 2001