How to Start a New CSA: Interview with Paula Lukats of Just Food

For many of us here in New York City, or in other urban areas, joining a CSA gives us a sense of belonging to the sustainable agricultural movement in a tangible way. It’s more than just trying to shop locally; it’s supporting a farmer and being part of a community dedicated to eating healthfully and eco-consciously.

But how many of us, inspired by the glorious bags or boxes of fresh produce our friends carry home, have tried to join our local only to be told it’s filled to capacity?

If you’re an urban agrarian with CSA-envy, then fret no longer. With some like-minded neighbors and a little effort you can start your own CSA. To find out how, we talked with Paula Lukats, the CSA in NYC Program Coordinator at Just Food.

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Q: Paula, for those of us who may not be familiar with CSA programs, can you explain what they are?
A: CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is a way for groups in the community to establish a relationship with a farmer and buy shares in the farmer’s harvest in exchange for weekly produce. The price of the share helps the farmer pay for growing a full season’s worth of produce and provides the farmer with a living wage. In exchange, CSA members get weekly deliveries, usually from June through November, of locally grown food.

Q: Let’s say we want to start a CSA, what’s the first thing we should do?
A: The first step is to get a sense of the level of interest in your area or neighborhood. You don’t need to have a complete list of members, but you need to know that there are others out there who also want to take home that fabulous bag of fresh produce every week; people like you who will be willing to make a commitment to the program.

Q: How many members do you need?
A: It varies, but to make it worthwhile for the farmer you usually want between 30 and 40 members. And you do need a few core people who will work closely with you to help organize the program.

Q: Okay, so we’ve talked to a few neighbors and they’re all thrilled about a CSA, now what?
A:: Now you call me (laugh). I’ll come and meet with your initial group to explain exactly how the CSA works and what you can expect if you decide to move forward. Assuming you do, your group will fill out a form to define the boundaries of your neighborhood and discuss where your distribution center might be -- basic information that helps me understand what your needs are and gets everyone thinking.

Our farmers also fill out a form so we know about both of you and can make a good match. We have what we call a Farmer Advisory Committee that helps us evaluate each farm and make sure they understand what the urban CSA environment is like, because farmers have to have the capacity to commit to the program as well. We need to know they can handle growing 40 to 70 different varieties of produce, do it on a large-scale, and dependably transport it to the city each week.

Q: How do you match a community to a specific farmer?
A: We really want these matches to be long-term relationships, so we work hard to connect farmers and communities that we think compliment each other, and flexibility is a key factor. For example, some groups want to be able to offer half-shares, or fruit as well as vegetable shares. Some CSA groups need financial flexibility, whether it’s accepting food stamps or paying in installments across the season. We even try to for appropriate cultural matches -- if a community is largely Hispanic or Asian and they’re members want specific ethnic products, we offer that. And of course, we need to consider the location of the farmer in relation to the CSA site.

Q: How do suggest a group attract members?
A: You can get the word out on local blogs or web sites, hand out flyers at schools and churches, or even post flyers at the local yoga studio or coffee house. I have groups who have given presentations to PTAs and community boards––it’s really not too hard. What can be a really great selling tool is inviting your group’s farmer to come to an outreach meeting so members can see pictures of the farm, ask questions directly, and really get a sense of their involvement in the process.

Q: So once we have a group and a farmer, we’re all set?
A: Exactly, then your core group and the farmer and I all get together to decide on a delivery day and get started. It’s a really incredible process and I find people get so much out of it beyond the produce. As a community, you’re accepting risk with the farmer. If he or she has a bad season, you share in that; but you also share in the bounty.

Q: Sounds amazing -- when do we get our farmer and our first crop?
A: New groups usually get started in the fall, but if we start talking now and you begin gathering your members, your CSA can be up and ready by Spring 2009!

Many thanks to Paula for talking to us about how to start a CSA -- a fabulous way to enjoy gloriously fresh produce while helping preserve the family farm and the planet.

This is by Suzanne, who is up for one of our new writer positions. Welcome Suzanne!