Growing Food and Community:
CSA Takes Root in Oklahoma

by Wylie Harris

Small family farmers struggling to make a living, tasteless produce shipped thousands of miles from pesticide-drenched fields to supermarket shelves, and a state full of kids (and parents) who aren't eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables to stay healthy…. Many people are tired of hearing about all the problems with food and farming in Oklahoma. Rather than throwing up their hands, though, some modern-day Oklahoma pioneers are digging in to plant an innovative solution: CSA.

Those initials stand for "Community Supported Agriculture," or, as some prefer to call it, "Community Sustaining Agriculture." Others use the term "subscription farming," which gives a hint as to what's actually going on. In CSA, a farm's customers commit to buy a share of the season's produce. As members, they receive weekly baskets of that pre-paid bounty throughout the growing season. This arrangement lets the people who eat the food take on some of the financial risk of farming, literally putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to supporting family farms and sustainable agriculture in Oklahoma. "It's a way of really solidifying a farmer for the season, saying, 'Hey, we want you to stay around,'" says James Cooper, of Nuyaka Natural Farm in Bristow.

James and Jenny Cooper
James and Jenny Cooper

In mid-June, for example, Cooper and his wife Jennifer fill their CSA members' baskets with salad mix, summer squash, beets, arugula, and blueberries. Come August, they'll be getting tomatoes, basil, zucchini, okra, and eggplant. Like many CSAs, the Coopers also throw in a weekly newsletter with recipes and other tips for preparing and storing the current harvest.

Nationwide, the average price for a CSA share is about $400 for an entire season. In Oklahoma, the figure ranges from $240 to $450. But at $15 a week for a half-bushel basket of produce picked the same day it's delivered, CSA farmers say that's not such a bad bargain.

CSA is new in Oklahoma – and growing. The first nationwide survey of CSA farms, conducted in 1999, didn't list a single one in the entire state. There are currently half a dozen or so. Some, like Cindy Sterling's Swinging Gate Farm in Norman, have waiting lists of potential members.

CSA's recent appearance on the state's agricultural radar is only one of the ways they mark a fresh start for Oklahoma food and farming. For decades, the national Census of Agriculture has painted an ever-gloomier picture of farmers as a predominantly male and increasingly aging group working ever-larger farms. The 1999 CSA survey told a different story. The average age of farmers in the 1997 Census of Agriculture was 54 years; that of CSA farmers in the 1999 survey was 43. Nationwide, less than 10 % of all farmers are women, versus nearly 40 % for CSA. While there are some large CSA farms, the median number of acres they operate nationwide is 18.

Oklahoma's CSA farms are no exception. There are as many women as men running them, as many twenty- and thirty-somethings as retirees, and it's not uncommon to find them making a profit from an area the size of the 10 acres that the Coopers farm – or even smaller. Emily Oakley and Mike Appel, of Three Springs Farm in Tulsa, got their CSA started on 2 leased acres.

A large part of the way CSA is turning agriculture around is by making farming more ecologically sustainable. According to the 1999 national survey, over 40 % of CSA farms are certified organic, and as many more, while not certified, follow organic standards. In her book Agrarian Dreams, Julie Guthrie pointed out that in the world of California organic farming, CSA is the only form of commercial farm that goes beyond the letter of the organic regulations. CSA farms, she says, are more likely to be integrated farming operations incorporating "agroecological" practices, like rotations, cover crops, and livestock, suggested but not mandated by USDA organic standards.

There again, Oklahoma CSA follows the larger pattern. Though not many are certified organic, many plan to certify, and almost all meet or even surpass the USDA organic standards' minimum requirements. The USDA standards "allow things I wouldn't even think of using," says Sharon Miller, whose New Beginning Farm in Tecumseh was Oklahoma's first CSA. "I don't see any real advantage to certification." Others, like Oakley and Appel and the Coopers, plan to pursue organic certification. "It's not so much for the economic benefit as just because we believe in it," says Oakley. All agree, though, that their personal relationships with their members already carry more trust and confidence than a USDA organic label.

Those personal relationships make CSA farms sustainable socially as well as ecologically. Many CSA farmers keep them strong by hosting farm visits and special events. Oakley and Appel invited members for an heirloom tomato taste test early in the tomato season last year, whetting their appetites for the full harvest. The Coopers host a salsa party to let their members compare recipes. Miller throws a barbecue for her members and plans to put a pumpkin patch in this year. "We've tried to make the farm as family-friendly as possible," she says. "If one of our member families wants to come out one day for a picnic, that's just fine.

The personal involvement also helps to maintain, and raise, people's awareness of how food is grown – especially among the younger generation. When parents come out to pick up their shares and bring their kids along, Miller says, "It gives them a whole different perspective."

Their local orientation and personal scale let CSAs adapt quickly to suit the needs of the communities, whose business keeps them thriving in turn. To give their members more freedom of choice, Oakley and Appel are experimenting with treating some shares like debit cards. Members still buy shares normally at the start of the season, but come to the farmers' market to pick and choose, with the amount of their purchases there subtracted from their initial payments. Cindy Sterling started out with standard shares, switched over to a debit system, and now just sends a weekly email telling members what's available, so that they can order and pay for whatever they want week by week. "We're flying by the seat of our pants," she says, "and half the time they're on fire."

That flexibility also allows CSAs to extend their bounty of freshness to people who traditionally face obstacles obtaining any sort of food. For those unable to afford the up-front cost of a share at one time, some offer pay-as-you-go arrangements. This year, the Coopers are going a step further, experimenting with an arrangement whereby a percentage of each paid share goes toward a free share for low-income families. If successful, it will mark a small but significant step towards a community-scale solution to thorny problems of food access and hunger.

Their small size also tends to keep CSA farms diversified – not just as a nod to ecological sustainability, but as a central part of their economic viability. In her first year as a CSA, Miller went with the basics. "But I quickly learned that people want more variety." Oakley and Appel use a spreadsheet to make sure they're continually changing the mix of produce in their members' baskets. The Coopers, by no means atypical, grow 75 different crops.

In addition to diversification, Oklahoma CSA farmers share other pointers gleaned from their own experience with others contemplating the CSA route for their farms. "Visit other farms," says Oakley, "Not just for an afternoon, but for a whole day during harvest, and maybe another day during office chores." It's also important for potential CSA farmers to know their own capabilities. Most of Oklahoma's successful CSA operators had several years of farming and/or gardening experience before launching their CSAs.

Another tip is to start small. Oakley and Appel began their CSA's first season with 10 members, mostly family and friends, before expanding to 30 in the second. It’s also a good idea to be realistic about the amount of income a CSA will generate, especially at first. Few if any Oklahoma CSAs generate as much as half their farm income through the CSA itself, even after a few years. "It's a good thing to transition into," says Oakley, "but not as a sole income."
"It's a lot of labor and a lot of love," says Cooper, "but I couldn't see myself doing anything else."

Lass, D. et al. 2003. CSA Across the Nation: Findings from the 1999 CSA Survey. Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS), College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Guthman, J. 2004. Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California. University of California Press, Berkeley.

CREES logoThis project is supported by the Community Food Projects Program of the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, grant # 2004-33800-15141


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