Organic food is hot, but local food is hotter. While grocery stores are identifying any food they can with a local label and farmers’ markets are multiplying, some consumers are getting their food straight from the source: the farm.

They are participating in a program known as Community Supported Agriculture. According to USDA, “CSA consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production.”

The motivation behind CSA at the start remains the same today: Consumers wanted safe, fresh food, and farmers wanted stable markets. They found an arrangement in which everyone could win.

The phenomenon is traced back to Switzerland and Japan, sometime in the 1960s. The concept is generally agreed to have reached the United States in 1985, thanks in part to the efforts of Robyn Van En, who described the driving philosophy this way: “Food producers + food consumers + annual commitment to one another = CSA and untold possibilities.”

The numbers have been growing since then. In 1990, there were about 50 CSA farms; today it’s around 1,500. The details differ, but the commitment is the same — building local agriculture and keeping small farmers in business.

Some of the variations include the level of financial commitment and active participation (as in, actual farm work) by the shareholders, and the logistics of payment plans and food distribution. Some farms offer a single commodity; some plant an array of crops or join with other farms to offer customers diversity in their deliveries. Some CSAs are dedicated to serving particular community needs, perhaps helping provide food for the homeless. They may allow subscribers to customize orders or offer several sizes of shares to meet the needs of large and small families. While most CSA arrangements focus on produce, some include meat and dairy products, where there are local producers who want to get involved.

Some farms are dedicated entirely to CSA, while others also sell through other outlets, as well. In most cases, a farm involved in CSA is owned by the farmer, who has chosen CSA as a marketing channel, but some offer to sell shares in the farm. Then there are consumer-owned CSA endeavors, as well, in which consumers organize and maybe even rent farmland and/or hire farmers. The concept is elastic enough to fit many situations.

CSA is not quite the same as subscription farming. With the latter, the consumer pays for a given quantity of food in advance, and that is what he is owed, regardless of bad weather, crop failures or any extenuating circumstances. In a CSA arrangement, the risk is shared. Consumers buy a share of the harvest, whatever that may be.

That close connection to the food source is one of the elements that motivates CSA consumers. What’s in it for producers? They get to set their own price and keep more of the money paid for their products, since CSA saves considerably on processing, transportation and marketing distribution costs. They can guarantee themselves a market, even in a bad year, and enjoy cash flow at the beginning of the season. And they can benefit from the same satisfaction as the consumers/shareholders who continue to get involved in CSA: developing a relationship, with their food as the focus.