The 6th Urgenci International CSA Conference:
Two simultaneous conferences – the 6th Urgenci International CSA Conference and the 7th annual national Chinese CSA conference – shared a grand opening with a performance of traditional Chinese instruments playing while a video showed a mysterious hand deftly sketching scenes of everyday life on a traditional farm. There were welcome speeches from the conference sponsors, Tsinghua University, the Shunyi District Government and the Ministry of Agriculture.
The words of the president of Renmin University pleasantly surprised me; she called for agriculture in harmony with nature and praised the important contributions to national development of their program in ecological production currently in its 11th year. Although the minister of agriculture did not come himself, his spokesman emphasized the government’s high priority on the urgent need for change from unsustainable industrial agriculture to a policy of ecological agriculture that, like traditional farming, is friendly to the environment. He declared: “We cannot follow the western model. Instead, we must improve small scale farms, encourage the training of new farmers and return to the countryside, and give farmers a dignified life.” I can only hope that there is some connection between this minister’s words and reality on the ground.
Andre Leu, President of Organics International (the new name for IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements – NOFA is one of the 800 members from 120 countries), began with the theme of his recent book The Myths of Safe Pesticides: Today, Leu asserts, the # 1 driver of market growth for organic is avoiding pesticides. The 2010 US President’s Cancer panel found that 80-% of cancers are environmental. There is a 1 in 10,000 chance that glyphosate has caused the rise in thyroid cancer. The smallest amount of pesticides damages children. Fresh, local and non-toxic –this is our duty of care. Leu went on to present Organic 3.0. In Leu’s analysis, the movement for organic agriculture has reached a new phase. During the previous, second phase, “we created a monster” – government regulations for the organic marketplace. The new phase will be bottom up, a collective vision grounded in a culture of innovation and continuous improvement, empowering peasants and consumers through CSA and Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS). In the place of a focus on certification, we will recognize diverse ways to insure transparency and integrity. If peer review is good enough for doctors and scientists, we should be able to rely on it for integrity in agriculture. Organic agriculture will build partnerships with all related efforts.
Professor Wen Tiejun and I were the keynote speakers. I talked about CSA as an antidote to industrial agriculture and gave examples of the longest lasting CSAs and what gives them such staying power. (My talk is available on my new blog – The Prying Mantis.) As a teacher and organizer, Professor Wen is the father/instigator of the Chinese CSA movement and a very important voice for ecological civilization within the Chinese Communist Party. He is a charismatic speaker. Here is a summary of his talk:
“CSA is the only topic in China that will keep so many people for 3 full days. Peasant farmers don’t own farms – “farm owners” is a foreign concept. There are three rural problems – the three-dimensional agrarian issues – peasants, countryside, and rural work. Conditions are very different all over China for the development of social sustainable agriculture. (Photo of Organic production coop from 2004.) 2005 – early system – biogas, greenhouse, no waste sustainable construction – local architecture. Reliance on volunteers – training teams. Over 10,000 participants in Rural Redevelopment program. Consumers – developing consumer organizations in cities – coops, fair trade. Children, education and family harmony.
“Ecological Civilization – brings families together and supports rural reconstruction. Problems of global capital – key issue. Big capitalized farms –the farm model from colonization (USA, CAN). Ag. 3.0 takes agriculture out of primary production and brings it into service. 4.0 adds internet and social integration. We have had 7000 years of agriculture. We must build on what we have inherited from our ancestors, but I am also ashamed because there are so many unsolved problems. The central government is supporting ecological agriculture – the goal is still dark but spring is coming. CSA is socialized eco-farming – combine what we learn from other countries and our own innovations. (A fuller exposition of Wen’s thought is available in the program for the conference, pp. 57 – 67. Professor Wen’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Andrea Calori, an organizer of Gruppi di Acquisto solidale (GAS, the Italian version of CSA) and president of Urgenci, spoke of the group’s vision for an international network connecting the dots among local food communities. People are in the center. There is dynamic tension between local action and building alliances among peoples through Urgenci and its allies IFOAM, RIPESS and CSA national and regional networks.
After these opening ceremonies and on the way to lunch, everyone gathered to pose for the inevitable group photo, despite the snow that was starting to fall. By evening, there were 3 inches of snow that completely tied up Beijing, a city without snowplows.
A farmers’ market with perhaps 40 farms and food businesses ran simultaneously with the conference. The booths included hand dyed cloth, rice, vegetables, rice liquor, beer, and honey. There was a group from Tibet in native costume with a display about their high mountain beekeeping enterprise. They give me cosmos seed which they explained is a metaphor for young women. In return, I give them several packets from Fruition Seeds that I brought along for gifts. They ceremoniously presented me and many other visitors with long silken scarves embossed with symbols of love and peace.
The program for the afternoon was dedicated to Earth Care, with separate sessions for the two conference groups. The Chinese conference attracted over 500 people from hundreds of CSA projects all over the country. Few of us foreign dignitaries could communicate easily with them and there were only enough translators for the joint sessions and a few of the English language workshops. I would have liked to go to some of the Chinese sessions – a 15 minute film “Looking Back on One Hundred Years of Rural Reconstruction” followed by a discussion among the movement’s leaders, and “The Search for Cultural Roots and the Revival of the Countryside,” a conversation among young farmers who have returned to villages to live and farm. The conference organizers assigned a translator to me so that I could attend part of “Dialogue on CSA Farm Production: organic fertilizers, biopesticides and seed management” as an Urgenci observer. The large room was packed with people standing along the walls and in the doorway. Eight young farmers described their practices in fairly general terms, and were very honest about learning as they went. All use organic methods – composting, mulches, beneficial microorganisms and a lot of hand labor. Unfortunately, I could not stay for the discussion since I had to present at another workshop.
Our basic design for the Urgenci workshops was to include representatives from at least three different countries on each theme. For “Starting a Farm” there was a Frenchman, Erin Bullock and a CSA organizer from Belgium. Jerome Dehondt slipped into CSA farming from permaculture. As a trained designer, he came with a five year plan that allows him to add crops and livestock gradually. His advice to other would-be farmers – control expenses, sell direct and maintain a human scale. Florian Delespesse works for GASAP, a Belgian CSA network founded ten years ago by consumers. Initially, the farmers in the network were older, but as the number of farms has grown to 45, more young farmers have joined. They have two models: one vegetable farm with several groups of members, and groups of 40 people with 6 – 10 farms supplying many products. Florian’s job involves recruiting more members and facilitating farmer-member meetings using non-violent communication techniques to allow people to express strong feelings, especially about money. The price for these Belgian CSAs includes a percentage for farmer retirement. The third presenter was Erin Bullock who told the story of how she organized Mud Creek Farm.
Along with two very dynamic women from Spain and Australia, I participated in a “Regenerator’s Café,” a round table discussion on finances and marketing. Isa Alvarez is an organizer for the Nekasarea network in the Basque region. Like Florian in Belgium, Isa trains both farmers and consumers to implement new CSA groups. In eight years, she has trained 200 people who have returned to rural areas as farmers. Isa emphasizes solidarity and local food sovereignty as pillars of social transformation. My contribution was to tell how sharing the annual farm budget led to our CSA members willingly raising their weekly fee so that “their” farmers could have health insurance and a small retirement fund. The value of full transparency was also the message from Tammi Jonas who raises pigs and cattle on 29 hectares in Australia. Through quarterly budget reports and a regular blog, members know her whole story and this has allowed her to crowd fund for both a butcher shop and a processing kitchen that have made the farm economically viable.
The theme for the second day was “People Care, Regenerating Farming, a new generation of peasants and agroecology.” For the plenary session, I gave a short introduction about the people in agriculture, the pressures of global markets and cheap food policies that leave rural people behind. In the US structural racism keeps people of color in the low paying jobs. Life expectancy is 73 for most, but only 49 for farm workers. Yet People are the soul of food production. There were three powerful and thought provoking presentations.
Qiana Mickie, the Just Food CSA Network Manager, has been very active in bringing issues of race and equity to the sustainable agriculture movement in the US. Starting with Fanny Lou Hamer,
then on through the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, Qiana reminded us of the contributions of African Americans to the movement for food justice in the US with a special tip of the hat to Booker Whately, whose teachings on how to make $100,000 on 25 acres made him a precursor of CSA. (I remember reading his book when I was just starting to farm and marveling at how I could ever acquire enough skills to follow his program.) Qiana then described the work of Just Food which has been midwife to 109 CSAs with 45,000 members in New York City, training core groups of consumers and linking them up with farms within two hours’ drive.
Ye Jingzhong, a professor and Dean at the College of Humanities and Development Studies at China Agricultural University, surprised me with his passionate and critical speech. He warned that in our enthusiasm for new farmers, we are forgetting the real peasants. This is my summary of his analysis: The ideology of “developmentalism” declares that industrialization is the only path to the future. Urbanize the countryside. These policies result in the use of chemicals and pollution. CSA breaks through as an alternative. Students of peasant life – Osamu Soda, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, Marx, Theodore Shanin – give us definitions of peasantry. CSA pioneers are new farmers, not peasants. The predicament of the peasant in China – suffering from coercions, economic and non-economic. The commodification process has squeezed peasant choices. Short of money, even as incomes have increased. Forced to get work in cities. 168 million migrants in 2014, with 150 million left behind. Current Chinese policy has led to a decrease in farmland, demolishing peasant homesteads and replacing them with high rises. Rural school mapping policies – moved from small towns – new schools are far away. Land transfer –as of 2014, 60 million peasants have transferred 380 million mu to large holdings, 28% of the land peasants controlled. The new farmers get support. Caution – can regeneration be by outsiders? CSA has made a breakthrough. How do CSA farmers work with real peasants? Later in the Q and A, Ye went on to say that in China peasant unions are not allowed, the peasant cooperatives are for self-help; and CSAs have different objectives.
The final speaker on People Care was Shinji Hashimoto, a Teikei farmer from Ichijima , who delivered a powerful and witty keynote at the NOFA-NY conference in 2013. Shinji told the story of the Teikei system between producers in Ichijima and consumers in Kobe. The seven farmers in his Teikei, with one hectare each, cooperate like a village. The warnings of Dr. Yasuda against contamination and food pollution launched the Teikei movement in the early 1970’s. It has been hard to keep going for 40 years. For Shinji’s Teikei, consumers form groups that work together and a committee visits the village twice a year to discuss crops and prices. Their process is democratic: they negotiate and come to consensus. After 20 years of coming to the farm to help, they have learned how to work. When the earthquake hit Kobe in 1995, Shinji and his fellow Teikei farmers brought food and water to the stricken city to help their members. Then last year the favor was returned. A devastating landslide buried his farm in mud a foot deep. Shinji despaired of ever being able to grow food again, but waves of people came to dig him out and saved his farm. Shinji concluded: “People have power to make change.”
That afternoon, I facilitated a workshop on the varieties of member involvement with speakers from Austria, Brazil and Japan. Stephan Pabst reported that in Austria, CSA member engagement is limited to supporting their local farmers by buying fresh organic vegetables from them. The main work for community building is done by the farmers, which is additional work and adds to the self-exploitation of small farmers. Stephan’s work has been to help build a “self-organized” network that helps set up new CSAs, raises public awareness and coordinates network meetings to exchange experiences among CSAs. Hermann Pohlmann, a German artist living in Brazil, gave us a few details of the growing network of CSAs in that country, but talked more about his philosophy of CSA as a total work of art, “a Social work of art, a social sculpture.” His ideal is to participate in a CSA community where everyone takes responsibility, practices self-determination and creativity. Narumi Yoshikawa told the story of her participation in one of the oldest Teikei projects which functions as a cooperative where all of the members help with harvesting and distribution.
Next stop was a workshop on CSA networks. Dave Runsten, Director of Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) in California, told about the new state regulation limiting the use of the term CSA to farm based projects. CAFF has been making a series of videos of outstanding CSAs like Live Power Community Farm and Say Hay Farm. Denis Carel, a cheese maker and one of the founders of Miramap, told the history of how the French version of CSA grew out of the work of the Peasant Federation through the 1980’s and 90’s to reconstruct and resurrect the meaning of peasant which had been as derogatory in France as it is in the US. The Federation went on to define peasant agriculture and that is why the French call CSA AMAP, Association for the Maintenance of Peasant Agriculture. Their definition calls for an agriculture that is organic, though not necessarily certified, and lays out agricultural politics that are anti-industrial, based on local, direct sales and fair pricing, and also on solidarity among peasants through limiting the production by each farm so that there is room for as many peasants as possible. Some local and provincial governments have staff dedicated to connecting groups of consumers with farms to form AMAPs. There are currently 200,000 members in 2000 AMAPs with 7000 paysans providing the food. Half are members of the Miramap network. The many years of ground laying by the Federation demystifies the remarkable and swift proliferation of AMAPs.
Rupert Dunn from Wales announced the successful establishment of the new UK CSA network based on the concepts of solidarity economy with members sharing the risk with the farmers. Erika Jones of the Fair Share Coalition in Madison, Wisconsin shared her news of the Market Promotion Grant that will allow them to help other CSA networks in US. She sees protecting farms from excessive regulation as an important part of her role. Isabelle Joncas of Equiterre in Quebec told how they grew their network from a first CSA in 1995 to over 100 today. All the Equiterre farms, by agreement of the farmers, are certified organic and adhere to guidelines for quality and service.
Our third day focused on “Fair Share.” There were presentations by organizational allies of Urgenci: Via Campesina, IFOAM, RIPESS (The Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of Social Solidarity Economy) and MAELA (The Movement for Agroecology of Latin America and the Caribbean).
Ibrahima Coulibaly from Mali gave a rousing speech on behalf of Via Campesina, bringing a message of solidarity with Urgenci. He talked about the Nyeleni gathering, where Via Campesina defined “Food Sovereignty,” and their leadership in the critique of the neo-liberal economic policies that aggressively attack peasants and their farming all over the world. At their meeting in February, 2015, they agreed on agroecology as their production model and renewed their determination to resist climate catastrophe, a disaster in which small scale farmers are the first victims. In conclusion, he explained that local markets are central and that concrete solutions will come at the local level. “Dare to struggle, dare to win!”
Zhou Zejiang, who serves on the IFOAM World Board, revisited Organic 3.0, but pointed out that market success has been important to the spread of organic and government recognition is useful. He gave a surprisingly forceful endorsement of PGS and concluded that our movement is bottom up and we must push governments for greater diversity and greater regulation. (Later, I asked what he meant by greater regulation. He answered – regulation of industrial agriculture.)
Javier Rivera Laverde, a family farmer and coffee grower from Colombia, spoke on behalf of MAELA. Since 1992, MAELA has been a social movement of indigenous people, farmers, farm workers and collectors of wild foods in 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries that resists capitalist hegemony, protects the commons of air, water, and seed, and campaigns against GMOs and pesticides. MAELA stands for a new society based on agroecology born from local farmer knowledge, with equal rights for men and women. They run a school for political training of campesino leaders who must know their rights in order to defend land and community.
Jason Nardi, from Italy, a GAS organizer and member of the RIPESS Board, talked about CSA as a form of solidarity economy that regenerates the economy with people at the center. His home city is Florence where there are 20 CSAs and 60 GAS. The goals of solidarity economy are to meet human needs through economic activity based on values of social justice, democracy, and solidarity. As examples, he cited Vio-Me, a worker self-managed factory and the Thessaloniki community with its shared energy program. RIPESS links national and more local networks that are built on trusting relationships and networking.
Isabelle Joncas, from Equiterre in Quebec, chaired the day’s keynote session on CSA- Regenerating the Economy. As Joncas sees things, farmers and farmworkers are the building blocks of a viable food system where the economy is the result of the everyday work by peasants. In Quebec they have succeeded in persuading the Ministry of Agriculture to urge citizens to join CSAs.
Professor. Zhou Li, from Renmin University in Beijing, talked about the rapid spread of alternative food networks in China. Showing a chart from Karl Polanyi with finance in the central circle, economy the next ring, then society, and environment the outer ring, Zhou said that in China, the value system is upside down. The financial sector is 22 times larger than actual production. Capital is King. Mammon. By contrast, social agriculture is practice based and through social action, we can rebuild trust. The first CSA was in 2008, by 2012 – 150, 2014 – 300, and in 2015 – 500. Waxing rather poetic for an ag. economist, Zhou concluded that we need food for life so we need to be part of the families of farmers.
Judith Hitchman, from Ireland, a member of the Urgenci Steering Committee and its new president, summarized the history of CSAs from the first Teikei in the 1970’s through the truly international scope today. She warned that we need to oppose the “free” trade agreements that could make CSA trade illegal. We need “commercio justo,” domestic fair trade that relocalizes food systems. Land, energy, health, seeds, water, finance, transport are our commons.
Ryan Galt, a US economist who has been researching CSA, especially in California, reported on his latest findings. In 2010, he interviewed 54 of the 75 CSAs in Central CA and then did a second study statewide. 54% of the CSA report being profitable; 42% of the farmers have off farm job. Gross sales per acre average $2,439 for all organic farms while CSAs have mean sales of $13,354 and median sales of $10,000. CSAs provide a better situation for farmworkers – 8 acres provide work year round for 1 farmworker. Nevertheless, farmer earnings are low: $25,408 on average with $6,750 the median and $150,000 the top. Members join for high quality, fresh food and their values don’t line up with supporting fair livelihoods for their farmers. Competition is high between CSAs and other sources of organic foods, and the higher the competition, the lower farmer satisfaction and earnings. By implication – members are not aware of these low earnings. The alternative would be more coordination among CSAs.
Josefina Cendejas, a university professor from Morelia in Michoacan, Mexico, told the hopeful story of El Arbol, a new cooperative store. Cendejas gave a scathing critique of the crusade against hunger which mainly helped Nestle, Danone, and Walmart. Poverty and unemployment are on the rise, especially for the educated. The solidarity economy offers an alternative approach. El Arbol is a coop where a small group of producers offer local products and fresh produce. 50 families signed up for weekly deliveries and 30 others shop there as well. They use an alternative currency and barter. Situated in a low-income neighborhood, the shop also serves as a popular gathering place.
That afternoon, I was sorry to miss the workshop on CSA meets PGS, but I was facilitating “Supporting the next generation of farmers through farmland preservation.” Peter Volz, of Access to Land in Germany (www.accesstoland.eu), discussed the challenges to young farmers in Europe who wish to acquire land due to concentrated ownership, high prices and sprawl. The CAP does not regulate land prices. Millions of hectares have been lost to farming. 3.5 million farmers will retire in next 10 years and only 6% of the farmers are under 35. Access to Land is a network of 16 civic organizations from 8 countries who share the goal of valorizing the economic services of peasants who practice sustainable agriculture. Volz highlighted the exceptional work of Terre de Liens, started by Sjoerd Wartena in France which buys land through citizen investment (already 40 million EU) and takes it off the market for use by agro-ecological farmers. Volz is doing case studies on CSAs and land.
Anne Roussel, a farmer from the Equiterre network in Quebec, said that their situation is similar to Europe. She took over from her parents who bought land in 1977, specializing in winter vegetables, and turned it into the first CSA in 1995. They quickly got up to 350 families. Through a10 year process, with the help of a land trust, Anne and her boyfriend bought the buildings and the business. 150 people paid $200 each to the land trust for a conservation easement.
Scott Chaskey, of Quail Hill Farm, Long Island, acknowledged that property rights are sacrosanct in US. Both of us learned about alternatives from the late Chuck Matthei who pointed out that even in the US there is no such thing as purely public or private land. Scott is a salaried employee, and hired farm manager for the Peconic Land Trust, one of thousands established in the US since the 1970’s. Since 1983, Peconic has been able to save 11,000 acres from becoming high value real estate (land on LI sells for $100,000/acre.) Quail Hill is a marriage between this conservation organization and CSA. 250 families come to farm to harvest their own shares. The CSA offers summer and winter shares and programs to train young farmers. Apprentices can use Peconic land as a farm incubator.
Professor Wen presided over the closing ceremony-extravaganza, delivering another pep talk for the rural regenerators: “China has announced we are moving from Industrial to Ecological Civilization – a difficult process that we started in 2007. Challenges are normal. Express your feelings, but do not be discouraged. This should be a movement with wide participation for the majority. The world belongs to us. We will have contributions from all of you. Have confidence. We have a lot of conflicts and arguments –it is hard to come up with one voice. We should look at this as normal. When we discuss our ideas, we look for differences. But when we act, we move forward. Cold War ideology divided – either with us or against us. For Ecological development – diversity is important and you can have different views. The conflicts between a social movement and business are hard to resolve. Some companies are moving to social agendas. We all face insecurity. We want participation from all walks of life and a deep philosophical culture –the Tao. We seek balance – be inclusive. I hope we can develop together with mutual support.
Swelling music like at the Oscars greeted each appearance. First Wen brought out for grateful applause the chefs who had fed the 900 people in attendance. Then Wen unveiled the shining logo for the new Rural Reconstruction Participatory Guarantee System and seven young farmers took turns reading their declaration. Wen said that the participatory process will enhance rural areas in different parts of the country, with organized consumer visits, research and conferences to popularize eco-agriculture. Next, members of Urgenci read the CSA Pledge Declaration that participants had drafted during the three days of the conference. Then, Shi Yan announced the new Chinese CSA Alliance and another line up of young farmers read their points of unity. Next, young farmers from all over the country brought soil samples which one by one, they poured into a long cylinder and then stood together filling the stage to admire the multi-colored stripes of soil. And finally a dazzling folk music ensemble sang and danced the finale.
The last official day of the conference was devoted to the Urgenci General Assembly. With 50 participants, this was the biggest and most functional meeting that Urgenci has had over the decade of its existence. As Honorary President I got to express our gratitude to the Urgenci staff and to Shi Yan and her team of young farmers for putting together an amazing double conference. In reflecting on our work, I suggested that we keep in mind the words of Ye Jingzhong – new peasants have so many more resources, especially for communication, and so much to learn from the old peasants about how to resist the power of Empire, and retain autonomy through work in nature.
The meeting ran smoothly, with reports from the staff of two, Jocelyn Parot and Morgane Iserte, on the two years since the California conference. There have been numerous experience sharing exchanges and meetings, especially for CSAs in Europe. Urgenci representatives have advocated for family scale farming and agroecology before international bodies, the IPC, WHO, FAO and the Civil Society Mechanism. There is a new website, an improved newsletter, “Teikei,” and active social media. Especially exciting are the new CSA networks in Africa (Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin), Eastern Europe, and Asia. Andrea Calori reported on the Milan Urban Food Policy Vision signed onto by 100 cities, including several in the US.
We devoted several hours to a remarkably effective world café style brainstorm and planning process. The result is an updated version of the Urgenci Action Plan for 2015 – 2017, soon to be posted on the website. Plans include setting up active working groups in education, outreach and advocacy, and strengthening regional networks. There will be a third European network meeting in September in the Czech Republic. North Americans agreed to cooperate on a gathering in Montreal under the leadership of Equiterre. Uncompleted business was the choice of where to hold the next international conference.
We reviewed the budget for the next three years and elected new representatives to the International Steering Committee. We agreed to name Isa Alvarez as Special Envoy for Advocacy, and Zsofia Perenyi as Special Envoy for Training and Education.
The by-laws require delegates from four continents with a balance of men and women, farmers and non-farmers. We were easily able to find candidates who fit the bill. (See the photos for the list.) Stepping down from the IC, Jerome Dehondt made this passionate declaration, “We need a convivial agriculture to save the planet. Global warming is getting worse: we must mobilize to save planet. Conviviality – appears when we are caring for one another and for nature.”