Very excited and honored to be here and to share the podium again with Professor Wen and Andre Leu!
At the 1993 NYS CSA Gathering in Syracuse, I shared my thoughts on the significance of CSA as an antidote to the dominant industrial food system: “We need to take our work more seriously. We have the chance to build the food system that will replace the current one. CSA is an idea – a tremendously flexible concept for a new consumer-farmer connection, an alternative system of distribution based on community values. The economics of direct sales make this a win-win solution for farmers and consumers. The farmer gets a decent price and the consumer pays less, since there is no middleman. For the farmer, the CSA offers the possibility of a broad support group of people who genuinely care about the farm’s survival and who are willing to share the farmer’s risks. Consumers have the opportunity to connect with the earth, know and trust the people who grow their food and support the local economy. The big question we must answer – will this be sustainable?” These were bold words, and you may ask what I had been smoking, but in 2015, 28 years after the first tiny CSA began in NY, there are over 400 CSAs providing weekly shares to over 30,000 households. In Maine, one family out of 5 belongs to a CSA.
Since I first wrote Sharing the Harvest in 1998, I have been continually rewriting CSA Around the World as CSA reaches more countries and more diverse communities –In the first version I wrote about Japan, Switzerland and Germany, the US and Canada. Then I added England, France, Portugal, Taiwan and China. Now I want to add Tribal Supported Agriculture, Thailand, Spain, Chile, Brazil, Togo, Israel, Australia, South Korea, Slovenia, Mali and Morocco.
The remarkable proliferation of CSAs underlines the wonderful quality of the concept – there is no orthodox way of doing it and no patent on the term As a result, no two are alike. Almost all NY CSAs claim to grow sustainably, though less than 1/3 are certified organic. CSAs offer various share sizes for 18 weeks to 52, summer, winter or by the academic calendar. Different share contents abound – herbs, culinary or medicinal, lacto-fermented preserves, Asian stir-fry mix, alpaca fiber or finished clothing, meats fresh or frozen – lamb, pork, beef, chicken, rabbit, fish – eggs, goats’ milk, u-pick berries, organic wine, micro-brews, flowers, bread, entire pre-cooked meals, and a few farms even offer your entire food needs year round. As CSAs spread to every part of US, there are more kinds of organizations sponsoring them – urban gardens, not-for-profits, churches, a summer camp and in the past 5 years, conventional farms, including dairies seeking to diversify production. And as the CSA “brand” enters the mainstream, partnering organizations are taking advantage of the name, some buying from many local farms to make up farm shares, and others aggregating organic food from a range of anonymous sources.
The promise of industrialized agriculture has been that it would feed the world with plentiful, inexpensive and safe food. That promise has not been kept. Food insecurity is still with us – by the end of every month 3 million people in NYS turn to the 3000 food pantries and soup kitchens for food. Worldwide, 842 million lack enough calories for health, according to FAO.
Collateral damage from this industrialization has been the pollution of water and the depletion of aquifers, massive soil erosion, the destruction of biodiversity, and the depopulation of the countryside. In 1950 there were over 7 million farms in the US. Today there are only 2.17 million. The low pay for seasonal farm work leaves families in deep poverty. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) came into being as a solution to the farm crisis and the other defects of the corporate controlled food system.
In 1986, when the farmers behind Indian Line Farm and Temple-Wilton Community Farm started the first CSAs in the US, they hoped to find a practical model that would keep family-scale farms on the land. The number of farms was dropping every year. The work of food production — not to mention all of the risk — fell on the farmers, while prices rarely covered the costs of production, let alone providing living wages for the farmer and farm workers. Based on experiments in Switzerland and Germany and the associative economy ideas of Rudolf Steiner, Robyn Van En and her friends created the CSA model.
Their ideal was to enable farmers to concentrate on growing food while their customers and community members supported them with fair payments, help on the farm, and assistance with the many non-agricultural tasks needed to make a farm successful. They invited local consumers to share the harvest and the risks by paying in advance for a whole season. As “shareholders” they would feel a sense of ownership in the farm, and take a portion of whatever the farm could produce in return.
Robyn Van En would have liked the way the United States Department of Agriculture defines CSA: “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.”
Even in California where few CSAs ask their customers to share any risk, the new official definition of CSA restricts this label to farm-based operations. If there is a middleman, you cannot call it a CSA:
Article 6. Community-Supported Agriculture
- For purposes of this article, the following definitions apply:
- “Community-supported agriculture program” or “CSA program” means a program under which a registered California direct marketing producer, or a group of registered California direct marketing producers, grow food for a group of California consumer shareholders or subscribers who pledge or contract to buy a portion of the future crop, animal production, or both, of a registered California direct marketing producer or a group of registered California direct marketing producers.”
Economic Benefits of CSA for Farmers
Because worldwide farms are still not out of the crisis of the 1980’s, more farms every year turn to CSA. In the US only a small percentage of farmers are making their entire living, including health insurance and a pension fund, from their farming. Some of the best farmers I know still depend on their spouse’s job for health insurance or support their farming habit with an off farm job. Wendell Berry said wisely somewhere that in a good farming system like the Amish, even an average person can be a successful farmer. The successes I know are pretty exceptional or very lucky – we still have a ways to go to make our systems socially just and economically viable. That is why thousands of farms have turned to the CSA model.
That term “CSA model” is a bit misleading; there is no one formula that a farm can apply. What distinguishes a CSA is the special relationship between a farm and the people who sign up as members. Each CSA is distinct, the connection with a particular farmer or farm family or group of farms and with particular pieces of land. This is about as opposite as can be to selling into mainstream markets where a farm’s produce becomes a commodity that is not differentiated from the produce of any other farm. And no one certifies CSAs. Each farm is free to apply the basic concept in its own fashion so no two are exactly alike. Part of the fun for me in writing Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to CSA (Chelsea Green, 2007) and interviewing people from over 300 projects was to discover how many different and creative ways farmers and their supporters have found to do CSA.
Economic Benefits of CSA
CSA is attractive to farmers because it cuts out the middleman. When a farmer sells produce to a store, the farmer only gets half what the store charges its customers. For a head of lettuce, if the farmer gets $1, the store sells the lettuce for $2. With a CSA (and other direct sales too), the farmer can get more of the final food dollar while still giving the customer a good deal. Studies comparing CSA with other kinds of direct sales show that the CSA model gives farms a steadier income with fewer fluctuations due to poor weather or other factors a farmer cannot control. If the weather is bad, members who share the risk may get less food, but the farm stays in business to farm the next year.
Another advantage for farmers over selling at a farmers’ market is that the farmer controls what the members receive each week. On a rainy week, a farmer may have to take home a lot of produce when customers don’t show up at the market. Or the week the farm has lettuce, customers want spinach. With a CSA, members agree to take what the farmer provides. Most CSAs have found that they keep members happier by giving some choices or by having a share table where members exchange items they don’t want for something they prefer.
In the conventional farming world, before the beginning of every season, many farms have to borrow start-up money – and then pay it back with interest when payments come in at the end of the year. The upfront payments for CSA shares replace the need for bank loans. Some CSAs gain efficiency by requiring all members to pay in advance.
Porter Farms CSA in Elba, NY, for example, keeps their prices relatively low by having one share size, one lump payment and a highly experienced crew that has been with them for many years.
Other CSAs like West Haven Farm in Ithaca contrast with business-as-usual by charging on a sliding scale so that members pay widely divergent amounts for the same basket of food.
Temple-Wilton Farm has the most radical approach: they do not have a share price at all. Instead they ask members to pay what they can afford to support the entire farm.
Anthony Graham, one of the original farmers who is still at it, recalls: “Back in 1985, out of our discussions with Trauger, we decided on our approach. We asked members of the farm community for a pledge rather than asking them to pay a fixed price for a share of the harvest. We realized that the members of our community had a wide range of needs and incomes and that one set price was not necessarily fair for every family. What we do each year is to present a budget showing the true costs of the farm over the coming year and then ask the members of the farm to make pledges to meet the budget.
“Our approach works. It requires honesty and good will, but it works,” Anthony says. “The last four or five years, our annual budget meeting with the farm members has only taken about 45 minutes. It’s fast, up front, and everyone understands it by now.”
On the Facebook CSA farmer discussion page, a farmer sums up the economic benefits: “My farm is a “traditional” single farm CSA (180 + members) and it is my sole source of income. I’m not getting rich, but I am making about as much as if I was an elementary school teacher, which is what I did in a “past” life, so I feel it is an economically sustainable model for me. …there are a lot of different hats a CSA farmer has to wear (customer service, member communication, accounting and oh yeah…farming) but if done can create long term economic sustainability for a diversified farm.”
Suzanne Wheatcraft, active member of the Peacework Organic CSA core group, sums up the benefits for CSA members: “It’s an important connection to what we are all about (this is the big we – humans). We eat food. Food grows in the ground. Farming makes that happen. Also, I like it that pickup is always already on my calendar every week. I like that I don’t spend a lot of time making food choices. I like that I am not trying to get the lowest price possible from some poor farmers sitting at the farmers’ market on a cold, rainy Saturday morning trying to just get rid of all that produce they already picked, packed and transported because there are no customers that week. I hate to spend money where I see no value – I never buy new clothes, I don’t go to the mall, I re-use my plastic bags. But I do believe there is a big difference between price and value. The CSA offers great value!”
2013 Sasha Bos:
“Since joining my CSA, I’ve learned about a wide variety of foods – what they are, when they’re in season, and how to cook them. I’ve developed a need to know where my food comes from and how it will impact my body and the planet. I’ve realized that we are what we eat, and what most of us are eating is, unfortunately, not very good. It’s amazing what a small change like getting a produce box from a local farm can make – you’re supporting sustainable forms of agriculture and small farms rather than big agribusiness, you’re lowering greenhouse gas emissions because your food has less distance to travel, you’re encouraging crop diversification and heirloom varieties… And you’re doing all this on the budget of a college student. The CSA box – a delicious way to save the world.”
Buying locally grown, fresh food directly from a farmer you can look in the eye and trust makes CSA attractive to non-farmers. The real trick for CSAs is retaining members. As the term has become more familiar, people join CSAs to try them out, then switch to another the next season or decide they prefer going to a farmers’ market for their supply of local organic food. A CSA farmer has high hurdles to jump to retain members. CSA production is not farming 101.
Farmers need to be experienced, skillful and willing to keep careful records to make it work. Member retention depends on reliable high quality, good selection, and complex succession planting so that shares consist of a steady flow of the vegetables members like best. Some farmers drop CSA because they cannot stand the pressure of accepting payment in advance. Keeping members also requires excellent communication – farmers have to do a clear orientation for new members so that they know what to expect, and learn to churn out weekly news from the farm through a newsletter, website or social media. If the CSA does a good job of explaining that a serious drought has cut the produce supply for the week, members usually accept the loss without grumbling. But if the shares are suddenly smaller without explanation, members complain or even ask for their money back. CSA members can help by taking over some of the communication jobs from their farmers.
Ecological Benefits of CSA for the Planet
As concentration has increased so that fewer and fewer corporations control each sector of industrial farming, farmers experience a relentless speed-up. Where a grain farm supported a family on 160 acres a generation ago, it takes 1600 acres today.
The US government system of price supports for just a few major crops (corn, soy beans, wheat, sugar) adds to the market pressures on farmers to practice monoculture – growing vast fields of homogeneous crops. To make that work, farmers have to increase their use of chemical fertilizers, toxic herbicides like Round-Up and synthetic pesticides. Many have grown dependent on Genetically Engineered seed
Growing for a CSA has the opposite effect: to provide an attractive weekly basket, farmers increase their biodiversity, always on the lookout for new crops and tastier varieties. And that biodiversity makes CSAs more resilient, achieving the ecological balance that keeps pests and diseases at a minimum without reliance on a lot of chemical controls.
An encouraging new trend is underway – conventional vegetable, fruit and even crop farms are adding CSAs to improve their cash flow. Public expectation, however, is that CSA farms are organic, even if they are not “certified” organic. Since it is often the spouse or children of the main farmer who take on the CSA, they respond to their customers by starting to transition at least part of the farm to organic production. At Lagoner Farms in Williamson, NY, a well-established fruit farm with a popular farm stand, Jake and Mitsy Lagoner have been using organic methods for two seasons for their CSA.
Farming is a risky business and getting riskier as climate change ramps up weather extremes. Wild swings from drought to flood, heat wave to frost are hard on plants and on the people trying to nurture them. Monocrop farms, that grow vast fields of corn or soybeans purchase crop insurance that is generously subsidized by tax payer dollars. Calibrated on a charge per crop, this insurance does not work for farms that rely on crop diversity to get through rough weather. Joining a CSA is a vote for biodiversity.
Going head to head with the we’ve-got-everything-from-everywhere superstores, a new wave of CSA farms is pushing biodiversity to its limits, growing the complete food needs of their members year round. Essex Community Farm in Essex, NY, greets the world with this bold statement: “We strive to produce an abundance of high quality food while fostering the health and resiliency of the farm, the farmers, the members, and the community. Our desire is to build an agro-ecosystem that is sustainable economically, environmentally, and socially. We work to make a farm that is better tomorrow than it is today.” They supply their members with vegetables, fruit, bread, milk and meat, charging $3700 a year for the first adult in a household, $3300 for the second, etc. and $120 per year of age for children. That sounds expensive, but if you sum up your food bill for the year, it turns out to be a bargain!
In Agrarian Dreams, Julie Guthman ranked 144 organic farms on a scale of 1 – 5 from least to most agroecological: “A 1 was given to those who took no affirmative steps but merely replaced disallowed inputs with allowable organic inputs… and 5, to those who managed the entire operation by design with minimal outside inputs and maximum attention to processes.” (p. 47) She also investigated the farms’ labor practices to see if they provided better wages and more full time work than conventional farms. According to her evaluation, the farms that achieve most fully the environmental and social goals of organic agriculture are the “the ultradiversified farms whose cropping and direct marketing strategies fundamentally alter the organization of production.” (p. 53) And most of those are CSA farms.
We are at a critical moment in world history. Degenerative, industrial food production is a major contributor to the buildup of greenhouse gases that threatens our climate. By contrast, CSAs are outstanding examples of what Rodale called regenerative organic agriculture. Farmers and the co-farmers or co-producers who eat our food are learning how to cooperate to create new ways to live more lightly on this planet, producing food closer to where people live, using less energy, building self-reliant and interdependent communities around the globe. There are many competing labels – organic, agroecological, permaculture, biodynamic, beyond organic, authentic… All of us in the regenerative camp should spend our time and resources figuring how to work most effectively together and stop wasting time on honing the distinctions and arguing about them. Leave that to the academics who will have lots of time if we are successful in saving our planet. Everyone has something to contribute.
Joining an organic CSA is an easy way to do your part. Jean-Paul Courtens, who runs Roxbury Farm with his wife Jody Boluyt, one of the oldest CSAs in NY, wrote in 2010: “Roxbury Farm’s success is based on partnerships. We live in partnership with the land and we are in partnership with you. You are in partnership with your brothers and sisters that live on the land, and this makes the relationship about a lot more than simply having access to high quality veggies and meat. Your involvement serves a much greater purpose as it helps to maintain the cultural resources for peasant farmers like us. It is in those interactions whereby we have the opportunity to find the solutions to co-exist with this planet.”
The tide of multinational corporate globalization has yet to turn and CSA has not yet stopped the attrition of family farms. But it has provided an inspiring model for the category of farms that is growing—the smallest farms. The CSAs with the greatest staying power give us clues to what will make a truly sustainable agriculture:
- solid community or family support,
- active members,
- preserved land,
- strong urban-rural connections,
- partnership with support organizations and strong social missions,
- biodiverse cropping and agroecological growing practices,
- involvement in farmer training and education programs
- a good plan for succession.
Despite the cynical times we are living through, CSAs around the world remain true to the original spirit blazing the path to the cooperative social relations of the future. The emergence of Teikei/CSA/ASC/AMAP/Reciproco/Voedselteams shows how consumers and farmers in many different localities are responding to the same global pressures. That one form of organization has so many names is an encouraging sign. Once they seize upon the basic principles, farmers and citizen-consumers in each culture are adapting CSA to their local conditions. Each local food project takes its shape from the tastes, talents, needs, and resources of its creators. The more we can learn from and support one another, the faster we will move toward sustainable and peaceful communities.
Note: *A 16-page report from the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Massachusetts (NOFA-MASS) points out that agricultural soil could absorb enough atmospheric carbon to reduce the threat of catastrophic climate change if farmers and ranchers worldwide use practices employed in organic production to restore soil health. Citing dozens of scientific studies that global grassland and cropland contain ample capacity to absorb and store enough carbon to drop atmospheric levels from the current 400 parts per million (ppm) to 350 ppm, the report says studies show carbon can be quickly drawn from the air and returned to the soil with the use of cover crops, perennial plantings, crop rotations, crop diversity, integrated livestock management, and low- and no-till managements-many of which are commonly used in organic farming. The report marks the launch of NOFA-MASS’s Soil Carbon Restoration Campaign.