Plenary address to Community Supported Agriculture Beyond Borders! the 7th International CSA Conference in Thessaloniki, Greece, November 8 – 11, 2018

group photo 11.9.2018
The 324 participants at CSA Beyond Borders pose for the obligatory group photo.

Greetings!

Urgenci’s Mission is to “promote all forms of partnership between producers and local consumers, and Community Supported Agriculture initiatives as a solution to the challenges associated with the global industrial agricultural production and consumption paradigm.”

You may ask – what is an honorary president and why would Urgenci need one?  Allow me to explain.  Being honorary means that there is an actual president – Judith Hitchman, who does all the real work of a president, traveling relentlessly around the globe, persuading, badgering and pressuring the international bodies that have committed to the Sustainable Development Goals to actually live up to their promises to end hunger and support smallholder farms and food sovereignty.  My role is to add a little extra – I serve as the historian of this movement, collecting stories from many countries, observing, encouraging.  As a CSA farmer who made my living on a small-scale farm for over 30 years, I look at what goes on with the eyes not of a theorist or an academic but of a practitioner, a passionate participant.

Looking over the world from my lofty honorary heights, I see that smallholders have not yet turned back the tide of the industrialized monocrop monopolies of agribusiness.  If anything, the Empire has extended its grasp – dark anti-democratic forces are in the ascendant in the US, Latin America, parts of Europe, India. Inequality is at its most extreme in countries like mine – back to the days of the robber barons.  Growth in the economy goes to the top one tenth of a percent. Concentration of power in the food system intensifies. The world’s hope for democracy is becoming an oligarchy.

Aggregate farm income in the US in 2017 was half what it was in 2014. Dairy farms especially are struggling with milk prices under the cost of production even for organic dairies.  The farm share of the food dollar is shrinking and farms continue to go out of business. As in India, there are farmer suicides in Iowa. Recent research shows that “over the past decade, an increase in deportations and stricter immigration policies have begun to shrink the United States’ agricultural labor force. The produce industry is currently experiencing $5 billion to $9 billion in annual losses due to labor shortages.” Prices will rise, and the present immigration policies will cost shoppers more than if farms paid farmworkers living wages.

In countries like France and the US where CSA has been flourishing for over a decade, entrepreneurs out of a profit have taken notice.  If there is money to be made, venture capital moves in, replicating the CSA language without the reality: in the US we have One Egg, Blue Apron, Gobble, whose ad reads:

“We’re flexible. Skip weeks, change dishes, and cancel anytime — only order when and what you want. No commitment. For busy people, Gobble is a life saver. Satisfaction guaranteed.”

Farmigo ran a food box service for a while and then in August last year suddenly closed shop leaving farmers and customers high and dry. A brand new study by the Berkeley Labor Center finds that the jobs at these meal kit fulfillment centers have low wages, unstable shifts and cold unsafe working conditions. In CA an outfit named Imperfect Produce has even claimed they were saving the world by reducing food waste–and helping farmers by buying surplus ugly produce that would have been thrown out, (while in reality, this produce would not have gone to the landfill but to food banks and food pantries) taking customers away from Phat Beets, a grassroots ngo that runs the BeetBox CSA supporting small farmers of color mostly farming under 50 acres, including a one acre youth farm at an Oakland High School.  Luckily, Food First exposed this travesty, and most customers returned to BeetBox.

And then there is the weather – swinging wildly out of control.  In September after Hurricane Florence, I received this email from the Underground Farm in NC:

“We have reluctantly decided not to hold our Fall/ Winter 2018 CSA and will refund all monies previously received. As you can imagine, we are very unhappy to take this action as well.

“Hurricane Florence hit our farm hard and also every other farm in Carteret County, indeed in nearly all counties in Eastern NC.  We lost all the crops in the field that we had seeded or transplanted as did the greenhouse that was starting our second and third successions. We lost all our fall-bearing fruit trees (pears, persimmons, apples) and most figs and pecans.” A month later, the farmers announced that they were retiring completely.

Sadly, Shinji Hashimoto, who has played an important role in Urgenci, could not attend this conference because of the repeated weather disasters he has been experiencing on his farm in Japan.

These are hard times.  But remember the people’s wisdom – it is darkest before the dawn.

And that is where CSA and our worldwide movement for food sovereignty comes in.

By contrast with all this grim news, or perhaps as a consequence, CSAs and the movement for food sovereignty continue to spread around the world. There is so much exciting activity in Europe, there is no way to keep up with all the creative projects to spread CSA and help established CSAs to thrive – Be Part of CSA, SolidBase, EATingCraft.

In China, next month they will be holding the CSA Summit Forum and the 10th China Community Supported Agriculture Conference organized by the Rural Construction Centre of RENMIN University of China Department of Sociology of Tsinghua University Rural Regeneration Centre of Peking University CSA Conference Organizing Committee, it will be held on 14-16th, December in Zhanqi village, Pidu district, Chengdu, Sichuan province.

In the US where farmers of color have lost their land 5 times as fast as white farmers, African American and Latinx farmers are regenerating long unfarmed family land and initiating new farms. They are the fastest growing farming sector.  Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitle-Wolff at Soul Fire Farm, in Grafton, NY have transformed sloping fields of heavy clay into terraced permanent beds where their collective grows enough vegetables for a CSA of low income people back in their old neighborhood in inner city Albany.  They conduct popular trainings of black and latinx farmers, workshops for at-risk youths as an alternative to incarceration, and workshops to help white people learn how to dismantle racism and white supremacy.

The Homeless Garden Project, one of the oldest CSAs in the US, will finally move from a temporary site on developer owned land to a permanent farm on 600 acres of public land, part of  the Santa Cruz, CA greenbelt in 2020. Their mission – “In the soil of our urban farm and garden, people find the tools they need to build a home in the world.” This project provides transitional jobs, pay and support services for homeless people, teaching them basic life skills required for employment while growing organic vegetables so that they can move successfully into other jobs. Over its 30 years of operation, The Homeless Garden Project has helped hundreds of people to get back on their feet, find work and homes.

In Genoa the Orto Collective is providing work for African migrants, building terraced gardens on formerly abandoned land near the city, doing urban horticulture and selling veggies boxes (www.facebook.com/ortocollettivogenova/

At Angelic Organics, a biodynamic CSA farm with 1000 member household in the Chicago area, farmer John Peterson devotes his writing talents to colorful embellishments of the meaning of CSA:

When you sign up, you dedicate yourself to being our customer for the year, thus providing us a secure market — a welcome measure of certainty in the fickle world of farming! We, in turn, dedicate ourselves to being your farmers, providing you with a varied, nutritious vegetable diet. We do our very best to bring you a beautiful and bountiful box each week, but since our boss, Nature, provides no guarantees — we can’t offer any either. One of the premises of a Community Supported Agriculture program is that the shareholder shares, through the veggies, the farmers’ experience of nature’s mischief (and blessings).

 

As happens so often in human history, the best ideas bubble up from the bottom; the greatest wisdom comes from most afflicted. Here in Greece, you have lost your financial sovereignty. Necessity being the mother of invention, to cope with austerity, you are leading the way to local food sovereignty.  So exciting to be here and so much to learn from you. Thank you for hosting us, despite all the obstacles!