by Greg Bryant
The best way to support local farmers is to become partners with them. If we pay in advance for a year of our food, we share the costs and risks of agriculture. In return we get fresher food, keep good farms alive, and finally know where our vegetables come from. And our new friend, the farmer, can plan just how much to grow without having to fret about how generous the World Market will be this year.
This is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a social and economic arrangement that aims to close the gap in the distant relationship between consumer and producer. The CSA model arrived in the US in 1984 from Switzerland [see Jan VanderTuin’s account] spawning hundreds of small farms growing food for 10 to 100 families each. Some communities are even taking on the ownership of farmland themselves. With permanent land trusts and stable agreements with farmers, they foster community stability along with agricultural and ecological integrity.
Because the health of the land and the community is a major issue for those who’ve become involved, and because reliance on distant resources destabilizes local economics, these farms do not use petrochemicals. And since they produce nearly all of a family’s vegetables, the farms tend towards agricultural diversity rather than ecologically destructive monocropping.
CSA’s run counter to all modern agricultural thinking, the kind that emerged alongside the global marketplace. The current system hurts farmers and farm workers everywhere, puts great strain on the environment, wastes immense quantities of food, and makes many consumers profoundly suspicious about both their produce and the consequences of growing it.
The first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project began outside of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a town teeming with interesting social projects (see pages 8 and 9). A few similar projects already existed quietly in the States, but the idea didn't spread until after the Great Barrington group was picked up by the media in the mid-1980's, a time of massive US farm failure.
In a model CSA, the group calculates the needs of the its members and aims at growing just this amount of food, eliminating the waste in the process of farming for an impersonal market. Waste is phenomenal even among the most careful farmers: poor markets in Oregon this fall left nearly half of all organic produce to rot.
The members, also called share-holders, share all the risk as well as the benefits of a farming project. If raccoons or deer eat the corn, or if squash are victims of a flash flood, it is understood that there will be neither corn nor squash that week. On the other hand, if the cabbage begins to bolt in alternating hot and cold spells, the unplanned bounty will be split among all. If there’s too much food, the groups are large enough, 50-200 people, to be broadly aware of community needs, and they'll donate or sell the surfeit. Since tastes vary, shareholders often barter food among themselves from their twice-weekly allotments.
The CSA aims to grow just enough food for its shareholders, eliminating wasteful overproduction for the impersonal market.
This sharing of risk in the partnership between consumer and producer mitigates most of the headaches of modern farming: the need to scrape up capital, fear for an income and worry about bankruptcy. Rather than scrambling for market share to stay alive, the farmer can enjoy the taste of stability that comes with satisfying consumers directly. Any farm can benefit from having even a small number of shareholders; the extra stability helps even market farmers.
When problems arise the share group can help to solve them: if there are too few hands at harvest time the shareholders, feeling committed to help, either take up the slack themselves or make some other group decision. A form of direct democracy can emerge in the midst of what used to be apathetic consumption. To help the shareholders make informed decisions, and begin to learn about problem-solving in agriculture, most CSA’s ask them to come farm for a day or two each year.
CSA’s are direct producer-consumer cooperatives, one of the best forms of non-competitive economics. While worker cooperatives are known for mostly equal relations within the company, they often acts as an unaccountable independent unit in the marketplace: cooperative capitalism. In contrast, producer-consumer co-ops have natural limits on size and domain. A small group of farmers must both farm and take care of their membership, so the membership won't vote to thin down their relationship through expansion. The face-to-face nature of the relationship, along with the shared risk of the community, ensures that production in general will be carried out to everyone’s satisfaction.
The beauty of this solution is its creation of farmer incentive through social relationships, rather than through a profit motive: people finally are able to thank the farmer and lend a hand in times of trouble. And in regard to product, CSA’s provide for people's needs directly, so optimal use of resources is defined by those affected rather than by a faceless bureaucracy, as in state-communism, or by a corporation, as in global market agriculture.
CSA projects are successful despite a number of cultural obstacles. The problem first is convenience. CSA farms drop off produce in town twice a week, so the household shopping isn’t “one-stop”. A convenience compromise is usually made: if the shareholders want to pay extra for the labor to deliver to their homes, they understand the costs, since the CSA hopefully keeps open books.
There are other compromises. People aren’t accustomed to paying for vegetables before they see them, so some CSA organizers rename the commitment “subscribing” to vegetables, not quite an accurate description of a face-to-face relationship. But usually a new member changes more than the CSA: for example the modern cook is usually not familiar with seasonal vegetables, so CSA's offer recipes in their newsletters to help them learn about plant diversity.
One of the biggest adaptive problems with CSA’s is farmer confidence. Often they end up giving people twice as much as they could possibly eat, trying to compete with the market’s abundance. Farmers also don’t always trust that their consumers will pay cost overruns. In contrast, shareholders tend to trust the farmer so much that it remains a challenge just to get people to look at the accounts, or visit the farm.
To get new customers, farmers often want to be more lenient with payments, but collection schemes take time away from farming. Muslin Creek Farm in Cottage Grove, Oregon (see photos), has reached an interesting compromise with people unable to pay for an entire year’s vegetables at once: monthly payments begin before the planting season, and stop during the fall, providing early capital for seeds, and a late season when vegetables come without payments.
The lessons we've all learned from dealing with the harsh instabilities of market economics sometimes lead us to compromise the CSA idea. But if the concept is pursued now in it’s most radical form, perhaps a new generation of farmers and consumers will develop sufficient will and understanding to risk working together.