Community Supported Agriculture, Agriculture Supported Communities

In Maine the number of farms has declined from over 4,000 in 1950 to only 600 in 19961, according to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Similarly, the Northeast is losing approximately 3,300 farms every year.2 Each farm that goes out of business rips another hole in our tattered rural social fabric, costing from three to five additional jobs.

Mainers currently spend less than 10% of their food dollars on Maine-produced food, under $25 per capita per year for vegetables, including potatoes.3 Figures elsewhere in New England are similar. As the percentage of food dollars staying in localities has declined over the last few generations, so has the share of each food dollar going to farmers. Distributors, wholesalers and retailers have been claiming ever more, leaving a smaller and smaller portion for the growers.

These statistics lead to an inescapable conclusion: Our communities are not supporting our farmers, so our farmers are unable to support our communities. Most of our food travels many hundreds of miles to reach us. Enormous energy is expended to transport it, yet it loses much of its freshness and nutritional value.4 Our entire food distribution system, dependent as it is on heavy usage of agricultural chemicals, preservatives and fossil fuels, disrupts the ecological balance of the planet.

A growing alternative agricultural movement is responding by seeking to bring markets back home. Food co-ops and farmers markets sprouted in the ‘70s, growing rapidly for a time until bumping against inherent structural limitations in their appeal. Now comes Community Supported Agriculture. In only ten years, the CSA movement has spread to 600 farms in the United States.

Community Supported Agriculture is a cooperative of growers and eaters who have chosen to work together for their mutual benefit. In exchange for receiving a share of produce each week for an agreed upon time period, shareholders pay the growers an agreed upon yearly fee, usually in advance of the season. At the minimum, CSA guarantees the growers meaningful employment with decent remuneration before they stick a single seed in soil and guarantees consumers a weekly supply of fresh healthful food.

For several reasons, CSA could be the mechanism which finally begins to reverse the direction of American agriculture. First, CSA food is fresh food, as fresh as it gets. It comes right off the farm into shareholders’ bags. In many cases, shareholders even help pick it. Moreover, almost all CSA food is grown without herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The same social forces at work in creating CSA have also worked to make farming more sustainable.

Second, CSA elevates the status of farming. Farmers receive a guaranteed income, liberating them at least to some extent from the often demeaning experience of being the smallest potatoes in a vast impersonal unforgiving marketing system. CSA can enable them to concentrate more of their energies on growing the food and less on hustling it. Whether the initial impetus comes from growers or consumers, many CSA farms form a core group of the most interested shareholders to meet with the growers to administer the CSA. Typically the core group, while expecting the farmer to grow the food, takes responsibility for its distribution, and core group members accord the farmer the same respect they customarily confer on other professionals who possess special expertise.

Third, many CSA farms require shareholders to work in the fields or at the distribution tables, thus bringing consumers to the rural setting where the food is grown. Not only does this give eaters an understanding of where food comes from (not the supermarket), but also it gives them a hands-on appreciation of the skills needed to produce the food, reversing several generations of increasing specialization and compartmentalization that has more and more alienated us from each other. Though one might think that shareholders required to do work would leave in droves, some well-run CSAs have experienced just the reverse. When Elizabeth Henderson proposed a non-working share for a higher fee, her core group at Rose Valley Farm voted it down.5 Her shareholders wanted more than just fresh produce, they wanted the cameraderie and community that comes with working together on a common project. Similarly, the vigorous food coop movement of the 1970s in Maine was as much about community-building as it was about cheap food.

Fourth, CSA shareholders share the risk. If tomatoes are late and eggplant are sparse, as they were on many farms during this perverse growing season, the shares will be adjusted accordingly. If a bumper crop of lettuce refuses to bolt, as also happened this year, shareholders will share in the unexpected largesse. Sharing the risk builds mutual identification, affinities and therefore, community.

Fifth, CSA is a flexible mechanism which can take a wide range of forms. At Jan Goranson’s farmstead, subscribers can pick out anything they like for a discount off the retail price. They need neither work, nor take any other part in the farm operation. Goranson’s operation, except for requiring share payments by consumers up front, mimics the typical non-CSA roadside stand. At the other extreme are farms which require work from all subscribers and which assign the available produce in identical shares to all members. Many CSAs fall somewhere in between, offering non-working shares for a higher price and/or allowing shareholders partial or complete choice in determining what goes in their weekly allotment. Such flexibility should enable CSA to adapt into whatever forms it needs to keep spreading. Those preferring convenience and autonomy in choosing foodstuffs will gravitate to the Goranson model. Those thirsting for community involvement will be attracted to Henderson’s approach.

Sixth, although few farms can efficiently produce all items shareholders desire, cooperation among CSA farms and among CSA and non-CSA farms is growing. CSAs are adopting the Rochdale principle of cooperation among cooperatives, making deals with each other to increase the diversity in their shareholders’ bags. As CSAs interconnect with each other and with other farms nearby, they strengthen rural economies.

At Fedco we feel a special affinity for the growing CSA movement, sharing many similarities in our goals and some of our structures. Like CSAs, we are a cooperative of workers and consumers who’ve chosen to work together for a mutually beneficial aim. Our workers benefit by finding meaningful employment. Our consumers benefit by getting interesting varieties of good seed at reasonable prices. Some choose the convenience of ordering individually much as they would with any other seed company. Others enjoy the full social benefits of cooperation and community, coordinating large ordering groups, visiting us at our warehouses, talking with us and sometimes working with us. Our coop, like CSA, is sufficiently flexible to permit a wide range of consumer involvement.

Because we are so excited by CSA’s potential, we sponsored a CSA workshop at the 1996 Common Ground Fair, flying in experts Robyn VanEn from Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and Elizabeth Henderson from Rose Valley Farm in New York to lead the presentations. We wanted to strengthen the movement in Maine by exposing more growers and potential consumers to CSA. Since Jill Agnew pioneered the first CSA in Maine, about thirteen other farms have followed. Working with a SARE grant in Winter, 1995-96, Steve Gilman compiled a directory of 170 CSAs in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and New England which is available in 1996 CSA Farm Network). Not surprisingly, 107 of them are already Fedco customers. By creating a community of eaters CSAs have also built Fedco ordering groups and can reap the economic benefits.

In the seed world we look for hybrids which merge the best traits of both parents. CSA appears to be such a hybrid, combining ideas from the organic movement with values from the cooperative movement. Given good nourishment and attentive care, it will thrive to bring forth great social bounty. We will be helping.

1 Maine Times, V. 28, #37, June 27, 1996, “Food from away” by Naomi Schalit, p.2.
2 Maine Times, V. 28, #37, June 27, 1996, p.2.
3 Maine Times, V. 28, #37, June 27, 1996, p.5.
4 Maine Times, V. 28, #37, June 27, 1996, p.5.
5 1996 CSA Farm Network, ed. by Steve Gilman, “Nurturing a Core Group” by Elizabeth Henderson, p. 28.