The History of Community Supported Agriculture, Part II


By Steven McFadden
Originally posted in February 2004

EDITOR’S NOTE: In Part I of this series we tracked the roots of the U.S. CSA movement to two subscription-based farms in the Northeast. Now we’ll see where this promising movement rooted in trust and understanding between farmers and eaters might be headed. 

In 1990, when I coauthored “Farms of Tomorrow” with Trauger Groh, there were about 60 CSAs in the United States. The years from 1986 to 1990, I feel, mark the first wave of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) development.

Eight years later, when I returned to the subject with Trauger to write “Farms of Tomorrow Revisited,” we found there had been steady growth in the CSA movement, albeit growth in many different directions.

CSA had diversified into a range of social and legal forms, with philosophically oriented CSAs at one end and commercially oriented subscription farms at the other. Books were written, organizations such as the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Assoc. and Robyn Van En’s CSA North America took an active interest, and the movement enjoyed a steady stream of favorable publicity. The CSA archetypes and infrastructure had been established. By the late 1990s, at least 1,000 CSAs had taken root in the United States, and growth continued quietly.

This slow, steady increase through the 1990s up through 2003 constitutes a second wave of CSA development.

While CSAs overall numbers have climbed over the years, there has been a significant attrition rate and many CSAs have failed. Common causes of failure include: The farmers did not ask enough for their effort, they did not have the skill to grow adequately, or they were farming on unsecured land. Some CSAs have also failed because the members of the community could not get along.

For the past five or six years, estimates of CSA numbers have remained in a range from 1,000 to 1,200. But most educated observers say that number is low. Many CSAs operate privately and quietly, while most regions of the country report many new CSA farms. Thus, it follows that a more up-to-date and accurate estimate would be around 1,500 to 1,700 CSA farms across the country, ranging in size from large gardens with a few households to hundreds of acres with more than 1,000 subscribers.

Now in 2004, after talking with CSA observers around the country, I see strong potential for a third wave of CSA development, a wave that could not only triple or quadruple the number of CSAs over the next few years, but also raise in importance the role these farms play in their communities.

Motivating forces
Allan Balliett has followed the CSA movement since its beginnings and is himself a biodynamic farmer at Fresh and Local CSA in Shepherdstown, W.V. From the outset, he said, he has heard consumers voice concerns over food safety and quality as primary reasons for joining a CSA.

When families share in the planting and harvest, everyone ends up appreciating where their food comes from (and it tastes better, too).

Susan Witt of the Schumacher Society said another motivating factor behind the growth of CSA has been awareness about the problems of the global economy. “By now the dominance of the mega-corporations has become so obvious that many people recognize the danger, and the need to create something safe, local, and sustainable. CSA does that. It isn’t easy, but it works.”

Meanwhile, food safety and security issues appear to be growing in scale and scope. The arrival of mad cow disease to this country is heightening concerns. When coupled with awareness of global climate changes and the onslaught of dubious fertilizers, pesticides, and genetic engineering into the food chain, many people are beginning to regard CSA as homeland security of the most fundamental kind. These linked concerns bid strong to propel another surge of CSA growth.Whether safety concerns act as a motivating engine or not, the basic common sense of CSA will continue to earn community farms a welcome place in a growing number of U.S. (and global) cities, suburbs, and towns.Jim Sluyter, co-editor of The Community Farm newsletter, is enthusiastic about the future. “The Time magazine article that was published in October 2003 (1) is having a huge impact on CSA,” he said. “The fact that a large-circulation newsmagazine found CSA worthy of a story is a milestone; a new threshold. It puts CSA in the big time.

“It seems as if there is another level of CSA development taking place, not just in the U.S. but also internationally,” Sluyter said. “There is a lot happening. Australia is starting up a network of CSAs, we understand, and also Hungry, India, Hong Kong, Holland, and especially England, where the Soil Association is strongly promoting CSA.”CSAs are also developing in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, France, Denmark and Germany. In Japan, CSA is well developed—tteikei [partnerships with local farmers through annual subscriptions] is a mature movement, reportedly with millions of members.

Thanks to the existing CSA models, all these potent motivating forces have a roadmap to some safe, economical, and creative pathways. “The scene is much more settled for CSA now than in earlier years,” said Anthony Graham of the Temple-Wilton farm. “A lot of CSAs are maturing. People know for a fact that they are worthwhile. The CSA organism is growing older, the movement maturing. The CSA roots are deeper, broader, and more stable. There is something to build on.”

Apprentices and interns of all ages and walks of life often help comprise the backbone of a successful CSA.

The context for growth
While still minuscule in the overall scheme of all things agricultural, CSA does occupy an interesting niche. It represents at least a partial answer and in some cases a complete answer to many of the profound challenges now facing this country and the world.

The United Nations recently released a report on global economics (4). The report stated baldly: “There is overwhelming evidence that ‘efficient’ (industrial) agriculture is not only mining the natural resource base but also influencing other parts of the environment in ways that are detrimental to the well-being of humankind.”

Meanwhile, the United States is drastically cutting back on spending for sustainable agriculture in the 2004 budget and has no clearly defined strategy for steering toward a sustainable future.

“Rural America is hanging on by its fingernails,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur [D-Ohio] recently told the New York Times (5). A member of the Agriculture Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, Kaptur said, “There’s a sense of urgency in the countryside. It’s real, it’s volatile.”

With tightening federal and state budgets, the government may not be in a position to help. But CSA does not need the government or outside funding. All it requires is good land and a community willing to care for the land so it can feed them.

The cooperation key
To run a CSA successfully, farmers must produce adequate, nutritious and attractive food. That’s a baseline. But they and the people around them also have to know how to engage one another creatively and to weave themselves together into a modern community. Cooperation has been a key for those CSAs that have hung together and matured over a number of years.

In the realm of cooperation, core group participation stands as the ultimate CSA paradox. Almost all CSA farmers say “We need a deeper commitment.” That’s something they really want from consumers—loyalty over the long term. But core groups of consumers who help run the farm are not all that popular, even though they are a proven way to develop the kind of commitment farmers want. Naturally, if a core group has a say in the farm, the farmers can feel their lives are more complicated.

Allan Balliett, a long-time observer of and participant in CSA, suggested that the movement has reached a plateau on this issue. “There’s kind of an exhaustion of emotional energy of the first and second waves of CSA development,” he said. “But what’s going to happen when questions of sustainability arise for people without a set of shared values? What happens when tough economic times catch up with subscription farms? Is a community really necessary for a CSA? Or do you just need a group of consumers?”

CSAs in this Mid-Atlantic region are now mostly farmer-driven, not consumer-driven, Allan said. That is, in fact, clearly the emerging pattern. According to Jo Meller, co-editor of The Community Farm with Jim Sluyter, “There are regional distinctions, at least in broad strokes.”. “The Northeast has smaller farms with more core groups where the members are more active. The Midwest is more farmer-driven. In California you have huge CSA farms on a scale that hasn’t seemed feasible elsewhere.”

While they are not to every farmer’s liking, core groups are one way to extend a CSA’s range of support and commitment. If times get tough, will CSAs with solid communities be better poised to survive than ‘one farmer against the world’ xx

Martha Cornwell is director of the Robyn Van En Center for CSA at Wilson College. She sees the cooperation issue from a broad perspective. “One thing I definitely see ahead is more and more collaboration and cooperation among farms. CSAs are looking for a way to work together, especially in urban areas. We are going to see a lot more multi-farm cooperation.”

Jo Meller said that she and Jim also recognize expansion of the multi-farm, multi-product CSA operation. “We are seeing a lot of producers joining with other producersWe see bakeries, orchards, vegetable farms, co-ops, whatever, linking to form networks of support.”

What seems to be evolving are matrices of community farms with different capacities and specialties. For example, the Chequamegon CSA is a cooperative of six growers in Wisconsin, and Maryland’s Mountains to Bay CSA links 13 family farms to provide 20 weeks of fruits, herbs, flowers and vegetables.

Meanwhile, Angelic Organics, a 1,000-member biodynamic CSA in Caledonia, Ill., is part of a network of more than 22 farms partnering in an extensive apprentice program: the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farming Training (CRAFT) program, training a new generation of farmers. By many accounts, that generation is coming on strong, many young people with agricultural vocations have a keen interest in CSA.

The land issue
“For a host of reasons,” Allan Balliett says, “I believe strongly that for the safety and long-term strength and independence of CSA farms, they should go hand-in-hand with community land trusts. This is a central issue.” With the help of a community, land can be permanently set aside for farming and made available to farmers at a reasonable cost with a long-term lease.

“CSAs tend to be near urban areas, and that’s where the land values are high, and the whole constellation of land issues and development is intense. A lot of CSAs are set up on rented land. This makes them vulnerable. They can improve the fertility of the land, and then lose the use of it… If a CSA is going to succeed long term, then it better start thinking about securing its land base.”

Both of the original CSA farms—Indian Line and Temple-Wilton—spent years grappling with the land issue. Both farms, operating out of their own best judgment, eventually secured land long-term through the vehicle of a land trust. This step has greatly increased the farms’ long-term chances of survival.

Jo Meller and Jim Sluyter see the same thing. “So many young people want to grow food and feed people,” Jim said. “That’s what they are called to do. But they cannot afford land. Mostly these are people in their late 20s and early 30s who want to learn about sustainable farming and CSA. We see CSAs moving more and more toward community-owned farmland.”

Rising on Merit
If CSA is going to have a solid and progressive third wave of growth and development, it’s not likely to be generated by a government program or by the publicity campaign of a well-intended nonprofit, or even so much by fear of terrorists or corrupt food. A solid third wave of development ought by rights to rise instead on merit: from a real assessment of the benefits that can come from creating and supporting community farms.

After 18 years, CSA has proven itself. Now many of the forces that have brought it to its state of early maturity are conspiring for what might well be another big wave of development. There is tremendous potential.

CSA can play a substantial part in a sustainable future. It has the potential to establish thousands of cells of environmental vitality in cities, suburbs and countryside, and to extend basic, healthy linkages among the people who make up a community.

As we know from its beginnings, CSA is not just a clever, new approach to marketing. Community farming is about the necessary renewal of agriculture through its healthy linkage with the human community that depends upon farming for survival.

Journalist Steven McFadden co-authored “Farms of Tomorrow: Community Supported Farms, Farm Supported Communities” (1990), and “Farms of Tomorrow Revisited” (1998) with Trauger Groh. Steven is the director of Chiron Communications in Santa Fe, NM http://www.chiron-communications.com

References:
1. Time magazine, Nov. 3, 2003. “Fresh Off the Farm, A new breed of planters and eaters are joining forces to nurture the local-foods movement”

2. Organic Gardening magazine, April 1984, “Produce by Subscription” and July 1986, “From Farms to Families.”

3. Zürich Supported Agriculture by Jan Vander Tuin, RAIN magazine, Vol. XIV Number 2, Winter/Spring 1992. http://www.urbanology.com/csa/zurcsa.html

4. UN Report on Sustainability

http://www.unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/uu24ee/uu24ee00.htm#Contents

5. The New York Times, December 1, 2003, “Amid Dying Towns of Rural Plains, One Makes a Stand” By Timothy Egan.

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