Over the last 18 years, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has taken root in North America with moderate speed and has gradually grown to include as many as 1,700 farms spread over every region. Against a surging tide of decline for small farms in general, CSA has set roots deep and wide.
CSA is providing direct support for hundreds of small farms and clean local food for thousands of families. As side benefits, CSA is also establishing a matrix of environmental oases, building networks of families who are cultivating new and healthy aspects of community life, and helping to shape a new vision of agriculture.
As CSA approaches its 20th anniversary, the possibility of a substantial third wave of development looms large. The workable paths are well known by now; meanwhile, a host of food- and farm-related issues is steadily building a groundswell underneath this grass-roots movement.
Oddly, the origins of CSA in the United States have remained indistinct and are routinely reported incorrectly.
PART I: The Origins of CSA in America—Dispelling an “Agrarian Myth”
For years, one standard (albeit erroneous) telling of CSA’s history has been echoed in hundreds of articles and websites. That version was recently repeated by Time magazine: “The CSA movement began in Japan some 30 years ago with a group of women alarmed by pesticides…Their teikei [partnerships with local farmers through annual subscriptions] spread to Europe and the U.S. From a single Massachusetts CSA in 1986, subscription farms in the U.S. have boomed…”
I can fault no reporters for repeating this false history. While I did know all along that CSA sprang forth from not one U.S. farm, but from two, for most of the past 18 years I also labored under the misimpression that some of CSA’s inspiration had come from Japan, for that is what I read everywhere.
But that’s not how it happened.
An email discussion on the CSA-L list piqued my curiosity. Correspondents such as Wolfgang Stranz of Germany, Allan Balliett of West Virginia, and Connie Falk of New Mexico uncovered many of the details of how CSA unfolded here in the United States. I’ve been reporting on CSA since 1987, so when I read their postings, I was prompted to research the movement’s beginnings to unearth a clearer sense of what really happened and why. I also wanted to see how the beginnings might bear upon the present and the future.
I learned that while community farm initiatives got under way in both Japan and Chile in the early 1970s, those efforts did not directly influence the 1986 start of the CSA movement in the states. The U.S. impulse came from Europe, and specifically from the biodynamic agricultural tradition.
The ideas that informed the first two American CSAs were articulated in the 1920s by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), and then actively cultivated in post-WW II Europe in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The ideas crossed the Atlantic and came to life simultaneously but independently in a new form, CSA, in 1986 at both Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire.
The two original CSA farms are still thriving as of 2004. Both have established enduring legacies, even though they have confronted many challenges over the years.
The stories of these two farms illustrate many of the challenges that the entire CSA movement faces. Their stories also demonstrate many of its potentials.
Indian Line Farm
Susan Witt was there at the beginning. She is director of the E.F. Schumacher Society, headquartered about a mile down the road from Indian Line Farm in South Egremont, Mass.
Susan recalls that articles in Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine attracted a young gardener named Jan Vander Tuin to South Egremont in 1985, where he met with her, Robyn Van En, and other members of the community.
According to a 1992 article that Vander Tuin wrote for RAIN magazine, he had been working on a biodynamic farm named Topinambur near Zurich, Switzerland. He also traveled to explore other farms—Birsmatterhof in Germany (close to Basel, Switzerland) and Les Jardins de Cocagne in Geneva, Switzerland. Vander Tuin noted that the producer-consumer food alliance in Geneva had been founded by a man inspired by the co-op movement in Chile during Salvador Allende’s administration (1970-73). These experiences shaped Vander Tuin’s thinking as he returned to the United States and began talking with Witt, Van En, John Root, Jr., Andrew Lorand, and others. Each individual was generally knowledgeable about anthroposophy and biodynamic farming (two pillars of Steiner’s legacy).
Witt recalls that their discussions were informed by Steiner’s concept of world economy, and she felt that the work of the Schumacher Society best put those ideas into practice. “One of Steiner’s major concepts was the producer-consumer association, where consumer and producer are linked by their mutual interests,” she explained. “And one of Schumaker’s major concepts was ‘to develop an economy where you produce locally what is consumed locally.’ We began to see CSA as a way to bring these key ideas together.”
In those early days, Witt recalls that there was much talk of biodynamics, anthroposophy, and the “Small is beautiful” philosophy of E.F. Schumacher, but definitely no talk of Japan. “None of us had heard yet of what was happening in Japan.”
On this point, Anthony Graham and Trauger Groh of the Temple-Wilton Community farm agree. None of the CSA pioneers in the United States had heard a word about teikei in Japan.
As Anthony recalls, “We (Anthony Graham, Trauger Groh, Lincoln Geiger) all went to a conference in Kimberton, Pennsylvania, as well as a group from South Egremont including, I believe, Robyn Van En. This was after both of our farms had started, maybe a year later. A speaker at the conference mentioned what was going on in Japan, and that was the first any of us learned about it.”
In autumn 1985, with Vander Tuin’s enthusiasm added to the wherewithal of the rest of the community, the Massachusetts group undertook a project with an apple orchard. Root and a community of developmentally disabled people from nearby Berkshire Village sold 30 shares in the orchard. They then picked, sorted, and distributed 360 bushels of apples, as well as cider, hard cider, and vinegar.
While that project was underway, the core group made plans. They began as the CSA Garden at Great Barrington (not Indian Line Farm), an unincorporated association managed on behalf of all shareholders with Witt, Root, Van En, and Jan Vander Tuin acting as principals. The association entered into a three-year lease with Van En to use land at Indian Line Farm for a garden starting in 1986, the same year the Temple-Wilton Community Farm started about 80 miles to the northeast in New Hampshire.
The association that leased Indian Line Farm held onto the name CSA Gardens at Great Barrington until 1990, when there was a difficult split. Robyn stayed on her land, while the farmers and many members departed to form the Mahaiwe Harvest CSA at nearby Sunways Farm.
Robyn went on to write the pamphlet “Basic Formula to Create Community Supported Agriculture,” produce the video “It’s not just About Vegetables,” and in 1992, found CSA North America (CSANA), a nonprofit clearinghouse to support CSA development.
In 1997 at age 49, Robyn died of an asthma attack. Her contributions were later recognized in the naming of a national clearinghouse of information, the Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources.
After Van En’s death, her son was forced to sell the farm. The farmers who had been working the land could not afford to buy it. But with the help of the Schumacher Society, they partnered with a community land trust and The Nature Conservancy to buy Indian Line Farm in 1999. This partnership serves as a model for other CSAs.
According to Susan Witt, the key idea of the Indian Line Farm transaction is this: The consumers actively took responsibility to hold farmland open and to make that land available and affordable for farmers over a long term. Other CSAs, she said, should give serious consideration to this basic idea.
The Temple-Wilton Community Farm
Anthony Graham was among the founders of the Temple-Wilton (TW) Community Farm, along with Trauger Groh and dairyman Lincoln Geiger. Anthony remembers that they were all talking with one another back in 1985: “Trauger had just moved to New Hampshire from Germany. He and I and Lincoln and others in this community were talking intensively, making plans. One day in the autumn we drove out to South Egremont to meet with the people there and share ideas. There was a lot of excitement.”
“The folks in Western Massachusetts had their approach, and we had ours,” Anthony recalled. “A lot of our inspiration for the Temple-Wilton farm came out of discussing with Trauger what he knew from Germany, and from the Camphill Village in Copake, New York, in 1961.”
Through the 1970s and early 1980s, Trauger, Carl-August Loss, and other farmers at Buschberghof in Northern Germany had been experimenting with ideas from the work of Rudolf Steiner. Then Trauger met Alice Bennett of New Hampshire. They were wed and he moved to be with her.
“Back in 1985, out of our discussions with Trauger, we decided on our approach,” remembers Anthony. “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, upfront, and everyone understands it by now.”
The overall philosophy of the TW Farm evolved from some of Steiner’s ideas spelled out in his anthroposophical writings. Some of the farm’s key ideas are:
New forms of property ownership—The land is held in a common by a community through a legal trust. The trust then leases its property long-term to farmers who use the land to grow food for the community.
New forms of cooperation—A network of human relations replaces old systems of employers and employees as well as replacing the practice of pledging material security (land, buildings, etc.) to banks.
New forms of economy (associative economy)–The guiding question is not “how do we increase profits?” but rather “what are the actual needs of the land and of the people involved in this enterprise?”
Trauger Groh is retired from active farming but stays close to the TW Farm. As he looks back over the years, he said he feels satisfaction. The farm has found a permanent home on good land and has also secured an orchard. In 2003, he said, the farm had a record harvest, and it received funding support from state, federal, and local sources.
“The farm will easily raise the rest of the money,” Trauger said. “There is enormous public interest. Wilton has voted at town meeting two years in a row to spend $40,000 of taxpayer money to support the farm and its programs. Now remember, this is in skinflint New Hampshire, where a request for money for a new light bulb can cause a knockdown, drag-out debate. Not one person has ever stood to speak against the funding request for the farm.”
“Now is when all our work is paying off,” Trauger observed. “We have a track record of 18 years. People know us and trust us. They can see what we are doing for the land and for the community.”
Reflecting on the start of CSA in America 18 years ago, Trauger said “As with all great ideas, the idea of CSA had arrived. It just needed to emerge. The time was ripe. Who started at what hour is totally unimportant. What is important is that the CSA initiative has emerged and developed, and there is now a base for people to carry forward.”
Learn more about Rodale Institute’s own farm share program, Agriculture Supported Communities, here.