You may take part in a seasonal CSA or may never have done so. Either way, community supported agriculture might be important to your future. CSA is complex, even paradoxical—a local activity and an international movement; a way to obtain great local food and a way to change the world. In the United States, CSA is also undergoing important changes.
Sarah Bostick, Cultivating Community’s Wholesale/Retail Marketing Manager and Educator at Fresh Start Farms, has worked on Maine farms for 15 years and is highly experienced with CSA. “I’ve staffed, managed, or started every variation of CSA I know of,” Sarah says. These include:
- Traditional CSA—the farmer chooses foods that are ripe/ready and packs them for the member;
- Debit-style CSA—the member applies credit to make food choices at the farmer’s market;
- Multi-farm CSA—the member supports more than one farm and gains access to a wider variety of food products;
- Single-crop CSA—the member supports production of and gains access to varieties of a special item like mushrooms, cheese, or flower bouquets.
With most CSAs, the member makes a pre-season investment that helps farmers at a time of year when there are lots of expenses (for seeds, soil amendments, etc.) and very little income. This investment is the hallmark of the partnership connecting farmer and customer in the U.S. today. However, not long ago members got much more involved on the farms that provided their CSA. Below, Sarah Bostick discusses how CSA is changing.
How did CSA get started?
CSA was first pioneered in the 1960s. In Japan, a group of women wanted to buy fresh milk and, in general, to find an alternative to imported, chemically-laden, processed food. The alternative they created is called “teikei,” which means “partnership.” Tekei was launched with the tagline, “food with a face.” In this system, cooperating farmers and customers provide capital, have talks that deepen their understanding, and contribute labor. Today, millions in Japan participate in teikei.
In northern Europe, community-supported agriculture emerged from groups of biodynamic farmers who believe that land, plants, animals, and all other organisms are inextricably linked and that the way to support life forms is to nurture the dependence among them. So the European farmers developed a CSA business model that emphasized the social and economic interconnectedness of farmers and customers.
It was in the same spirit that CSA germinated in the United States in the 1980s. For about a decade, it would retain its original shape with the farmer growing as much as she can, and members equally sharing the harvest. When bad weather comes, members take home less; in bountiful years, they take home a cornucopia. Members are encouraged or required to be active on farms, to help with harvests, bookkeeping, etc.
How has CSA been changing?
Today, the original model is being displaced by consumer-oriented approaches in which many farms place a more significant emphasis on their CSA as a convenient, discounted way to access local food than on the relationship between the customer and the farmer. This change has not come without controversy. I was recently in California for a food hub managers’ training with a delightful group of farmers and food system innovators. One day we hit upon the topic of CSA. All of a sudden, our amiable group was thrown into passionate disagreement.
While older participants saw the proliferation of convenience and price-driven CSA models as a corruption and a betrayal of the spirit in which CSA was created, younger participants saw it as an ongoing and necessary evolution of the strategies that could keep existing and enroll potential customers. In the moment, I fell into the camp of the younger generation—if we don’t keep up with the times, we’ll be left behind, right?
What is your opinion now?
Over the next few weeks I mulled over that contentious conversation again and again and I realized that my own practicality is in the way of what my heart wants. So, here it is folks, a message from me, a young-ish farmer who wants you to embrace the spirit of CSA and all that it can embody as we collectively find our way back to its origins. I encourage you to join a farm this year, a farm that you feel drawn to for reasons beyond convenience or the flashiness of their marketing material. Join in the spirit of community, connection, love of the land, and pride in the knowledge that what and how you are choosing to eat is directly impacting Maine’s ability to feed its people. Join whatever model of CSA works for the practical side of your life and then make an effort to really learn who your farmers are, why they choose to farm, how they care for their land, why they choose the CSA model that they do, and what brings them joy in life.
Cultivating Community is proud to promote the Fresh Start Farms CSA, which will go on sale again by February 2016 and which you can sign up for via our website.