The Emerging Social, Economic and Environmental Intelligence of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): A Global Phenomenon

Thanks to the recommendation of noted CSA author Elizabeth Henderson, I’ve been invited to address the 2nd Organic Farming Summit in Chengdu China (Nov. 17th~18th). Circumstances prevent me from traveling, and so instead I have prepared and sent the following remarks on CSA farms.

I send greetings and respect to all my relatives gathered together in China to exchange knowledge about organic agriculture – taking care of the Earth and each other. It is an honor to address the Organic Trade Union of China, and to offer some observations about our land, our farms, our times, and our many diverse communities of human beings around the world.

With its many variations and cultural adaptations, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a seed that has been steadily setting roots in various places around the globe for several decades. With the benefit of 30 years of involvement and observation, I have come to regard CSA as a 21st Century agrarian initiative with tremendous potential in different cultures to organize human beings – out of their free will choices – around the essential matter of a renewed relationship with the land that sustains them, as well as renewed relationships with each other.

CSA is emerging as an altogether necessary and wise response to the extreme state of our economies and our environment — the urgent call of our land which has been so severely challenged by reckless industrial impulses and  intensifying natural forces. Any person who chooses to can be part of a CSA, and that CSA will be part of a growing network of CSA nodes, as Elizabeth Henderson has noted, in China, the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Israel, Egypt, Ireland, and other nations around our world.

In my land – the continent of North America – where over 6,000 CSA farms have come into being in recent decades — we are currently engaged with issues of identity. What does the ‘community’ part of CSA really mean?

CSA is at a decision point. Is it going to become just another “business model” based primarily on monetary transactions for food? Or will CSA fulfill its ideal potential to become a model for healthy cells of social well-being, environmental health, and economic justice?

As a longtime CSA writer, I’ve hypothesized that in an era of economic and environmental stress, CSA social networks would assume increasing importance. That’s because through CSA human beings, households, and farmers have direct opportunity to form a wide constellation of relationships. They can feed each other on a lot of levels. They are linked not just by theories of the ideal, but also by matters that are inescapably real: land, food, and farms, as well as personal, family, and community health.

Yet as I have observed, and as I have read about in Farming Alone, many farmers and CSA shareholders identify community as a weak part of CSA. They say that it just is not happening as theorized. The realm of the ideal has had a hard reckoning with the realm of the real.

Increasingly over the last ten years, more and more farms have embraced CSA as a “marketing approach” or “marketing tool.” Yet that is a digression from what CSA started out to become, and what it still has the potential to become.

As made boldface plain by Robyn Van En long ago with her initial video It’s Not Just About Vegetables, CSA was in no way conceived of as a new way to buy and sell vegetables. The core ideas — the sparks that illumined and defined CSA and made it so immediately understandable and appealing for people all around the world — were both practical and idealistic. The concept was supporting a whole farm, and having the whole farm support and nourish the web of people who support it. In my view, these concepts remain integral. They are what make a CSA a CSA.

Anthropologists Cynthia Abbott Cone and Ann Kakaliouras, among others, have identified CSA as a social movement, as expressed in Building Moral Community or an Alternative Consumer Choice. Many CSA farmers and shareholders do recognize their commitment to CSA in moral terms. They see themselves as nurturing not just soil and family well being, but also the larger community and  environment of which they are part.

When these dimensions are actively cultivated, CSA farms have potential for re-embedding  (grounding) people in time and place by linking them to a specific piece of land and to an awareness of the seasons. From this the environment is not only protected, but also organically cultivated to a higher, healthier state of vitality that radiates outward from the land and animals of the farm to the surrounding communities.

To me — someone who has participated in and written about CSA since 1986 — these social, economic, and environmental dimensions of CSA appear as acutely important.

China’s Organic Summit

Creating a Sustainable Future Together

This is a moment in time when more people are looking to become active in creating a sustainable future. CSA is a proven vehicle for doing that.

CSA is, in and of itself, a community supported concept. No one person conceived of the whole of CSA. Rather, many pioneering people from many places around the world birthed the concept and nurtured it.  As CSA pioneers conceived of it — and as it is still being practiced at many farms — CSA is not just another new and clever approach to marketing. Rather, community farming is about the necessary renewal of agriculture through its healthy linkage with the human community that depends on farming for survival. It’s also about the necessary stewardship of soil, plants, and animals: the essential capital of human cultures.

Trauger Groh and I wrote Farms of Tomorrow (1990) and Farms of Tomorrow Revisited (1997) to suggest some possibilities. We also wanted to serve a need that was explicit then, and that has become even more urgent now: the need to share the experience of farming with everyone who understands that our relationship with nature and the ways that we use the land will determine the future of the earth.

The problems of agriculture and the environment belong not just to farmers, but are the common problems of all people. CSA is a pathway to link human beings and their communities directly in free-will association with Earth Ambassadors — the nearby farmers who touch the earth on their behalf to bring forth its bounty in the form of food, fiber, and flowers.

As author Gary Lamb observed in his landmark 1994 paper, Community Supported Agriculture: Can it Become the Basis for a New Associative Economy?, the community farm movement does indeed embody elements of a new associative economy that is fundamentally different from the ruling market economy.

“The market economy is driven by the self-interest of every participant,” Lamb wrote. “In an associative economy, we associate with our partners — active farmers among themselves, active farmers with all the member households, farm communities with other farm communities. The prevailing attitude is a striving to learn the real needs of our partners, and the ways we can meet them.”

Associative economy means that all participants in the economic process try to listen to the needs of all other partners in the process. On this basis they proceed. The key economic question for a CSA that is expressing associative economics, either explicitly or implicitly, is not “How can we make greater monetary profit?”  Rather the questions are “What does the farm need? What do the farmers need? What do the shareholders need?”  In response to these questions, the community proceeds in its work.

Awakening Social Intelligence

The element of community – and the environmental and health dimensions of CSA — are just as important as the practical and economic arrangements that take place in a CSA.

Because CSA possesses so many inherently beneficial dimensions, I continue to regard CSAs as a way of building a clean, stable agrarian foundation for the fast emerging high-tech digital-wave culture. The digital culture can in reciprocity connect, network and sustain the agrarian initiatives which give it roots.

Thus, CSA farms have the potential to bridge the gap between the personal and the global. They are contributing not just to their family and community health and well being as adapted to their chosen culture and lifeways, but also having a larger global impact through the emerging network of associations both in-person and virtual.

The dynamic of farmers and consumers in free will association via community farms creates the potential for the kind of phenomenon that Rudolf Steiner termed “social intelligence.” In the particular case of CSA, I feel that construct can naturally be extended to include economic and environmental intelligence as well.

In my view, CSA carries potential to express the very essence of social, economic, and environmental intelligence, and to do so on a global scale.

3 Responses to The Emerging Social, Economic and Environmental Intelligence of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): A Global Phenomenon

  1. What an honor! Wish you could give your address in person.
    Congrats.

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    • Donald E. Lewis says:

      I Organic Farmed on my Dairy Farm in Vermont in 1953. I won many awards over all Vermont and New England Chemical Farmers. Not one Farmer or Agriculture Adviser came by to see how I did it with out Chemicals, Now Monsanto is putting up millions of dollars to stop the Organic movement. I was able to give one speech about Organic farming and it was accepted but still no interest. I wrote a book Learned by the Fencepost It is on Amazon in the Title Please check it out. Good history of my success in Organic farming and Gardening

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  2. cfnursery says:

    Here in rural North Carolina the local food movement has been slow. Morw are producing it but not but the bettet educated consumers ate catching on. They still depend on the big chain retailer for their food. This is in rural North Carolina. More urban areas of the state have had more intetest in locally produced food

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