CSA in the USA: The Next Quarter Century

November 22, 2013

“For whatever reason, whether it’s the economy or the availability of oil, or how crops are grown and where, people will very likely be turning to their neighbors for a network of support. That’s where CSA stands right now as a wise response.”       —Erin Barnett, LocalHarvest

CSA Harvest - photo by thisischile.cl courtesy of Creative Commons

CSA Harvest – photo by thisischile.cl courtesy of Creative Commons

Twenty-eight growing seasons ago our forefarmers brought forth on this continent a new way of living in relationship with the people who eat the food they grow and with the land that sustains us all.

Conceived in community, the approach was rooted in the best of agrarian traditions — not just of Europe, Asia, and Africa, but also from the essential ethos of this our native land, Turtle Island (North America). From the outset, this new farm way has been favorably engaged with the digital, high-tech culture emerging so dynamically in the world.

This relationship with land, with neighbors, and with plants and animals came to be known as CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture.

Now that 28 growing seasons have come and gone we have well over 8,500 CSA farms in the USA, extrapolating from national databases. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is serving hundreds of thousands of families and households in urban and suburban communities, and also in some rural locales. Many thousands more such community farms are at work in Canada and globally, weaving people together with the land and their food.

Yet across the US, many rural regions are “food deserts” where production ag reigns supreme, and fresh local food and supermarkets are scarce. In this context, CSAs in general (and also collaborative CSAs, a.k.a. cCSAs, and CSAs in partnership with co-ops) have potential to meet many profound needs.

But before CSA will make a significant, rural impact, the movement will need to reckon with a paradox: many farmers and shareholders identify community as a weak part of CSA. They say it’s just not happening as theorized.

farmingaloneIn their  article Farming Alone? What’s Up with the ‘C’ in Community Supported Agriculture? scholars Antoinette Pole and Margaret Gray tell of how they learned through an extensive survey that few people say they consciously join CSA to build community or meet like-minded people. The majority say they sign up for the fresh, local, organic produce.

Anthropologists Cynthia Abbott Cone and Ann Kakaliouras set out a contrasting view in their equally thoughtful paper, CSA: Building Moral Community or an Alternative Consumer Choice? Identifying CSA as a social movement, the authors observe that many participants express their commitment in moral terms, and see themselves as nurturing soil, family and the larger community.

Beyond paradox, there is a revealing reality: many CSAs have dismal renewal rates. A study undertaken with LocalHarvest, the nation’s leading online directory of organic and local food, reported that sustaining membership is one of the most difficult aspects of running a CSA. In many areas of the country, the public has a number of CSA options, including aggregators, which may eschew community to follow a “business model.” Aggregators source products from several farms to sell to buyers; some advertise themselves as CSAs.

In analyzing data from the 850 farms in the LocalHarvest study, researchers identified two things that CSA farmers can do to remedy membership turnover: host special events on the farm and consciously build personal relationships with members. But that’s asking a lot of farmers and their families: to grow the food and also to grow the community around it.

That’s why the CSA core group concept — a group of committed volunteers who serve and advise the farm — has been key in helping many CSAs sustain themselves. No doubt core groups could also play a crucial role in helping CSAs reckon with the FDA’s impending and ill-conceived Food Safety Modernization Act, which seems designed to ensnare small, organic farms in red tape and added expense.

blaz-L-7As CSA pioneers conceived of it 28 growing seasons ago — and as it is still being practiced at many community farms — CSA is not just another clever approach to marketing. Rather, community farming is about the necessary cultivation of earth-renewing 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.

If the ideals are kept in mind over the next quarter century and community does engage, then in addition to all it has already accomplished in our cities and suburbs, CSA can continue to metamorphose and do far more, and also make an emphatically healthy difference in rural America.

Note: A version of this essay was first published in The Cultivator, newsletter of The Cornucopia Institute.

I had an opportunity to give a 3-minute Quick Pitch talk on this theme — CSA in the USA — at the national Rural Futures Conference held Nov. 4, 2013 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Here’s a link to a Youtube video clip of the talk.

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The Future of Food is Local

November 19, 2013
Michael Brownlee in Lincoln (author photo)

Michael Brownlee in Lincoln
(author photo)

Michael Brownlee stopped in Lincoln, Nebraska on Monday evening and gave a talk about local food. Detailing the systemic weaknesses in the juggernaut of industrial agriculture, which now provides about 98% of our food, he commented: ”food is the one area where we are all most vulnerable, and where the need is most urgent.”

Brownlee and his partners at Local Food Shift are out to catalyze the national movement in local food helping to take it to the next level — from a culture of consumers, to a culture of contributors. He considers their efforts in the Front Range of Colorado to be a Whole Systems Demonstration Project.

“The way we feed ourselves is the most important social, environmental, health and economic undertaking of our times,” he said. “Food is going to come soon to the forefront of emerging human calamities.”

Brownlee cited the draft report leaked earlier this month from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In blunt language, that report spells out the trend: “climate change will seriously damage the world’s ability to feed itself in the coming decades. The report confirms previous studies’ findings that climate change could exacerbate poverty, strain water supplies, make extreme weather more common and increase conflict around the world.

Local food is a core response to impending catastrophes, accentuated by climate change. The world’s agricultural areas will shift, causing an overall decline in agricultural production. The movement toward local food comes at the juncture of a troubling array of global environmental and economic crises, he said, and responds to them in a healthy and positive way.

The Local Food Shift campaign is designed to empower communities to marshal their efforts in beginning to shift their food systems towards the local. They are creating and making available tools and processes to empower the local food movement.

“The global food system is now teetering on the edge of collapse,” Brownlee asserted. “The future of food is local – as close to home as possible. Local food production helps to reverse the wide spiral of damage caused by industrial agriculture and the industrial growth society.”

Brownlee concluded his talk with a quote from economist Herman Daly, author of several books, including For the Common Good (1994).  “If economics is reconceived in the service of community, it will begin with a concern for agriculture and specifically for the production of food. This is because a healthy community will be a relatively self-sufficient one…The most fundamental requirement for survival is food. Hence, how and where food is grown is foundational to an economics for community.”


Farmer Geiger’s Thanksgiving Grace

November 16, 2013

tramplingI was there in New Hampshire a year ago in September 2012, just a few miles away when dairyman Lincoln Geiger was badly hurt by a trampling bull.  

That Sunday they airlifted him to a hospital in Boston to reckon with life-threatening injuries. But Lincoln’s spirit was strong and he moved through the wounds and the shock, and the many phases of recovery to come back to the land.

“I was given a new outlook on the world, Lincoln later explained, “by what I now call a form of initiation. My whole sense of reality shifted from an objective view of nature and the environmental movement, to a deeply caring heart-centered understanding.

“I now feel that the way to engage people to improve our world is with an intelligence that emanates through the heart. We need to ensoul nature and all its creatures and feel like guests, friends, or part of the familywhen in the presence of the forest or the garden or the herd. That is the attitude that comes from the warmth of the soul through the wisdom of the heart.”

From the very beginning Lincoln has been one of the core farmers at the remarkable Temple-Wilton Community Farm. One of the first two Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSAs) in America, it is still growing strong nearing thirty growing seasons.

In a blog post recounting his recent visit to the farm, Robert Karp of the Biodynamic Association noted that the Temple-Wilton Community Farm, “keeps showing the way” for thousands of other CSA farms across the nation and around the world.

Fawn - photo by Elfer courtesy of Creative Commons.

Fawn – photo by Elfer courtesy of Creative Commons.

A day-and-a-half before his fateful encounter with the bull, Lincoln came and sat beside me in the barn loft at Stonewall Farm Center, just west of Keene. He shared a grace with our conference of people talking about implementing greater food security for the Monadnock Region of New Hampshire.

Lincoln sat as part of a circle of 40 of us or so — all Twentyfirst Century agrarians alive with a sense of doing something foundationally important in the world. After dinner, to offer a blessing, he talked with us for about ten minutes.

He began by telling the story of how on a spring day he had climbed aboard the farm’s tractor and set about mowing the high fields. He never noticed the place in the deep grasses where a fawn lay hidden, and so to his dismay and anguish he found that the blades of his mower had badly injured the fawn.

Within two weeks he had hit four fawns and felt the deer were trying to teach him something monumental. “The day I hit the last fawn I was super alert to make sure there would be no accident.  I stood on the tractor platform the whole time I was mowing. About a third into the 10-acre field I saw a deer standing about 200 feet from me. I stopped the tractor, got off and noticed that the deer was looking at me and then looked down and then back at me.

“I felt right away that she was standing by her fawn. I turned off the tractor and headed straight towards the deer. She ran away, I kept walking and soon there in front of me lay a beautiful fawn. I just stood with it for a while, then I called my dairy partner Andrew and our apprentice Sara to come to the field with a cage or something to hold the fawn while I finished mowing.

“I picked up the fawn, it was totally calm and carried it to the bottom of the field. Andrew and Sara came but had no cage, they brought it into the Forrest and let it go. I kept on mowing and just as I was finishing the last couple of swaths, as I look back, there it is with its hoof cut off an inch up. I cried out loud, turned off the tractor and picked it up in my arms again. My heart was broken so bad I can’t tell you. I brought my little friend into the forest, I knew it would never make it. I laid it on a large stone and crushed its beautiful head with a rock.

“Then I cracked open inside and screamed loudly for the world to hear our pain and our love,” Lincoln told us. Time went by. To bring some light and healing to all that arose with the death of the fawns, to respond by giving some beauty back to the world, Lincoln wrote graces.

A year ago Lincoln spoke one of his graces aloud for the circle gathered at Stonewall Farm, just west of The Grand Monadnock:


Thank you Earth so soft and strong

Thank you meadow filled with song

Thank you mountain, forest and stream

By you we rest and find our dream

 

Thank you creatures wild and tame

Your trust we love and hope to gain

Thank you for your milk and fleece

And for your meat that we may eat

 

Thank you root and leaf and seed

We’ll not forget your wondrous deed

You hold the earth

You catch the rain

You fill the world with air again

 

Thank you wind for bringing rain

Please help our friends who are in pain

For us who thirst and cry from hunger

Please bring hope, life and wonder

 

Thank you moon for guidance and grace

For heart bent flowers

With dew drop lace

 

Thank you sun as day begins

For golden light

By angel wings

 

With thankful hearts

and open hands

     We ask to share your loving lands.

– Lincoln Geiger, Temple-Wilton Farm

As of Thanksgiving 2013, Lincoln writes: “I am well and full of living.” The Temple-Wilton Community Farm is also well and full of living, as attested to by yet another article about the farm’s place in the history and the destiny of the CSA movement, complete with some wonderful photos. The story – The First CSAs – is published on page 10 of the John Deere company magazine, The Furrow.

 


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