CSA Farms: Actual Farm-Community Alliance or Alternative Marketing Strategy?

vegetablesAgrarians often remark in one context or another that they feel farming went off course when people started trying to run farms as a business instead of as a way of life. At that point they say farming was no longer a culture of the land, but rather a business of the land — a business that has metastasized over decades to become the modern, chemically-fueled behemoth of industrial agribusiness.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has been planted and cultivated in the context of the increasing dominance of industrial agriculture and the ongoing decline of the traditional family farm. Over the last 28 years many thousands of people have recognized in CSA a vehicle for approaching food, land, environment and community in a different way. But there is a creeping risk that CSA could be diverted down a course more devotedly focused on monetary profit and business efficiency in service to profit. In so doing the movement risks losing its bearings on the matters of  agricultural, social and environmental renewal that were intrinsic to the original concept.

Increasingly over the last decade, as more and more businesses have seen a marketing opportunity and begun to describe themselves as CSAs, extension services and educators have also advanced the idea of CSA as a “marketing approach” or “marketing tool.” Yet an emphasis on marketing is in many respects the antithesis of what CSA started out to become, and what it still has the potential to become. CSA was not initiated as a way to sell food. It was about communities of people directly supporting specific farms, and in reciprocity farms directly supporting specific people in specific communities.

Many agricultural initiatives claiming the status of CSA do in fact approach it as simply a marketing strategy — just another way for a farm to sell vegetables and to earn money. Such initiatives fill a true need, no doubt. But they veer from the core ideas of CSA, ideas which are eminently worthy of recollection. In my view, the agricultural, environmental, social and health ideals are still very much worth striving for.

When a “CSA” puts its central focus on profit, by that very act it modifies or mutates the spirit of the movement and fundamentally becomes something else – ‘Genetically Modified CSA,’ you might say. That something else may be a fabulous business idea that is doing an effective job of fulfilling a real need for consumers. That’s admirable. But the business is not a CSA, and the use of CSA as a descriptor for such businesses undermines the efforts of true community supported farms.

Profit-centered enterprises have over time eroded the integrity of the term “natural” so that it has little relevant meaning in the marketplace. No one trusts the label “natural” anymore because it can mean anything the labeler wants it to mean. Likewise, the meaning of words like “green” and “sustainable” has mutated over the decades. Those terms have been deliberately compromised to cover an ever-widening range of  ideas and tools, and in some cases the terms have been distorted to describe extreme industrial technological “solutions” for environmental problems, such as adding chemicals to the ocean to control pollution, or salting the atmosphere with microscopic metal particles in an attempt to prevent global climate change

Similarly, the term ‘CSA” may have its definition eroded. As Angelic Organics CSA farmer John Peterson told me last year, “A farm is not just an economic unit to produce food. It’s also a living social, environmental and educational organism…

THE-CALL-OF-THE-LAND-The“A CSA cannot be thought of as just a unit of economic production. That just commodifies the farms and farmers, as food is commodified also…You can’t have farmers beat into the ground working for prices set by wholesalers, trying to make mortgage and equipment payments and all the rest. You cannot have the stewards of the land struggling under that much pressure.”

As I hear it, the call of the land in regard to CSA farms has far more to do with communities of people coming together in creative, positive response to the agricultural, environmental, climatological, social and health challenges of our era than it does with retailing.

– by Steven McFadden

7 Responses to CSA Farms: Actual Farm-Community Alliance or Alternative Marketing Strategy?

  1. allanballiett says:

    Thanks for posting this, Steve. “Genetically Modified CSAs” has a ring to it, doesn’t it? A very destructive, toxic ring, that is!

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  2. Very good article. We learned our CSA model from Elizabeth Henderson at Peacework Organic Farm (in conjunction with GVOCSA), me as a member and Rebecca as an apprentice. It is a powerful model and the name should not be co-opted.

    I often hear “there is no definition for community supported agriculture.” That is not true.

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    • Farmer Ruthie says:

      Very true. And just to get it out there into the discussion, here is that definition: “A community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production.”

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  3. allanballiett says:

    Thanks for stepping forward, Farmer Ruthie, where fools fear to tread!

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  4. allanballiett says:

    I’ve been using a definition somewhat like this “A community of individuals who come together to support a farmer and a farm in order to produce foods of a nutritional quality and purity not available through the Market Economy and in the process restore and maintain the land to it’s ideal levels.” which is the same as yours, but different. It’s good to have “community” “Farmer” “Farm” in any CSA definition!😉

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  5. To me the best part of CSA is the de-commodification effect. That carrot you eat is special, like none other, because it comes out of a unique set of intertwined relationships. With those relationships in place, the farmer is set free to practice his/her craft rather than poring over profit and loss spreadsheets. But you know, industrialism has always been hostile to artists and craftsmen — and their patrons — because those people can be hard to buy.

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  6. auntiegrav says:

    The need for CSAs is caused by failure of civilization to work for its own future. Up until now, the extraction philosophy was fine. Modern farms, however, are either extractors of resources (finite) or supporters of the resources. CSAs are a way (through marketing/education) to convince people that they are supposed to put something into the land (not money) in order to get food out.
    Humanity has been watching the trucks haul resources to cities and now we have to ask quantitatively how many should be going the other way to support the land. Without the marketing/information aspect, there will only be immigrants putting labor into the land: immigrants who are extracted from somewhere less valued than OUR land and people already are : (search “Ferguson”).

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