Three Overlooked Seeds at the Core of CSA Farms

December 26, 2014

Three seed ideas were among the many elements that underlie the actions of the first CSA farmers who in 1985-86 established new ways of farming in America. Those ways have emerged in subsequent seasons to yield as many as 10,000 contemporary community supported farms (CSAs) in cities, suburbs, towns, villages and churches across the land.

Photo: Maggie Mehaffey

Photo: Maggie Mehaffey

The CSA model has proven to be a natural for adaption and innovation. Many latter-day CSAs, however, have overlooked or bypassed some of the seed ideas as they have established a wide range of variations on the CSA theme. Yet the seeds of the initial CSAs remain viable, perhaps even more so in our era of profound global change. They are freely available to anyone who chooses to cultivate them.

Alice Bennett Groh is part of the founding group for the Temple-Wilton Community Farm, in New Hampshire. In November, 2014 when she spoke at a Peterborough Grange ceremony to honor CSA pioneers, she put her focus on three of the seed ideas that helped community farms to become established in the USA and to grow.

With eloquence and economy of language, she told of how her husband Trauger Markus Groh partnered with Anthony Graham and Lincoln Gieger to cultivate new thinking, and thereby to initiate their highly productive, economically sustainable, and environmentally radiant Biodynamic farm on rocky, rolling hills flanking the Souhegan River.

Alice Bennett Groh speaks to the overflow crowd at the Peterborough Historical Society during the Grange ceremony honoring the pioneers of CSA. Photo from the balcony by Patrick John Gillam.
Alice Bennett Groh speaks to an overflow crowd at the Peterborough Historical Society during the Grange ceremony honoring the pioneers of CSA. Photo from the balcony by Patrick John Gillam.

In conversations with me after the Grange-CSA event, Alice spoke further about those seed ideas:

1.  The first seed that Alice recalled has to do with the ownership and financing of community farms, questions Trauger Groh engaged early in his life while living in Germany, questions he engaged again with compatriots at the Temple-Wilton Community Farm, and questions which he explored in his autobiography, Personal Recollections: Remembering My Life and Those Who Mean So Much to Me (2010).

The general agricultural situation in Germany in the 1960s, according to Trauger and Alice, was that most farms were economically dependent on using foreign workers and paying them low wages. This set up ensured that the farm workers would remain poor and have no stake in the land. Meanwhile, in comparison with conventional farms where production rose steeply with the addition of synthetic chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, the financial return from harvests was unsatisfactory for organic and Biodynamic farms.

watercolorpaintIn this economic and social environment, how could organic or Biodynamic farms survive and prosper into the future? At Buschberg Farm in the 1960s, Trauger and his farm colleagues of that era were all actively cultivating Anthroposophical and Biodynamic understandings. They recognized that new economic, social and agricultural forms were needed for the Farms of Tomorrow.

Understanding that isolated farms and isolated farmers had a dim future in the shadow of corporate-industrial agriculture, they strove to create a wider, village-like arrangement based on free-will associations of households with the farm. One great aim was to open the farms to the participation of many people, to share the responsibility of growing food and caring for the earth cooperatively. To make that possible, it was necessary to change the relationship of the ownership to the land, and to give up the conventional employer/employee wage relationship.

They formed a co-operative work group for the Buschberg Farm Agricultural Working Group. The group was composed of about 40 people, with three active farmers including Trauger. Together they bore responsibility for the farm and its risks.

They developed a co-operative property association to hold the farmland in trust, and to act as a co-operative credit guarantee company. Attorney Wilhelm Barkoff designed this risk-sharing arrangement in partnership with the Co-operative Bank in Bochum, near Dresden, Germany.

Nonfarmer community members worked alongside the active farmers in managing the farm, but did not interfere with it. They contributed to the farm from their own life experience. Each member of the work group was given a loan of 3,000 DM (Deutsche Mark) by their Community Bank. This functioned as a line of credit, which the nonfarmer members of the community could then assign to the active farmers to give them working capital and enable them to establish a farm budget. The financial and health needs of the active farmers themselves and their families were built into the budget for the farm. Withdrawals were deducted and income credited.

On this basis the active farmers went about their business. If they made a profit they turned it over to the members of whole farm community: if the farm had a loss then the farm community members agreed to make up the difference. They shared the risk. This approach to free-will community trust ownership of the land and shared risk was among the original CSA seed ideas.

2.  While speaking at the Grange ceremony for the pioneers of CSA, Alice told also of how in the 1970s Trauger came to know Peter Berg, a farmer in south Germany. Berg came up with an idea for a box scheme – a weekly box of Biodynamic vegetables for people who wanted them, an approach which he was able to extend to Dornach, across the nearby border with Switzerland.

The Sower - V. Van Gogh

The Sower – V. Van Gogh

As a member of the Board of Directors for Fondation la Bruyére Blanche and as an agricultural consultant, Trauger visited Dornach many times in the early 1970s, and learned about the approach Berg was taking. Then in the 1980s, an American named Jan Vander Tuin also learned of this approach while visiting in Switzerland. He became passionately enthusiastic. Later when Vander Tuin visited western Massachusetts in 1985, he told about the pre-paid box scheme to a core group of people including John Root, Sr., John Root Jr., Charlotte Zenecchia, Andrew Lorand, and Robyn Van En. They formed The CSA Garden at Great Barrington, later known as Indian Line Farm.

The two communities – Temple-Wilton CSA in New Hampshire and Indian Line CSA in Massachusetts – were less than 150 miles apart. They connected and communicated with each other before the first CSA planting season in America, 1986.

Rather than an agriculture that is supported by government subsidies, private profits, or martyrs to the cause, CSA pioneers strove to create organizational forms that provide direct, free will support for farm and farmers from the people who eat their food by receiving a share of the harvest they have made possible. This is a second seed idea at the core of CSA.

3.  Alice Bennett Groh concluded her talk for the Grange by telling of how in the early 1980s Trauger visited with a farmer named Asgar Elmquist and his wife, Mary. The Elmquists were houseparents at Camphill Village, Copake, NY, and Asgar was also actively farming.

logoCamphill Villages are set up as households, with food budgets. It was the agreed custom for housemothers to use thier budgets to purchase food for all the residents of the households. One option was to buy food for the households from local farmers, such as Asgar. The houseparents were in fact buying from him, but toward the end of each month as house budgets ran low, the housemothers would switch and shop supermarkets instead to save money. That was not working for Asgar because it invariably left him stuck with food that he had produced but could no longer sell while it was fresh.

“Wise fellow that he is,” Alice observed, Asgar proposed that the households pledge a certain amount of budgeted money up front each month to support his general farming efforts, to support the whole farm. In return he would agree to deliver produce to their doors throughout the entire month. That upfront agreement worked better for everyone.

Trauger Groh later wrote in his autobiography. “That farms flourish must be the concern of everyone, not just the individuals working as farmers.” The idea is for the community to support the whole farm, not just to be occasional consumers buying boxes of carrots, lettuce and squash. That way the farm is in a position to reciprocate and support the community. The community supports the farm out of free will association, and the farm supports the community out of the bounty of the land.

0Back in the day, Asgar told Trauger that after he changed over to this arrangement, everything on the farm began to grow better. He explained that the nature spirits, or elemental beings weaving their works in the farm fields, have no relationship to money and no conception of it. If a farmer looks over a row of carrots and principally calculates what money he can earn with them, the elementals cannot grasp this abstraction. But if a farmer is instead thinking about bringing the crop to its highest perfection to nourish human beings and livestock, the elementals can in their own manner comprehend and respond.

“Elemental beings want what is good, healthy and right for the soil and the situation,” Alice told me. “If a farmer can be freed from the economic stress of counting rows of carrots to calculate how many rows he needs to make how much money, then the farmer can think instead of what the soil, the plants, the farm, and the farm community need. With these thoughts about concrete matters such as food and eating, rather than thoughts about the relatively abstract and artificial concept of money, everything grows better.”

“We can’t see the forces of nature,” original Indian Line CSA farmer Hugh Ratcliffe once told me, “but we can see the effects of working consciously with them.” Careful observation of nature, and intelligent cooperation with it, are among the great contributions of Biodynamics. And that’s how CSA pioneers approached it in the USA.

Considered through the lens of economics, CSA was not originated as some new, improved way to sell vegetables, milk and meat, nor was it thought of in any way as a “marketing scheme.” The seed efforts of CSA pioneers were aimed at the basic economy of finding ways to free farmers to do the tasks that are right for the farm, the people, and the earth. This intention represents a third seed at the core of the original CSA impulse.

The Temple-Wilton Community Farm in particular has taken up these seed ideas from the beginning. With effort it has cultivated and refined the seeds over 28 growing seasons: shared ownership and risk, free-will participation as members of the community, and intelligent partnership with nature rather than brute efforts at domination and control.

As Alice observed in the aftermath of the Peterborough Grange-CSA honoring ceremony, “it is unusual, to say the least, maybe even miraculous, that in these times of great social struggle that something that we approached with idealism and dedication has prospered and has had such a profound effect in the world.”

– Steven McFadden, December 2014

farmm 


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.


Unraveling the CSA Number Conundrum

January 9, 2012

In the beginning it was easy to count. The year was 1986, and there were only two Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives in the USA: Indian Line Farm in western Massachusetts, and the Temple-Wilton Community Farm in southern New Hampshire. But not long after that, as the CSA concept spread across America and around the world, the number of farms became a bit of an enigma.

No one was ever quite sure how many CSAs there were. The federal government didn’t track the number; at the same time, for a variety of reasons, many CSAs wanted little to do with government or larger systems.

Now however, thanks to several sources, it’s possible to gain a fair idea. Estimating conservatively, there are currently over 6,000 CSAs in the US, possibly as many as 6,500. Meanwhile, the trend of growth continues onward and upward.

I arrived at this estimate after contacts with a range of knowledgeable sources, including Erin Barnett of LocalHarvest, CSA author Elizabeth Henderson, Professor Ryan Galt at UC-Davis, Jill Auburn, Senior Advisor for the USDA’s Ag Systems, and others. No one specifically cited the 6-6,500 number — but after considering all the expert input alongside my own observations, it’s a number that seems about right.

CSA farms and the networks they establish are in so many ways a positive, creative response to the swift and fundamental changes taking place in the world, in our food, and in the way the land is held and treated. CSAs are becoming a significant alternative to the industrial agrifood system. For many reasons, their steady proliferation over the last 26 years is noteworthy.

Alternative Visions

Back in 2006 I had an opportunity to speak at the Kettunen Center in Michigan at a conference marking the first 20 years of CSA in the US. As part of the talk I offered alternative visions of the next 20 years.

On the hopeful side it was possible to envision CSAs prospering in virtually every town and city: providing people with clean food, enabling dignified work for growers, building healthy community relationships, and establishing oases of environmental health.

On the shadow side it was possible to envision a totalitarian ordering and tightening coming about in all sorts of systems. Clean food and direct farmer-household connections might well be encumbered with harsh, unreasonable rules, requirements and regulations, and thereby quietly, steadily marginalized. I could picture a time when industrial processed food was the only “officially safe and allowable” option, and the good food movement had been demonized, strangled and driven underground.

Back in 2006, even I had to wonder whether I wasn’t stretching my nightmare vision a bit too far into the realm of paranoid hyperbole. But now in 2012, in the light of ongoing trends and events, it no longer seems so far-fetched.

Within this context, one of the many intriguing aspects of CSA came home to me again when I reflected on a passage from Chapter 13 of Michael Pollan’s, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He notes therein that the Soviet state foundered on the issue of food. The government sacrificed millions of small farms and farmers to the dream of a vast system of collectivized industrial agriculture. But the state’s imperious industrial ag plans soured and foundered.

“By the time of its collapse,” Pollan wrote, “more than half of the food consumed in the Soviet Union was being produced by small farmers and home gardeners operating without official sanction, on private plots…”

He goes on to report what he heard while interviewing American farmer George Naylor: “…during our conversations about industrial agriculture, he [Naylor] likened the rise of alternative food chains in America to ‘the last days of Soviet agriculture.’ The centralized food system wasn’t serving the people’s needs, so they went around it. The rise of farmer’s markets and CSA is sending the same signal today.”

CSA Waves

An estimated 60 CSAs had come into being in the USA by 1990. That’s the year the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association (BDA) published the first book on the subject, Farms of Tomorrow: Community Supported Farms, Farm Supported Communities by Trauger Groh and me. The activity of the BDA, the book, and the advocacy of Robyn Van En, helped spur growth through the 1990s so that by the year 2000 the number of CSA in the US was perhaps 1,000.

In the latter part of the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, the impetus from the developing local food movement and from economic uncertainties helped grow the number of CSAs. Two other factors played an important role: the publication of Sharing the Harvest in 1998, and the establishment of LocalHarvest.com, a website hub for local food.

Sharing the Harvest: A Guide to Community Supported Agriculture by Elizabeth Henderson and Robyn Van En brought the story of CSA to a diverse audience, and inspired many to take a step in a new direction economically, environmentally, and socially. The book was widely acclaimed and eventually translated into several languages, including Japanese and Chinese. For an increasing number of households, CSA was being recognized as an effective response to the globalization of the food supply.

Shortly thereafter the website LocalHarvest went online in 2000 and became a key resource for the buy local movement. The website is a searchable directory of CSAs, farmers markets, and other local food sources.

Eventually, in 2007 the federal government took a crack at a national count of CSAs through a question on the Agricultural Census. They came up with the number of 12,549. That stunned most observers. It was more than three times greater than anyone had imagined.

Ryan Galt, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Agricultural Sustainability and Society at UC-Davis, was among those surprised by the USDA estimate. He noted a wide discrepancy between CSA counts by LocalHarvest, the internet hub with the most comprehensive CSA listing (2,932 at the time) and the ag census number (12,549). He set out to study the matter using a critical cartography/GIS approach and multiple CSA data sets.

His research in this and related matters led to a couple of well researched and highly informative papers on CSA. Galt observed that significant overcounting of CSAs by the 2007 ag census likely occurred because of ambiguity in the relevant question. The ag census, as read by many, seemed to be asking how many farms are, to one extent or another, involved with CSA, rather than how many farms are in fact actual CSAs.

After applying his analytical tools, Galt arrived at an estimate of 3,637 CSAs nationally for the year 2009. While he reckoned that this was a more reliable estimate than the census data, he noted that his number was based on extrapolating from California to the nation. This could be problematic, he cautions readers, because of differences in land rent, structure, political orientations, and other factors.

By now, of course it’s 2012, not 2009. By all accounts, CSA has continued to proliferate. The growth has been spurred by a deepening crisis of confidence in Big Ag, Big Food and Big Chem, by a sharper sense of economic and environmental uncertainty, and as always by ideals, including a deeply rooted desire to eat clean and healthy, and to do something positive for the earth.

According to director Erin Barnett, as of January 2012 LocalHarvest had 4,571 active CSAs listed in their directory. With ten years experience observing the scene, she estimates that the LocalHarvest listings include about 65-70% of all the CSAs in the US. She and her colleagues also feel that their directory’s growth rate over the years has tended to mirror the growth rate of CSAs in general.

If one accepts the 4,571 active listings on LocalHarvest as representing approximately 70% of the total number of CSAs, then it could be posited that there are, in fact, well over 6,500 active CSAs. But allowing for unknowable fudge factors, and because I prefer to choose an estimate on the conservative side, I am — till further informed — going with the 6-6,500 range.

 CSA Prospects

In his research papers Professor Galt writes convincingly that he sees the likelihood that CSA will continue to grow and develop. “Community supported agriculture (CSA) stands as an important social invention to address many of the problems of industrial agriculture,” he notes. He describes CSA is a bright spot in the current economy.

Jill Auburn, the former director of SARE, currently the USDA’s Senior Advisor for Ag Systems and Acting Director Office of the Chief Scientist, observes that in general CSAs are continuing to grow and develop. “I’ve not studied the numbers,” she said, “but looking through the lens of USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program, we see that local and regional markets overall are continuing to grow…We see lots of increasing interest.”

Author Elizabeth Henderson also sees growth, and not just in the US. In 2010 she gave a talk entitled “The World of CSA” at a conference held in Kobe, Japan. She said that what she sees globally is that in some countries CSA is catching on at breathtaking rate. She notes that CSA has found acceptance in Canada, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Italy, England, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, and China. She also noted that in Japan, CSA (Teikei) has become a mature movement with millions of members.

The conference Henderson spoke at was organized by URGENCI, an international network of participants focused on community supported agriculture. They provide informational resources for CSA initiatives worldwide with the intention of contributing to the food sovereignty movement. Henderson notes that URGENCI has brought CSA to Eastern Europe and North Africa, notably Mali and Morocco.

“For whatever reason,” LocalHarvest’s Erin Barnett told me, “whether it’s the economy or the availability of oil, how crops are grown and where, or whatever, 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.”

In the overall context of 2012, of the burgeoning Occupy movement, and of the ongoing emergence of CSA, some words that Trauger Groh and I wrote in Farms of Tomorrow back in 1990 still resonate. “CSA is not just another clever, new approach to marketing for farmers,” we wrote. “Rather, community farming is about the necessary renewal of agriculture through its healthy linkage with the human community that depends upon farming for survival. From experience we also see the potential of community farming as the basis for a renewal of the human relationship with the earth.”


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