A little more on Community Supported Agriculture

With all the talk lately about climate change, economic localization, and the transition to a post-oil world, local food is getting a lot of attention. Providing for our own food needs as locally as possible seems almost a no-brainer in our looming energy descent future, but the question of how we get there looms large in a lot of peoples’ minds. Farmers and eaters in small (and not-so-small) communities everywhere have created a model called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) that offers one way we can make it happen.  Here’s how it works:



Shared Risk, Shared Reward


In the Community Supported Agriculture model, folks sign up as members and commit to buying a share of the whole years’ harvest at the beginning of the season. This means that the farmer doesn’t have to go into debt to buy seeds and supplies, and can grow a greater variety of produce instead of needing to gamble on a few high-value items. This is the shared risk part; by lowering the farmers’ financial risk, members allow the farm to make choices about what to grow and how to grow it based on best practices for healthy farms and good produce, instead of based on cutting costs and what will fetch the highest price at market. It also means that members’ food dollars are going straight to the farmer, instead of to the distributors, processors, and retailers that all take their cut.


Each member receives an equal share of the harvest every week once crops start coming in, so when the farm does well because of the community’s support, everybody benefits. Members get to try a little of everything, and get a feel for what it means to eat by the seasons instead of by what gets shipped to the grocery store. This is the shared reward part; by helping the farm get going on solid financial footing, members allow the farmer to focus on farming — and this means that there’s more and better produce for everyone.


Food Is Not A Commodity


In our market dominated world, people have tried to treat food as just another commodity. But in the rush to produce more and more for cheaper and cheaper, farmers are often forced to make choices that are ecologically unsound or that lower the nutritional value and overall quality of their food in order to keep their heads above water financially. Many farmers get trapped in a debt cycle, borrowing what they need to start their season only to find they can’t turn a profit at the end of it because industrial farms that are corporately controlled and subsidized by governments push the prices that are paid for individual crops to artificially low levels. Local farms vanish, and communities lose in the end because industrial farming turns its ecological and social costs — things like air and water pollution, soil erosion, and poverty wages for farm workers — into what economists like to call “externalities,” factors that don’t get included in the accounting because they don’t show up in the prices that are paid for each individual commodity. This piecemeal model hides the true costs of industrial scale farming while making it nearly impossible for small, organic farms to stay alive.


But the truth is that food is not a commodity; we can’t live without it. The market-based approach to food only offers people the end result of the whole process of farming, instead of making the whole food system accountable to the community from the very beginning. It also puts a wall of distributors, processors, regulators and retailers beween people and their food, taking control of the social and ecological aspects of food production away from those who are affected by them.


Community Supported Agriculture offers a way out. When you join a CSA you are committing to build a relationship with your farmer by supporting the farm for the season, not buying individual food items separated from the system that produced them. The emphasis is on changing the focus from a commodity model (I value carrots) to an overall value model (I value carrots that are grown in a way that makes my whole community better), bringing the “externalities” back into the equation where they belong. By supporting the farm directly instead of buying food items one by one at market price, members are able to get a lot more for their food dollars in two ways. The first is that farmers have the resources at the beginning of the year to guarantee a successful season, so since each member gets an equal share of whatever is harvested, there’s more for everyone. The second is that the community’s guarantee of enough financial support to survive the season makes it possible for small independent farmers to simply keep on existing, which supports all the ecological and social goods that local farms bring to our community.



Healthy Communities Need Healthy Farms


A diverse and vibrant local food system is key to the ecological and economic health of our community, and to the health of everyone who eats. Food is at its most nutritious when it is organically grown and as fresh as possible. Local farms provide the healthiest, tastiest food for your and your family, food that is appropriate for our climate and seasons. Organic farms also provide vital ecological services for our community and beyond, by conserving and building healthy soil; by providing clean water and air; by protecting biodiversity and providing habitat. And just like any local business, when you support local farmers you are keeping your money in our community. In a CSA, members not only buy produce, but also cultivate a relationship with the farm that keeps the benefits of farming available to everyone. That’s the “Community” part of Community Supported Agriculture; getting us back into right relationship with our food, and with each other through our food. After all, the one thing that we all have in common is that everybody eats. And eating is such a fundamental part of our lives that I can’t help but think that if we can fix our relationship with our food, somehow fixing all the other things we have to fix in our world will become a whole lot easier.