Community Supported Agriculture projects ensure income for farmers and a healthy supply of fresh, robust, locally grown food – at reasonable cost – for their members. These subscription garden projects are a growing international movement that is recovering a lost tradition of relationship between those who work the land and the rest of us who depend on the products of their skill. This arrangement fosters respect and caring for agriculture and agricultural land, and provides participants a new sense of connectedness to the land that nourishes them and their families.
The principle behind CSA is simple – share the risks as well as the bounty. In a CSA garden, shareholders pay for their portion of the harvest before most of the seeds are even planted, and the farmer is able to count on a salary.
This is how it works: project organizers draw up a garden budget. Probable yield for the site is estimated; the costs for seed, supplies, and other expenses, including a fair living wage for the farmer, are figured. Then the number of shares to be sold, at a price to meet the budget needs, is calculated.
Shares are marketed by prospectus, to inform potential members of the crops planned and the expected time of harvest for each. Local variations are significant, of course, but a typical garden may distribute fresh organically grown produce to its supporters once a week from May to October, and root crops once a month November to March. For an average project, one share can provide about half the weekly food requirements for a family of four, eating a basically vegetarian diet, at a cost of about $350.
The CSA movement was born in Europe and Japan about twenty-five years ago. Original organizers were mothers responsible for feeding families. It was they who first sought out growers committed to ecologically sound practices and proposed a plan that became Community Supported Agriculture.
The movement got going in the United States when Robyn Van En, an organic market gardener in the Berkshire Region of Massachusetts met Jan Vander Tuin, an American farmer who had spent three years in Europe studying CSA. They began the first CSA project in America at Robyn’s Indian Line Farm in 1986. They modeled it after Topinambur, a project Jan had helped found in Zurich, Switzerland, that produces vegetables for about 400 people and milk and eggs for about 600.
Now, six years later, Van En has organized Community Supported Agriculture of North America (CSANA), which is an educational non-profit clearinghouse to help support the exploding interest in CSA. There are now over 200 projects in the US and hundreds more around the world. They come in a range of sizes: from the largest, in Japan, which employs four farmers and feeds a thousand families; to the smallest, in Pennsylvania, managed by one person and a rototiller, providing for twelve families on a half-acre plot.
Though there are bound to be challenges when starting up a new project, marketing the shares has generally been easy. Sometimes organic markets, food co-ops and restaurants buy shares. Local businesses or Chambers of Commerce may support a project by purchasing shares for a local food bank. For many CSA projects, expansion beyond their own garden comes naturally. Often other local farmers are drawn into the network to provide meat, poultry, eggs, or dairy products.
Producers and consumers both have found that CSA provides the best of both worlds – inexpensive, high quality food, locally grown, without unsustainable social and environmental costs. The list of benefits seems endless. While 25% of food produced in America never makes it to a consumer, there is no spoilage in CSA. Packaging is virtually eliminated, and distribution costs are kept to a minimum. Growers are freed from monocrop farming. Perhaps best of all, it is fun! Sharing common concerns for good food, sensible land stewardship and social justice brings people together from all ages and walks of life.
CSANA has produced a handbook, Basic Formula to Create Community Supported Agriculture, with pointers to help fledgling projects get off the ground. Taking examples and case stories from successful gardens, it offers tips on planning, distribution, and marketing, and is available, for $10, from CSANA, Indian Line Farm, RR 3, Box 85, Great Barrington, MA 01230.