Eating for Your Community

A report from the founder of community supported agriculture

One of the articles in A Good Harvest (IC#42)
Originally published in Fall 1995 on page 29
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

The origin of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) concept, the partnership between consumers and farmers, can be traced to Japan in the mid-1960s. Homemakers began noticing an increase in imported foods, the consistent loss of farmland to development, and the migration of farmers to the cities.

In 1965, a group of women approached a local farm family with an idea to address these issues and provide their families with fresh fruits and vegetables. The farmers agreed to provide produce if multiple families made a commitment to support the farm. A contract was drawn and the "teikei" concept was born, which translated literally means partnership, but philosophically means "food with the farmer’s face on it." Clubs operating under the teikei concept in Japan today serve thousands of people sharing the harvest of hundreds of farmers.

The First CSA

This innovative idea did not come to the US until the mid-1980s. At that time, I was in my second season as owner of Indian Line Farm. Many small farmers across the country were struggling with the financial realities of market gardening. Several of us, with the CSA concept at the tip of our thinking, had no real model to crystallize the thought. "Subscription farming" – paying on a weekly/monthly basis – existed and experienced significant support and proliferation through Booker T. Whatley’s book, How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres (Rodale, 1987). However, it did not address limited financial resources at the beginning of the growing season or the question of community support.

Then, in summer of 1985, Jan Van Tuin came to Indian Line Farm fresh with the experience of helping organize a Swiss version of the Japanese Teikei clubs. He and I talked briefly and decided that the Swiss experience was perfect to apply at Indian Line Farm. We attracted a core group of organizers and after many long discussions, dubbed the proposed endeavor "Community Supported Agriculture," and introduced the concept to the Great Barrington community that Fall. We offered shares of some of the local apple harvest, and members received storage apples and jugs of cider each week. Most of the families from the apple project bought shares in the vegetable harvest for the following season.

Today, there are at least 500 active examples of this original US initiative throughout North America. Each year, the number of CSA farms and participating members increases dramatically. Though there are variations on the basic theme, most successful CSA projects begin with a central group of consumers and producers who draw up a budget which reflects yearly production costs.

The budget includes all salaries of the farmer/gardener, distribution and administration costs, plus costs of seeds, soil amendments, small equipment, etc. The resulting figure is divided by the number of shares that the farm/garden site can produce for; this determines the costs of a "share" of the harvest. A share is designed to feed 2-4 people with a mixed diet or 1-2 vegetarians by providing all of their vegetable needs for one week. Larger households and restaurants buy multiple shares. The consumer group of sharers agree to pay their share of production costs and also share the financial risk with the producers. In return, the sharers receive a bag of local, same-day-fresh, typically organic vegetables and herbs once a week all summer, and once a month all winter (East of the Rockies), if a root cellar or cold storage unit is available. Projects typically provide at least 40 different crops, and Indian Line Farm was able to feed 300 people 43 weeks of the year from five acres of land.

Incentive to Farm

We are still in the pioneer stage of introducing and adapting CSA to North America – home to the cheapest food in the world. Few CSA farmers are turning a profit, but they are covering all or most of their production costs, including a guaranteed salary. As our video states, "It’s not just about vegetables;" most CSA growers are in it for the long haul. The evolving community relationship of CSA actually gives incentive and means to continue farming or to enter the field (no pun intended), with the highest standard of land stewardship practices.

The CSA system also gives farmers financial credibility; I know that the CSA guaranteed income helped me get my farm mortgage. When lenders see that people are willing to take this risk with farmers, they begin to take more risks and try alternatives.

The annual commitment and relationship with the members also affects our ability to cope with unexpected setbacks. After a rainstorm dumped eight inches of rain in three hours, the winter baking squash had to be picked prematurely. Everybody froze, dried, and ate as much as they could, but it was basically a $35 loss to each share. That would have been a $3500 loss to an individual farmer.

People usually join a CSA project for fresh, ripe, and local foods (most store-bought vegetables are picked green and ripen in transit to the store shelf). With access to a farm, many are dazzled by the bounty and wonders of nature. I love to see grown people awed by the delicate beauty of a carrot seedling. People start eating vegetables they never liked before because they had never tasted them vine-ripened and chemical-free.

CSA members are supporting a regional food system, securing the agricultural integrity of their region, and participating in a community-building experience by getting to know their neighbors and who grows their food.

CSA also helps bridge socio-economic gaps. Intelligence and knowing you like good, fresh food has nothing to do with money, status, or where you live. Members range from people who use food stamps to those who pay extra to have their vegetables delivered. Together they guarantee that local farmers survive and ensure that their children and grandchildren can eat from the same farm.

Community Supported Auto Mechanics

Because the CSA concept is about building community, the logical evolution is to community support of almost any cottage industry. Members would pay for a tune-up and oil change at the beginning of the year. This "cash advance" allows the mechanic to pay for the new lift they otherwise wouldn’t have money to buy. This kind of community trust-building takes relationships to a whole new level. That’s why agribusinesses will not be able to co-opt the CSA concept. They just can’t put the heartbeat into it.

One of the most exciting outgrowths of the CSA movement has been the formation of CSA coalitions – where farmers get together to share growing techniques, crops, and equipment. Because of their guaranteed incomes, CSA farmers are immune to the "bigger is better," "mine is better" syndrome and are instead focused on finding new ways to cooperate with their neighbors and with Mother Nature.

CSA is also a vehicle for transition away from using chemical fertilizers. The opportunity for education and dialogue CSA creates between food producers and food eaters creates options toward low/no chemical input. Money out-front allows farmers to do the best job they can by the way of the land, the customer, and themselves.

As we go full circle, I have had the pleasure of co-hosting a group of Japanese teikei organizers and of networking with Swiss visitors, sharing with them information on CSA projects in their own countries. I routinely get requests for my publication, A Basic Formula to Create Community Supported Agriculture, from some 25 other countries around the world. Same solutions, one world.

Robyn Van En, co-founded CSA in the US in 1985. She is the director of CSA North America. For CSA contacts, please refer to the Resource section in this issue.

CSA Roots in Japan

by Brewster Kneen

The CSA movement is inspired by Japan’s teikei concept, which is embodied in the dynamic Seikatsu Club. The 30-year-old Seikatsu Club in Kanagawa Prefecture has 50,000 members organized into 11 blocks. Members buy their food directly from the farmers in the region at a cost of 34,000 yen ($40) per month per family. (See IC #36 for more on the Seikatsu Club.) The average member gets 60 percent of their food from the Seikatsu Club. Each block is governed by its own board and steering committee.

Building on this foundation, club members are now doing educational and political work. They have elected women to 34 positions on various council bodies in the prefecture. Success at a local level has prompted them to begin planning a new national community political party.

The Seikatsu Clubs, which can be found all over Japan and involve millions of people, are the successors of traditional consumer cooperatives that try to improve on, but not fundamentally challenge, the market principle.

Parallell with the transition from traditional co-ops to Seikatsu Clubs, was the development of the modern organic agriculture movement, which soon adopted the clubs’ guiding concept of teikei.

The Japan Organic Agriculture Association (JOAA) has made it a priority to establish the teikei system between producers and consumers. Teikei is an idea to create an alternative distribution system, independent of the conventional market. Though the forms of teikei vary, it is basically a direct distribution system. To carry it out, producers and consumers work to deepen their mutual understanding: both provide labor and capital to support their own growing, processing, and delivery system. They recognize that with the conventional market, where producers and consumers are completely separate, the sustainability of organic agriculture management is uncertain. JOAA summarizes its approach:

(1) chemical hazards are not merely a matter of techniques, but a symbol of the total malfunction of distribution systems, consumption structures, and agricultural policies; 2) the swollen commercialistic market and food industry intercept the communication between producers and consumers, eventually misleading both of them; (3) therefore consumers are also responsible for this vicious cycle, even if they are unaware of it; (4) in order to correct it, producers and consumers should build an organically combined relationship between themselves and be involved in understanding and helping each other. This is what we have always emphasized in directing our movement.

Brewster Kneen is editor and publisher of The Ram’s Horn, a newsletter of food system analysis. For information, write: Box 3028, Mission, BC Canada, V2V 4J3.

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