June 13, 2010
Ever since starting The Veg Table, I have been non-stop thinking, dreaming and talking about food, not to mention eating it. The more I’ve thought about it, the more committed to changing our food system I have become. Already, many hopeful and exciting ideas have surfaced; it seems the food movement is gaining steam. However, and as Ben Hewitt (blog post book review) suggests, we must be critical thinkers and really work to understand how our food system can be transformed. One concept that is gaining popularity across the country is Community Supported Agriculture.
Community Supported Agriculture is a direct marketing relationship between small-scale sustainable farmers and consumers, known as shareholders. Shareholders put down a lump sum of money before the season starts and receive a weekly box of vegetables throughout the harvest months.
CSA has emerged as one of the prominent models of local food distribution, but it can’t work for the nation if it isn’t economically sustainable. This summer I will be doing a comparative ethnographic study of three CSA farms: How do these farms manage economics with their shareholders? Who, really, supports Community Supported Agriculture and how do those people conceive of their support?
I took my first research trip to Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook, NY at the beginning of the month. Mostly, I did what is called participant-observation research. This means I worked on the farm, participated in what the farmers were doing, jotted ideas (very dirty notebook) and typed up field notes of detailed observations. I had the chance to speak with all of the workers, a shareholder who is very involved with the economics of the farm, and the farm owners. These people are truly committed to sustainable agriculture and just economics. Roxbury Farm has 1,100 shareholders (one of the biggest CSA farms in the nation) and is the only CSA of the three in my study that is economically self-sufficient. I had a lot of questions going into the week and came out with 23 pages of typed field notes! I’ll just share a couple interesting high points with you now and will be sure to post more cohesive thoughts later.
One of the best parts of the week was getting to know Jean-Paul Courtens, the founder of Roxbury Farm, and his economic principles. He has a very different outlook on economic decisions than most business owners do. He argues that not all investments need to have money returns.
An investment can improve the working environment, make a dreaded job easier, or increase safety for employees–great returns that might be ignored by someone trying only to maximize profit. Jean-Paul invested in special tractor attachments that improve operator safety and a high-tech bin washer, expensive items that he says are worth it. Jean-Paul has let down his self-interest in order to improve the work of his employees. This idea is also extended to his shareholders. Instead of making as much money as he can, he engages in a conversation with his shareholders about the price of a share. This is not a market idea. However, it seems to be working; the CSA has been active for over two decades. After all, it is not surprising that employees who are treated well work hard. Nor is it hard to believe that a person who feels a part of the farm’s decisions will sign on for another season.
The share holder I met is actually writing a book about CSA and conducted a member survey for Roxbury Farm. We spoke about an alternative model of supply and demand that he proposed for CSA. His main argument is that the demand for CSA changes depending on how long you are a shareholder. The more seasons go by the more you get to learn about the farm, visit it, work on it and connect with it. This growing appreciation of the CSA makes you proud to be a member. The more you want to be a member, the higher the demand for CSA and the less you come to care about the price of the share. Shirey elaborated that the great thing about CSA is that you can sign on only for the reason that it is a good deal, thinking of it simply as an economic transaction. This is good for you and for the farmer. But unlike other economic transactions, you have the opportunity to get more involved, develop a loyalty, and be truly invested in the model. Once people come to see CSA as an alternative to the destructive industrial food economy, they feel part of something good (and they are!) and continue buying a share.
It seems that people involved with CSA at Roxbury Farm are thinking about economics in a much different way than folks in the industrial system. There are certainly some challenges to this new type of economics but it is promising that Roxbury is thinking about worker safety and happiness, the satisfaction and support of their customers, and the health of the land.