The good diversity in CSA

January 31, 2011

Community supported agriculture (CSA) started with a revolutionary idea and a couple of farms in 1986. To its founders, the CSA concept was about much more than marketing. They wanted to transform relationships between producers and consumers, to forge spiritual connections between people and the land and farmers that sustain them. Since its birth more than two decades ago, CSA has grown dramatically, taking root in different forms all over the country. Some of these different forms require little member participation, source food from other regions, or involve large-scale farms. CSA advocates are beginning to ask “When is CSA not CSA anymore?”  and “Is it important to be exclusive?” I will argue that the flexibility of CSA is its strong suit. Drawing a line is no way to produce sustainable food that meets the diverse needs of people. Instead, being open and adaptive will make CSA sustainable in the long run.

Enterprise Farm has a unique take on CSA. In the summer they distribute all local produce grown on the farm. In the winter, they work with small-scale sustainable farmers all down the Eastern seaboard to provide their members with a diverse diet (including greens, tomatoes, citrus, avocado, and value added items along with stored local produce and greenhouse crops).  This regional food shed approach has its advantages. The share supplies a rounded winter diet — shareholders probably buy less outside of the share than other winter CSA members, who almost certainly get produce from California when they do. The Enterprise share also supports a handful of growers using ecologically sound growing practices.

Not so ecological, however is the transportation required to bring food up from Florida and the Carolinas.  But to turn down Enterprise only for this reason is to not analyze it critically. As I said before, we must ask “What percentage of a shareholder’s diet is supplied by a 100% local, winter CSA?”* It is possible that shareholders of this type of CSA accumulate more food miles than an Enterprise member, depending on the diversity and size of their share.
*We should also ask this question about Enterprise!

Another disadvantage to the Enterprise or similar shares is the increased social distance between shareholders and farmers. This is a real concern. Isn’t CSA supposed to be about a direct relationship? Yes, and I don’t think directness is sacrificed in the Enterprise model. First, community formation happens on many levels, not just the face-to-face.  In this age it is silly to deny that genuine social interactions can emerge from e-mail, surveys, CSA newsletters, and websites. Secondly, the directness is in the economics. Enterprise members are directly supporting all of the farms that participate in the share, giving them capital before the season starts. If any, this is the distinction that should hold in CSA: the risks of the farm must be shared.

Lastly, it is absurd to suggest that everyone will invest in a local-only winter CSA. Is it not better to have a sustainable, regional CSA meet the demand of those not willing, instead of forcing them to buy produce all the way from California, or further?

Moving on to the hypothesis that long-term sustainability can emerge from openness and adaptation,  I turn to the concept of organic. Much like CSA, organic started as a spiritual, all-encompassing ideal of ecological farming. When its definition was made rigid by the USDA, the focus shifted from farming methods to product differentiation in the marketplace. What is important is that producers and consumers engage in a conversation and come to terms over appropriate growing and marketing techniques. What is not important is the label on the food.  What matters is what CSA means to you and your farmer, not what it means for a shareholder at any other CSA.  Support whichever interpretation fits your needs, aligns with your values, and builds the community in which you want to participate.

Find out which farm is best for you this Thursday at theMOVE’s Farm Share Fair, where over a dozen  CSA farms will be talking about their food and their values:

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One Response to “The good diversity in CSA”

  1. Alex said

    Great post. Having just moved to CA, I’m really getting to see how diverse CSAs can be! It’s really great to see farms trying to diversify and offer a variety of ways for their community to be involved with their farms and to get great, organic, local produce. For example, one CSA here allows you to chose your produce and will deliver to your door. Another, allows to sign-up for a trial, but you must visit one of their roughly 20 drop-off locations. I just signed up for a trial organic CSA with Whole Farms (www.wholefarmsonline.org). They even have a market, cafe, and partnerships with other local farmers.

    Thanks for posting Sig!

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