Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Searching for alternatives, part I

In the coming weeks I will post a few "case studies" of good initiatives in food and farming. They are things I encounter in my work of writing a new book. First to go is Community Supported Agriculture. 

A Community Supported Agriculture project is based on direct person-to-person contact and trust, with no intermediaries or hierarchy. They are usually formalized with a contract between each consumer and the producer, and characterized by a mutual commitment to supply one another with money and food. CSAs share both the risks and the benefits of an healthy production that is adapted to the natural rhythm of the seasons and is respectful of the environment, natural and cultural heritage and health.  Paying a sufficient fair price enable farmers and their families to maintain their farms and live in a dignified manner.

In Europe there are some 4,000 farms and 400,000 consumers engaged in CSAs. Notably they vary much in style or size and to which extent they are activist or mainly a way to organize the food supply. Some are farmer driven, some consumer driven and others are organized as cooperatives. The first CSA in Europe, Les Jardins de Cocagne, started near Geneva in 1978. Community supported agriculture is even older in Japan, where it is called Tekei, which means “co-partnership”. The Japan Organic Agriculture Association was founded 1971 with consumers, farmers, scholars, public servants and cooperative workers in order to promote teikei system. “Under the tekei system, relationships are face-to-face, as all products are distributed directly from producers to consumers. There is no middleman or costly inspection bodies”[iii]

The term community supported agriculture was coined by Robyn Van En in 1985, when she inspired by the Swiss, together with a group of like-minded producers and consumers initiated a project at her Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts. They started with a small apple orchard. Within four years, the farm’s original membership of 30 shares[1] expanded to 150. As word spread about the success of this new concept, Robyn quickly went from being a market gardener to the leader of the CSA movement. Across the country, she helped to establish more than 200 CSA’s[iv].

Another CSA pioneer and advocate[2] is Elizabeth Henderson of Peacework in New York State. The CSA started as a combination of a desire to create new relationships with consumers and the direct need to sell products, it was simply too far to any market or outlets. Already at this time, 25 years ago, she could see the writing on the wall, how agro-business would twist the emerging organic market into its own interest. Stores who sold organic and claimed to support local foods bought from California if the lettuce was one cent cheaper. “It seemed to be really important to have a group of people who were loyal to our farm and interested in keeping it going, and once we started it turned out to be a lot more than that”. 

Every member contributes their share of labor at the farm and is never asked to do anything beyond their abilities. Peacework Farm grows 100 different vegetables and cover crops on approximately 20 acres and subleases the hayland to a local producer of beef and grass-fed bison. Over 95% of Peacework's produce is sold to CSA members. If and when there is extra, it is usually sold to a few local shops. The farm later became a limited liability company for the purpose of leasing the land from a land trust. This structure makes it possible for new people to join the farm partnership and old partners to leave or retire without interrupting the lease agreement. “The relationship to the land is that of stewardship, not ownership: this land will never be sold to finance the farmers' retirement, which has been the demise of so many family farms in the United States. Members run the organization so farmers can farm”[v]

Elizabeth, who now has retired and left the farm to younger partners Greg Palmer and Ammie Chickering, explains that the CSA is a separate legal entity from the farm so that the farm is not burdened with labor or other regulations for the members of the CSA. When members come to work at the farm, they are not employees of the farm; they pick the produce the CSA has contracted for with the farm. “Around 100 families have been with us for more than 10 years, and for them it is part of their way of life”, Elizabeth says. Then there is an equally big number of members that stay for a while, move on or shift to another CSA. While the CSA concept is still viable and has been successful it also comes with its own challenges. There are so many CSAs that they compete for members. The expectations from farmers and consumers have in many cases diminished and there are many other ways people can get local organic foods from farmers’ markets and other sources. In addition there are commercial middlemen, “aggregators”, which are not CSAs, but operate under that flag. But as Elizabeth points out, “if there is anything that distinguishes a CSA is that it is direct, there is no middle man”. Taken together this discourages farmers from “asking too much” from the members. 

“CSA is not going to feed everybody, but it is the only form of market relationship where consumers share risk with the farmers.” And farmers live under precarious conditions. She, like most farmers, “lived on poverty wages my whole life”. When the members of the CSA realized that she couldn’t afford health insurance, they voluntarily decided to increase their payments to the farm by $1 per week per share. CSA is as much about social justice as about organic farming and local marketing in Elizabeth’s view. As important as it is that the farmer has decent conditions it is also important that the CSAs are inclusive. There are CSAs that have special rates for low-income members and that accept food stamps, Peacework, for example, charges on a sliding scale and provides subsidies to low-income members. 

She notes a new interest in CSA the last six, seven years, and with the Occupy movement there is flush of new young people. “Every new young farmer wants to do a CSA”. When I ask Elizabeth about how CSAs, or the experiences of CSAs can be scaled up and reach also low-income people she tells about Corbin Hill Farm which is a network of farms in Schoharie County and urban communities in New York City. It has an educational farm that produces a small amount of fruits and vegetables and serves as a distribution centre to which the participating farmers bring their produce for further transport to sites in Harlem and the South Bronx. Shareholders (their term for members) pay in advance to receive their freshly harvested produce. Many of the members are from disadvantaged communities. While the level of direct engagement is not very big, members do make trips to the farm and when several farms were flooded, the members contributed financially to the farms, despite that many of the members are rather poor.

Over and above the direct purpose of CSA and the interaction between the farmers and their consumers (I note that Elisabeth still refers to them as consumers), there is a great value in the educational part of the CSA. ”There is a lot of money in the food system but consumer dollars are not shared out fairly among the people who do the hard work of growing, packing, delivering and processing food. US cheap food policies  create externalities – chemical residues in food that cause chronic illnesses, the pollution of soil, air and water, the erosion of soil -  that industrial agriculture avoids paying and leaves to the tax payer.  Many  CSA members understand this and can be a core group also to influence the mainstream food system”.
(Extract from my book The Global Eating Disorder - the cost of cheap food, forthcoming)

[1] CSAs often use the terms members, shareholders or subscribers to describe the participating consumers, or non farmers.

[2] Elisabeth has published a CSA cookbook as well as the book Sharing the harvest.

[iii] Teikei System in Japan, Shinji Hashimoto, http://blog.urgenci.net/?p=71m, accessed 1 december 2013.

[iv] Robyn Van En Biography. http://www.wilson.edu/about-wilson-college/fulton/robyn-van-en-center/robyn-van-en-biography/index.aspx

[v] peacework web site, http://www.gvocsa.org/About-Peacework.aspx#History accessed 2 December 2013

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