Community Supported Agriculture: A (Brief) History Lesson

The concept of eating fresh food grown locally and without toxic chemicals has become ubiquitous these days in America. Most people still go for bottom dollar mass produced, subsidized, processed food, also known as edible “food-like” substances, but trends tell us that the phenomenon of healthy eating is on the rise. What do we think about this? Is it a good thing? Should we care how our food is grown and where it comes from? What is so-called “healthy eating” anyway? I get all my major food groups from my Taco Bell don’t I? – veggies, meat, and dairy all wrapped in a whole grain shell!

Enter Community Supported Agriculture (CSA); without getting into the crockpot of industrialized agriculture, genetic modification, and food-policy economics, I want to talk about a good thing that started back in the ‘60s. No, I’m not talking about Spacewar!, as great as the dawn of digital computer gaming must have been. I’m talking about the CSA farming model. As legend would have it, some folks in Germany, Switzerland, and Japan were concerned about the state of agriculture. In the 1960s groups of consumers and farmers in Europe “formed cooperative partnerships to fund farming and pay the full costs of ecologically sound and socially equitable agriculture” (NewFarm). Many of the pioneers in Europe had been inspired by the biodynamic agriculture tradition inspired by Rudolf Steiner’s in the early 1920’s. In 1965 mothers in Japan who were “concerned about the rise of imported food, the loss of arable land, and the migration of farmers into citiesstarted the first CSA projects called Teikei in Japan – most likely unrelated to the developments in Europe” (NewFarm). These progressive ideas are growing more and more popular in the U.S. now since we’ve entered the 21st century. Thankfully it didn’t take more than half a century for this good idea to catch hold in the American consciousness….

Fast-forward now to American circa 2007: “Data collected…by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that 12,549 farms in the United States reported marketing products through a community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangement” (USDA). Considering the first CSA’s as we know them today started in the mid 1980’s in America, that number rose to around 2,000 CSA farms by the turn of the century. That’s an increase of over 10,000 in less than a decade! (Note: The numbers above could be somewhat misleading; the Local Harvest organization has one of most robust directories of CSA farms and lists around 4,000. Of the 12,000+ farms having reported “marketing products through a (CSA) arrangement” not all may be full-on CSA farms. Additionally, not all CSA farms are registered with the Local Harvest organization. The USDA does not keep track of CSA farm numbers). Nonetheless, I bet you want to know how a CSA works and why it is such a good thing!

CSA shareholders or members pay for a “share” of the farm, which is used to pay salaries and overhead for operating the farm that season. In return, each member receives a weekly box of uber-fresh (usually organic) locally grown produce throughout the growing season, which generally ranges between 20-25 weeks. Typically the share is paid for at the beginning of the season, but some CSAs may offer alternative payment plans and work shares. (Unofficial statistic: price range roughly averages between $300-$600). Milk, meat, cheese, herbs and other value added products may be more of a focal point of the CSA than vegetables depending on the nature of the farm. There is often more involved in a CSA farm operation than in the conventional model of industrialized or monoculture farming, and slight variations in the CSA model are based on local diversity. Look for more juicy details about CSA farming to be revealed in a future blog post entitled: Community Supported Ariculture, The Juicy Details.

An example of what you might find in your region

In a nutshell, the CSA model is a way to increase local and regional food security. It empowers farmers to diversify their operation and encourages organic and environmentally sound practices. Shared membership reduces stress on the farmer and mitigates the disaster of a bad crop yield, ensuring the farmer an income for the year. The majority of CSA farms are considered “small farms” of less than 20 acres, and thus supports the rise of small farmers in a given region. In terms of the environmental impact, the minimal transportation required to transport food locally is a significant reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. CSA shares are comprised mainly of seasonally available goods and educates members about the nature of the place where they live. With more people supporting the growth of local farming we are conserving fertile land from pavement, and voting with our dollars to flood our communities with fresh, healthy food!

“One critical goal of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement is to sustain farm families economically.”

Sources:

New Farm: http://newfarm.rodaleinstitute.org/features/0104/csa-history/part1.shtml

USDA: (http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/csa/csa.shtml)

Organic Eating is On the Rise: http://www.organicnewsroom.com/2011/11/seventyeight_percent_of_us_fam.html

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