In the 30th anniversary year of Community Supported Agriculture, Elizabeth Henderson of Peacework Organic CSA in Wayne County, NY, and other long-time CSA farmers decided to draw up a charter to provide a definition of Community Supported Agriculture.
“CSA was an idea for a brand new connection,” Henderson explained to a small group of CSA farmers at the Northeast Organic Farming Association – New Jersey Winter Conference. Farmers always sold directly to consumers, at farm stands or from the back of their trucks. This is always a good deal for the farmers, Henderson said, because there is no middleman.
But the CSA took the concept one step farther, she noted, by having the customers buy a share in the farm upfront. In a CSA, the customers and farmer share the risk of a bad season.
One of the first CSAs was the Temple Wilton Community Farm in upstate New York. Anthony Graham, one of the founders said he saw it as the antidote to the industrial food system, an extremely flexible concept.
The model for pre-payment came from farms in Germany and Switzerland. Temple-Wilton goes farthest with this model by holding a meeting with all shareholders each year. The farmer presents the budget and each member places a bid based on how much he or she can pay. Another CSA, with 950 members, has 50 who participate in the harvest, Henderson noted.
Many farms are still in debt, Henderson said, with one person working off the farm for benefits or extra income.
Henderson presented information about the history of CSAs. Peacework was one of the first three CSAs in New York. Now more than 400 strong, they serve about 30,000 households. “There are CSAs on every continent except Antarctica,” she said, naming some of the countries that support them: Thailand, Israel, Morocco.
While CSAs have shared values, they have no consistent rules. “No two are alike which is a positive value,” Henderson said. Nearly all call themselves “sustainable” and about one-third are certified organic, she said, adding most of the others are moving toward organic. While the public’s perception of CSAs usually is of a vegetable farm, some sell alpaca fiber, meats, fish or goat’s milk and cheese. Many are sponsored by organizations: urban gardens, churches, schools, summer camps.
According to Graham, there are 7,300 CSAs across the United States and many in Canada.
“The term ‘model CSA’ is kind of misleading because no two are alike,” Henderson said.
All of these differences are reasons Henderson and other early CSA devotees believe a charter is necessary for CSAs in both nations.
Another reason the charter is needed now is that even with their popularity, Henderson said, the CSAs in the most advantageous locations get only about 10 percent of the market. In fact, the popularity may be waning. CSA managers who maintained waiting lists only a few years ago are now looking for new members. Some of the reasons for this are that people are eating out up to half of the time and that industrialized agriculture promises safe food for everyone. However, Henderson said, “the collateral damage of industrial food is contamination. Nobody knows how much of the current health crisis comes from industrial farming. CSAs are a solution to a lot of this problem.”
There are 12 points on the sample charter presented by Henderson. She is taking it to conferences in many states and provinces, getting input from CSA operators:
- Farm members buy directly from the farm or group of farms;
- The farm provides member families with high-quality, healthy, nutrient-dense, fresh and preserved, local and low fossil-fuel food or fiber, filling the share primarily with product grown on the farm or, if purchased from other farms, clearly identified as to origin;
- Farm members commit to the CSA, sharing the risks and rewards of farming by signing an agreement with the CSA and paying some part in advance;
- The farm nurtures biodiversity through healthy production that is adapted to the rhythm of the seasons and is respectful of the natural environment, of cultural heritage, and that builds healthy soils, restores soil carbon, conserves water and minimized pollution of soil, air and water.
- Farmers and members commit to good faith efforts for continuous development of mutual trust and understanding, and to solidarity and responsibility for one another as co-producers;
- Farm members respect the connection with the land upon which the CSA grows their food and strive to learn more and to understand the nature of growing food in their locale.
- Farmers practice safe-handling procedures to ensure that the produce is safe to eat and at its freshest, tastiest and most nutritious.
- CSA prices reflect a fair balance between the farmers’ needs to cover costs of production and pay living wages to themselves and all farm workers so that they can live in a dignified manner, and members’ needs for food that is accessible and affordable.
- Farmers consult with members, take their preferences into account when deciding what crops to grow and communicate regularly about the realities of the farm.
- Farm members commit to cooperation with the community of members and to fulfill their commitments to the CSA.
- Farmers commit to using locally adapted seeds and breeds to the greatest extent possible.
- The CSA seeks paths to social inclusiveness to enable the less well-off to access high quality food and commits to growing the CSA movement through increasing the number of CSAs and collaboration among them.
Henderson said a purpose of the charter is for farmers to demonstrate CSAs differ from aggregators. She said one goal of her group is to get the USDA to allow people to use food stamps at CSAs.
Whether or not a charter is adopted by farmers and shareholders, CSAs must meet the challenge of keeping members once they have joined, Henderson said.
“People who like to plan have trouble,” Henderson said. The vagaries of the harvest have an impact on the amount of each vegetable available and the exact time they will be ready. Henderson emphasized sometimes CSAs can offer more choices and they can always offer reliable high-quality food and a good selection of it. They can also keep careful records.
“It helps to have excellent communication,” she said, explaining shareholders are not upset at a reduced share caused by some natural disaster or weather problem as long as they know in advance that could happen.
Henderson pointed out there is a handbook on creating CSAs. One of the tips is on how to create a core group that will keep the CSA going. “It encourages the farmer to identify the most enthusiastic customers as the core group,” she said. Some may be able to pay a volunteer coordinator to work with the group. The handbook also suggests including recipes with the order.
The Canadian government identified CSAs as a way of rural economic development. France limits the size of each operation. Henderson is not optimistic any of these foreign initiatives can be translated to the U.S.