Thursday, February 5, 2009

Are all CSAs the same?

I thought I would take a minute to comment on all the “CSA”s which are springing up in our region. For those who don’t know CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Starting in Japan in the 1980s it was a way of connecting consumers in a city to farmers. The benefit to the farmer is that they receive 100% of the food dollar (no middleman) and the consumer commits to the farm at the beginning of the season. The benefit to the consumer is that they have a personal relationship with the person who grows their food, and know where & how it is produced. They are guaranteed a share of the harvest throughout the season, sharing both the risk of farming and the bounty in good years. Together the farmer and the CSA members start to form a community, around food, which is traditionally how most communities were organized.

Now however, at least in our region, we are seeing a new phenomena, it started a couple years ago and is beginning to increase. We are seeing “CSA”s start with no farmer directly involved. It seems to me that people see the possible profit margins in selling direct to the consumer but do not want to actually do the work of being a farmer.

More “Subscription” services then CSAs they purchase food from multiple farms or ,as often as not, from food auctions. Often the primary reason they select one supplier over another is cost.
While I understand that our region is woefully short of true CSA spots, with just about every farm based CSA having a waiting list of some size by the first of the year it does frustrate me that these box schemes are selling themselves as CSAs. To me a CSA is a unique and special relationship between farms and their members. I would ask any person who is considering joining a CSA to ask themselves and their CSA some basic questions.

-Is there a farmer directly involved? Do I know him or her, get to meet them, have an opportunity to visit the farm (even if weekly pickup is elsewhere?)
-Is one of my reasons for joining a CSA to directly support the farm and support small scale local agriculture in my region?
If so, would a farmer’s market be better for my needs.

- Is natural or organic important to you? How committed is your grower to those principles?

I would ask my CSA
· Who grows the food?
· If the answer is not “ME!” then ask “Can I have names for all your growers?”
o If they do not know that may mean they will get whatever is least expensive when the time comes.
· What percentage comes directly farms from and what percentage from elsewhere, like produce auctions?
o Sometimes a small percentage comes from farm or gardens and a majority purchased in bulk.
· How is the food produced?
o If it is important to you is it organic or naturally grown?
· If “naturally” how do I know that if I cannot talk to the farmer?
o Note that neither “Amish” or “Small” means natural or sustainable.
· What percentage of my payment pays administrative costs, salaries, and profit compared to what goes to the farmer?

I would also look around and do a “gut check” How much land would it take to support a CSA as large as they have. Could you support hundreds of families off 2 acres? Probably not. The average is somewhere between 20-40 families per acre, an acre is about 210 feet by 210 feet.

There are other equally important questions, but these are a start… I fear that if none farm “CSAs” continue to expand “real” CSAs will begin to disappear. I have heard people say that farmers should be able to grow and not spend time marketing, but of a food dollar less than 20 cents goes to the farmer, the balance to the marketers and distributors, of various kinds. By getting all of the food dollar small farmers have a chance of making a real go at it… Otherwise…

If what you want are veggies, then any “CSA” might be right for you. But if you want more than that, be careful that you know what you are joining. Know your farmer, Know your food.


Karen said...

Makes me appreciate what you do even more! Exciting about the new season to come.

See you in the spring!

Daniel Greenfield said...

I could not agree with you more.

Lisa said...

I just passed a link of this post to a friend in New England who is deciding between CSAs. Thanks.