Vol 2, Num 9 :: 2003.04.25 — 2003.05.08
What is CSA? How and where did it get started?
Community supported agriculture, or CSA, brings together the local community of eaters and the local farmer or market gardener. Instead of buying farm products that have traveled an average of 1,500 miles, CSA farms provide consumers a way to link up with local farms. With most CSA models, subscribers or shareholders pay in the winter for a "share" of the coming season's harvest. This advance payment helps the farmer meet early costs?seeds, maintenance, and fertilizers, during a time of traditional low income. In addition to sharing the harvest, members share some of the risk of growing. A hailstorm can prematurely turn cabbage into coleslaw.
The initiation and management of CSA farms vary greatly. Some are farmer-initiated and others are organized by community members concerned with their local food supply. Many CSA projects involve the members in most of the management decisions, distribution, publicity, farm budget, labor, while members in other CSA farms are content to receive their weekly fresh vegetables. The biggest CSA farms may have over 500 subscribers and the smallest may be a group of several friends gardening together. Either way, the "eaters" grow much closer to their source of food, and community can develop through parties and workdays in the garden or by eating together.
The first known CSA arrangement came about in Japan in the 1970s when a group of women concerned with the increase in food imports and the use of chemical pesticides contacted local farmers to supply them with fresh, organic produce. The idea grew to include several farmers growing a wide variety of products. The movement, called "teikei" in Japanese, loosely translates to "putting the farmer's face on food." The CSA idea, after traveling to Europe, was first seen in the U.S. in 1985. In the past few years there has been a real surge in the number of CSA farms with over 1,000 estimated now in the U.S.
What has been your experience with CSA, both as a consumer and a grower?
I grew up on a dairy and grain farm near Jackson, Michigan and then gardened intensively in Chicago with my wife Jo Beachy. I guess we were always on the lookout for alternative agriculture projects. We gardened organically and felt strongly about supporting sustainable farming, in both a spiritual and economic sense. So when we heard in 1993 about Prairie Crossing Community Supported Gardens outside of Chicago we immediately joined. As members for two years before moving to Michigan we participated in several workdays, and enjoyed the fresh vegetables. Since then we have attended several conferences or workshops devoted to the CSA concept. This being our first year as CSA growers, we are bit awed by the responsibility, but excited about making new acquaintances around the issues of food.
How have people in the southwest Michigan area responded to this relatively new idea?
I would guess most people we had contact with were familiar with the concept. I did enjoy explaining to a few people who had never heard of CSA. It helped refine my description. Once we got the word out there, flyers in natural food stores, ads in coops, newsletters, announcements in church bulletins, in December and January, the response grew and our e-mail rang off the hook. After attending the day-long CSA workshop at the MSU Organic Conference in early March we decided to stop taking additional subscribers. Most long-time CSA farmers strongly advised keeping it small the first year and working out the kinks. We have 31 households signed up with about 20 in the Kalamazoo area and the rest around Three Rivers and Marcellus. We'll deliver the weekly boxes at a member's home in Kalamazoo and at St. Johns Lutheran Church near Three Rivers.
What are the values behind CSA?
Since the beginning in Japan the main value of the CSA movement has been to build a relationship, a community, between growers and consumers. This relationship, and communication it entails, provides eaters with the assurance that the produce they are buying is local, fresh, nutritious food. All this activity of growing, communicating and distributing must be in the end though economically sustainable.
How do you see initiating a CSA program as being integrated with your faith? How might a consumer approach CSA from a faith perspective?
I think most faith traditions value sustainability, health, and community. Many faiths and denominations also have statements concerning the environment or "caring for creation" which connects strongly with the organic movement. We are really happy to have several pastors and congregational leaders as subscribers this first year. Many churches have promoted CSA projects and Dan Gunther, a CSA farmer and Lutheran near Minneapolis, I think coined the term "congregational supported agriculture." A number of volumes could be written on issues of hunger, economic justice and land stewardship, all of which are addressed by Old Testament prophets, and the CSA movement.
What are your predictions for the future of CSA?
Farmers' markets and CSA projects are popping up all over the U.S. right now. I think this reflects some dissatisfaction among consumers about the impersonal way most food is sold. Also the concern over the safety of pesticides favors a CSA model; every CSA farm I've heard of, whether certified or not, uses organic methods. But there are real questions concerning the sustainability of CSA arrangements when it comes to distribution and retaining members. Although it has helped many small farmers in the U.S., the "teikei" movement in Japan has lost some of its original energy.