What is a CSA?
In THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN, the history of the Peterson family farm illustrates the drastic changes in the American farming industry over the past century. While farming was once a way of life in much of rural America, farmers now only make up two percent of the country’s population. Many farming families like the Petersons have been forced to give up agricultural work altogether or sell their farms due to extreme financial hardships. This development has resulted in large-scale, corporation-owned farming, as well as an increase in processed foods. Many Americans are now disconnected from their local farming operations and from food production in general.
Community supported agriculture (CSA) offers a way for consumers of produce to support local farmers and to play a role in producing the food they eat. Interested community members invest in a CSA farm by pledging money to meet the costs of the operation in exchange for shares in the food the farm produces. For instance, John Peterson’s farm Angelic Organics offers its shareholders three months of weekly deliveries of fresh vegetables for $370 during the farm’s harvest season. Farm members might also contribute by working on the farm, and CSA farmers might also sell produce at local farmer’s markets.
Predecessors to the modern CSA model were first seen in the form of community-based farming in Japan, Switzerland and Chile during the 1960s and 1970s. The first CSAs in the U.S. were established in 1986 in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. More than a thousand CSAs exist today, in 2006, throughout the United States, ranging from having a handful of co-owners to spanning hundreds of acres of land, all giving their members the opportunity to contribute towards supporting a cooperative, mutually beneficial agricultural effort.
In some areas, multiple CSAs are working together to form a network of sustainability. Angelic Organics, for example, is part of a the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farming Training (CRAFT) program, a farmer-apprenticeship network that consists of more than 20 local farms. For small farm owners like John Peterson, the CSA model can be credited for “saving” their farms and guaranteeing financial support, stability and long-term survival in a precarious industry.
You Are What You Eat
The burgeoning CSA movement in the United States is inseparable from concurrent social, economic and environmental movements. Behind many CSAs lies a pillar of biodynamic agriculture, a philosophical and political belief that healthy food is linked to healthy land. Embodying the notion that “you are what you eat,” local food consumers and farmers support CSAs for a number of reasons.
Economics and Ethics
CSAs can credit many of their ideals to the co-op movement, which supports the mutual interests of consumers and producers and calls for an increase in community and consumer responsibility through shared efforts. The idea of consuming and producing locally is what drives many people to join CSAs. By supporting local farmers, consumers make a conscious move away from the dominant profit-based economy towards a more small-scale, need-based economy that focuses on the needs of the farmers, consumers and the land itself.
Community and Land
Supporting a CSA is also supporting the environment. Buying non-local food cuts down on the energy and transportation costs involved with producing food on a global level. The model counteracts recent decreases in government funding for sustainable agriculture as well as skyrocketing land costs, both of which have made private farm ownership increasingly difficult to manage.
Many CSA advocates feel that contributing to a food operation grants them a greater connection to the land. In urban areas, joining a CSA helps consumers form a community of like-minded individuals.
Health and Quality
Organic foods make up the fastest growing portion of the nation’s food industry, increasing at 20 percent per year and doubling every three years over the past decade and a half. Such foods do not contain genetically modified organisms and are produced without the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, growth hormones or antibiotics. As food production becomes more impersonal and more mass-produced, consumers are increasingly concerned over food quality and safety, especially with dangers involving pesticides, genetic engineering and food-borne illnesses such as mad cow disease. The rise and popularity of organic-championing chain supermarkets such as Whole Foods and a disdain for processed and fast foods in general, demonstrate this growing concern for eating organic and the culture that it entails, as does the global slow food movement, which advocates for the quality of fairly produced and sustainable local foods.
By supporting organically grown CSA produce, consumers demonstrate how food production and consumption have become a social and ecological justice issue. As food sustains life, high-quality, ethically produced foods can play a vital part of an ethically based lifestyle.
Photos courtesy Angelic Organics CSA Learning Center