Now, more than ever, industrial agriculture is a dominant force that can seem unstoppable. In this model a small number of farms compete to produce food as quickly and cheaply as possible for large corporations, putting pressure on farmers, local communities, flora and fauna, and the environment. Industrial agriculture is highly mechanised, relying both on fossil fuels on toxic chemicals like pesticides and fertilisers, and is a large contributor to environmental racism. All the while, the main beneficiaries are a handful of huge multinational enterprises.
However, in many countries, different approaches are becoming increasingly popular. One of these is the CSA: a model rooted in a community-based organisation of growers and consumers, and an alternative approach based on solidarity, mutual trust, small scale and respect for the environment. Here’s what you need to know.
What is a CSA?
CSA stands for community-supported agriculture. It involves bringing farmers and their customers together, fostering a framework where local communities work with local farmers.
In practice, consumer households live independently but agree to provide direct support for the local farmers, often through purchasing “shares” on a long term basis. The farmers then agree to do their best to provide sufficient food to meet the needs of the consumers. Together they form a network of mutual support: providing secure cash flow, resilience and increased customer loyalty to farmers, and fresh, local food farmed under ethical conditions to consumers. Many CSAs also allow you to donate directly to local farmers or provide the option of working on the farm, co-op style.
The primary need is not for the farm to be supported by the community, but rather for the community to support itself through farming. This is an essential of existence, not a matter of convenience. We have no choice about whether to farm or not, as we have a choice about whether to produce TV sets or not. So we have to either farm or to support farms, every one of us, at any cost.
…Community farming is about the necessary renewal of agriculture through its healthy linkage with the human community that depends upon farms and farmers for survival. From experience, we also see the potential of community farming as the basis for a renewal of the human relationship with the earth.
(from the book Farms of Tomorrow: Community Supported Farms, Farm Supported Communities)
CSAs around the world
It’s said that the beginnings of CSAs can be traced to a Japanese co-op called the Seikatsu Club. Similar groups appeared in Japan in the 1970s, and in the US in the 1980s, where the term CSA was coined (that being said, it’s likely these concepts already existed in Indigenous cultures, the original stewards of agroecological knowledge). Each CSA operates differently, but they aren’t the same as farmers’ markets or veg box deliveries. CSA members tend to be more involved in the whole business and promotion of local food production, as well as having more direct relationships with the farms.
In the UK, the CSA Network was launched in December 2013 after a project run by the Soil Association. The project aimed to reconnect people with the source of their food; In five years it saw the number of CSA farms grow from a handful to around 80 with an estimated 150 startups.
The UK network defines CSA as any food, fuel or fibre producing initiative where the community shares the responsibilities, risks and rewards of production in a spirit of mutual trust and openness. This may be through ownership, investment, sharing the costs of production, or provision of labour. These partnerships support three pillars of core values:
- People Care: A fair and steady income for the producer and a relationship based on trust with the consumers/members. Access to healthy food at affordable prices.
- Earth Care: A chance for the land and biodiversity to flourish due to ecological farming methods and shared interest in these methods of production.
- Fair Share: A share in the harvest of healthy (mostly organic or biodynamic), local and low carbon produce; a connection with the producer, the land and each other. This includes a commitment to support the farmer through both good and poor harvests.
According to a study from the European CSA Research Group, it was estimated that 2,783 CSAs were operating in Europe in 2015, producing food for almost half a million eaters. When adding closely-related initiatives the figures rose to approximately 6,300 CSA initiatives and one million eaters.
Additionally, the study found that the CSA model was spreading to other initiatives include Community Supported Beekeeping, Community Supported Bakeries and Community Supported Fisheries, potentially signally a larger shift towards sustainable economies and localised models.
What can CSAs look like
Each individual CSA is different, as CSA is simply a framework to inspire farmers and consumers to work together to create fairer, more transparent, connected local food systems. Each CSA is tailored to the land, farmers, and customers in a specific area, and the community decides what fits them best. However, CSAs share basic, underlying principles:
- Mutual assistance and solidarity: direct connections and shared risk between farmers and the people who eat their food.
- Agroecological farming methods (sometimes requiring organic certification).
- Biodiversity and no Genetically Modified Organisms.
- High quality, safe food: accessible to as many people as possible with prices that are negotiated and fair to producer and consumer.
- Education about the realities of farming.
- Continual improvement.
The diversity of CSAs reflects the fact that CSA farms have grown from grassroots initiatives, community care, and individuals finding ways to localise food production, rather than following a set model. However, there are four general types of CSAs identified in the UK.
A farmer offers a share of production in return for a relatively long term fixed subscription. This is the most widely used approach, examples include Chagfood and Canalside Community Food.
A farming enterprise is set up and owned by the community, which takes on direct responsibility for production. Labour is provided by volunteers and/or employed professionals. Produce may be distributed amongst the community and/or sold for the benefit of the enterprise, including using the share of the harvest model. Examples include Stroud Community Agriculture.
The enterprise, owned by the community through a co-operative or similar structure, works in close partnership with existing producers to provide a secure and long-term supply of produce to CSA members. Examples include The Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm and Cambridge Cropshare.
A farming enterprise is secured through community investment but does not necessarily trade primarily with the community members. Examples include Fordhall Farm and The Community Farm.
Regardless of how each CSA functions, direct distribution, shared risk and connection to the farm remain at the core of each one. A census of UK CSAs also found the majority (89.5%) farmed organically. Many weren’t certified, but mainly due to cost, and used organic methods regardless.
Benefits of CSAs
By choosing to be part of a CSA, citizens who consume farmers’ produce are acting not only as coproducers of food but also as co-producers of farms, biodiversity, landscapes, culture, and new definitions of modernity.
Some of the main benefits of CSAs include:
- Stable financial support for small, local farmers.
- Shorter supply chains: all proceeds go directly to the farm, making it possible to earn a living wage and treat employees well, while food miles/individual carbon footprints are significantly reduced.
- Food produced organically/agroecologically.
- Better food at fair prices as there are no middlemen.
- Fostering community: members build relationships with each other and local growers.
- Increased education: entire communities learn about farming, reconnecting with food production and the earth. This also makes farming more accessible to younger generations, which is important when the average age of a farmer in the UK is 59.
- Localised economies: money stays local, rather than going to huge multinationals.
- Risks are shared with the local community: there is also more tolerance and understanding of things like crop failure or low yields, because consumers are directly involved.
- Less food waste: there is no supermarket rejecting wonky vegetables.
- More reliability: Local farmers have proven more reliable during COVID-19, as decentralised and local systems are more resilient in the face of disruption. Small scale farms better protect communities and provide food security.
A study from the Soil Association also found that not only did 2/3 of CSA members have all or nearly all of their vegetables met through the community farms, but there were wider benefits too: