Henderson recognizes 30 years of CSA concept
By JANE PRIMERANO
NEW BRUNSWICK (March 1 2017) — Farmers have always sold directly to consumers at farm stands or out of the backs of their trucks, but 30 years ago a new idea came up: Community Supported Agriculture.
“CSA was an idea for a brand new connection,” Elizabeth Henderson said as she led a panel on the history of CSA at the Northeast Organic Farming Association-New Jersey Winter Conference.
Henderson operates Peacework Organic CSA in Wayne County, NY, and is on the board of NOFA-NY and also represents NOFA on the board of agriculture justice project. Her CSA was one of the first three in New York.
Now there are more than 400 in the state serving about 30,000 households. She wrote Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture, published in 2007.
“There are CSAs on every continent except Antarctica,” she said, naming some of the countries that support them: Thailand, Israel, Morocco.
“They are underlined by shared values,” she said. “There are no orthodox rules. No two are alike which is a positive value.” She said almost all claim to be farming sustainably with about one-third certified organic and most of the others moving toward organic. While the public generally thinks in terms of vegetable farms, some sell alpaca fiber, meats, fish or goats milk and cheese.
Many are sponsored by organizations: urban gardens, churches, schools, summer camps.
Even with their popularity, Henderson said, the CSAs in the most advantageous locations get only about 10 percent of the market. And the popularity may be waning. CSAs which only a few years ago had waiting lists 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, she 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.”
The rise of CSAs came from the fact they allow customers to share the financial risks of the farm. Farms in Germany and Switzerland created a model for pre-payment so the burden of up-front costs doesn’t fall only on the farmer.
The most extreme form of this is the Temple-Wilton Farm in Wilton, N.H., which holds a meeting with all share holders each year. The farmers present the budget and each customer 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 a sample charter for CSAs in the United States and Canada and much of her session became a discussion with CSA operators sharing their successful ideas.
Among the 12 points listed on the charter were: Farm members buy directly from the farm or group of farms. 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;
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;
Farmers commit to using locally adapted seeds and breeds to the greatest extend possible.
Henderson said a purpose of the charter is for farmers to show people how CSAs are different from aggregators.
She said one goal of her group is to get the USDA to allow people to use food stamps at CSAs.
With or without a charter, CSAs must meet the challenge of keeping members once they have joined, Henderson said.
“People who like to plan have trouble,” she said.
Because of the vagaries of the harvest, there is no guarantees of exactly when vegetables will be ready or how abundant they will be.
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,” Henderson said. She explained share holders 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.
There is a handbook on creating CSAs, Henderson said.
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, but Henderson is not optimistic any of these foreign initiatives can be translated to the United States.