Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a model that holds potential for supporting small, diversified farmers and providing area residents with fresh, locally-grown and minimally processed food and fiber. It is at once a way of marketing local produce and of building community around the activities of agriculture and food production. CSA encourages growers and eaters to interact, to share the risks and rewards of farming, to learn more about each other, their environment and their food system. The long-term benefits of such a relationship are greater food security and local self-reliance.
While CSA provides an alternative to the dominant, long-distance food system, the concept is not wide-spread and CSAs are themselves quite vulnerable. Individual farms are small and labor- intensive. Typically, they operate with severely limited capital and material resources. CSAs are likewise without supporting networks or infrastructure to minimize the impact of economic and production shortfalls and to assist with consumer education. These conditions are particularly pronounced in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.
Three non-profit organizations, MOFFA, OEFFA and Sustainable Earth, Inc have joined forces to promote greater public awareness and support for CSA in each of their respective states. To this end, they have researched and published a CSA directory, The Many Faces of Community Supported Agriculture: Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. The directory profiles existing CSAs in all three states and makes recommendations to extension personnel, community planners and activists for publicizing the CSA concept and addressing the problems currently faced by these small, diversified farm enterprises. An annotated slide show, The ABCs of CSAs has also been created to accompany the directory and will be used as yet another extension and public education tool. Dialogue between the three non-profits and individual CSAs is presently underway to determine how best to develop inter- and intra-state CSA networks.
1. To increase extension awareness of the CSA concept, its potential and presence in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.
2. To increase public (grower and eater) recognition of CSA in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana as a model for local food and farming.
3. To develop instruments to enable dialogue and collective action among CSAs and CSA advocates in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
The second year of the project was dedicated to promoting the CSA concept throughout the tri-state region with special efforts made to acquaint Extension with the CSAs in each state. This public campaign was accomplished through the distribution of the project’s 108 page publication, The Many Faces of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): a guide to the community supported agriculture in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio (Appendix 1) and through the presentation of its slide show, “The ABCs of CSAs.” These two instruments, it was felt, would allow farmers, eaters and agricultural professionals to reflect on the diversity and creative possibilities made available through this model of local food production and distribution.
Each of the project’s three cooperating organizations (MOFFA, OEFFA, Sustainable Earth) took responsibility for promotional efforts in their respective states. The CSA guide was announced in numerous newspapers and newsletters (e.g., The Ecological Food and Farm Association News, Michigan Organic Connections (mOC), The Community Farm, Oryana Natural Food News, Farm and County Journal, The Farmer’s Exchange, Sustainable Food and Farming). It was also made available on individual CSA farms, and at food coops, trade fairs and ag-related conferences and festivals. In addition, a complementary copy with an explanatory cover letter (Appendix 2) was sent to every county extension office and NRCS resource team in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. In Michigan, the publication was also announced on MOFFA’s web site and on the extension list serve. In Ohio, it was publicized on the Sustainable Agriculture Extension list serve while in Indiana, it was posted to CSA-L, the CSA discussion group.
The slide show was publicized in the same manner. Presentations could be scheduled free of charge or the slides, complete with a scripted outline (Appendix 3,) loaned to interested groups to use themselves. While programs concentrated on the overall design and operation of CSAs, they also provided an opportunity to acquaint people with related food and farming issues, such as “slow food,” reduced consumption, eating in season, alternative energy use, the global food system, communities of place. In Michigan, a collection of provocative articles was compiled to use as hand-outs and to ‘push’ audience thinking on these issues (Appendix 4). Copies were made available free of charge at every public presentation. In Ohio, the CSA slide show was also integrated into a larger presentation on sustainable agriculture. A press release promoting the presentation was distributed to over 250 regional non-profit organizations and media outlets.
During the second year, the project also created an opportunity for CSA farmers in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana to interact directly with one another. This happened during the Midwest Small Farm Conference and Trade Show sponsored by Sustainable Earth. At this conference, six of the CSAs profiled in The Many Faces… participated in two workshops designed to describe actual CSA operations and to reflect on the community-building aspects of CSA (Appendix 5). Their interaction was both honest and enthusiastic and informal discussions continued over dinner and throughout the two-day conference.
Outreach and Publications
DeLind, Laura B.
1999 “It’s Mostly About Vegetables: Yet another look at CSA.” an invited paper for the session ‘Resistance and Reform: A Critical Look at Agriculture and the Food System’ at the Society for Applied Anthropology meetings, Tucson, AZ April 21-24, 1999.
DeLind, Laura B. ed.
1999 The Many Faces of Community Supported Agriculture: a guide to community supported agriculture in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. MOFFA: Hartland, MI.
DeLind, Laura B. and Holly Harman Fackler
1999 “Community Supported Agriculture: Patterns, Problems and Possibilities.” The Community Farm 1(4): 6-8.
Fackler, Holly Harman
1999a ‘Where the Customer is Involved’ Ohio Farmer Mid-January: 16-18.
1999b “Far Corner Farm” The Community Farm 7: 8-9.
1999c “Growers: Value Yourselves” The Community Farm 7: 2.
1999 “Reflections on ‘CSA: Patterns, Problems and Possibilities’: A Friendly Appeal to Laura B. DeLind and Holly Harman Fackler” The Community Farm 2(1): 4.
1999a “Eating Locally Builds Community” The Farmer’s Exchange March 19. Pp. 1, 16.
1999b “Feed People Locally, A Non-global Strategy” Farm and Country Journal April: 7-8.
Oryana Food Cooperative
1999 “Community supported Agriculture: Who, What, and Why” Oryana Natural Food News May: 6.
There are currently several links between this project and other SARE funded projects. Steve Bonney of Sustainable Earth, Inc. is also the project director of a SARE funded project, “Development of Marketing Infrastructure to Support Local and Regional Food Systems(LWF62-016-03704). Sustainable Earth will distribute the CSA project information to participants who want to incorporate CSA into their food system development programs. MOFFA has a SARE marketing grant (008-98) to develop a traveling demonstration kitchen for processing organic produce on-farm. Not only will CSAs be able to use the kitchen, but CSA materials will be made available through this educational vehicle. In addition, many individual CSAs have received SARE grants: Silver Creek Farm (Ohio) received a grant for food preservation/ canning, New Harmony Community Farm (Michigan) received a grant for seed saving; Great Circle Farm CSA (Indiana) received a SARE grant to build a straw-bale greenhouse; Wagbo Peace Center (Michigan) received a grant to develop a poultry heated greenhouse. These individual projects and their benefits have been referenced in the CSA profiles and in the slide show.
Most recently, Jamie Picardy (Michigan State University) has submitted a research proposal to the NC Region SARE that builds on the tri-state project and proposes to investigate the role of distance in the recruitment and retention of CSA members.
The distribution of the CSA publication and slide show to the general public was slow but successful. Since March 1999, MOFFA has sold 100 guides and has scheduled ten slide show presentations. OEFFA has sold about 50 guides, used the slide show twice and scheduled four more presentations during 2000. In March of 1999, Holly Fackler presented the CSA slides to Indiana’s ‘Ways to Grow Project,’ a state-funded project of Purdue CES. These showings are listed in Appendix 6 with relevant remarks about audience size, makeup and level of interest.
Several synergistic things happened as these materials received public exposure. One was that articles published in the guide were often excerpted or republished in other venues. Articles in Growing for Market and The Community Farm are cases in point. With regard to the latter, the DeLind and Fackler essay, “CSA: Patterns, Problems and Possibilities” provoked some thoughtful debate within the CSA community (Henderson 1999, Fackler 1999b).
Another positive feature was the informal networking that these materials enabled. In one case, for example, a hunger activist having read about the CSA project, scheduled a slide show presentation for an allied environmental organization. Within the audience was a CSA grower who enjoyed the presentation so much, she recommended it to her county 4-H agent. Yet another member of the audience was compiling (with the help of a USDA community food security grant) a directory of self-help and community gardens in Michigan. The state’s CSAs have now been incorporated into her forthcoming publication. In Indiana, Earthcraft Farm, the state’s largest CSA, quit farming in 1999 and is now reorganizing itself, this time with a core committee to manage operations. The guide is being using by the committee as an educational tool and member resource.
Public presentations also proved instrumental in giving guidance to potential CSA growers, connecting apprentices with farms, and sparking other local-level activity. In Michigan, two people, inspired by the slide program, initiated two quite separate projects to ‘reclaim the commons’ and put natural and agricultural lands into local trust. As a direct result of the guide, The Robyn Van En Center for Community Supported Agriculture Resources has listed Sustainable Earth, MOFFA and OEFFA among the 19 cooperating organizations for the new national CSA directory. It appears, then, that both the guide and the slide show will be effective for at least another few years and will continue to be presented throughout the region.
On a somewhat less positive note, the general response of extension and mainstream agricultural professionals in each of the three states was lukewarm at best. Despite efforts to target this population, the CSA guide received little use and few programs were requested. In Michigan, there have been only two invitations by extension staff to give the slide show presentation and, in both cases, the impetus came from an enthused resident/ client. Offers to hold CSA workshops during extension in-training sessions or at grower conventions (i.e, vegetable growers) have been politely, but unequivocally declined. The reasons typically given are ‘limited time’ and ‘insufficient interest’ (see the Evaluation section below for further discussion).
As indicated above, education transfer has occurred in several ways — through a written publication, a visual slide presentation and direct interaction among CSA participants. Each of these approaches has reinforced the others and for those who have been ‘captured’ by the CSA concept, each has enabled further inquiry and dialogue. One woman, for instance, who decided to apprentice before starting her own CSA is now touring many of the farms described in the project guide. Similarly, a Michigan grower visited two other CSAs after meeting their farmers for the first time at project workshops.
It is important to note that a) the materials and opportunities made possible through this SARE grant were designed to foster channels of communication and not farming methods or organizational techniques per se, and b) those who are involving themselves in the CSA movement are teaching each other and whenever possible sharing resources among themselves and within their communities. These individuals typically are not extension staff, salaried researchers or credentialed agricultural professionals. In terms of CSA and education transfer, the latter are still reluctant to ‘listen deeply’ and/or actively invest time or resources in promoting CSA. There are notable exceptions like Susan Smalley at MSUE, but such individuals are still quite rare. While the energies and skills of these individuals are needed and appreciated, a parallel or shadow system of generating and transferring CSA-based knowledge appears to be in effect and increasingly effective.
The project has conscientiously addressed the original three objectives listed above with varying degrees of success. With respect to Objective 2, the materials created have been used and continue to be used to acquaint growers and eaters in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana with the CSA model. The feedback we have received has been excellent (Appendix 7). Well over 1000 people have attended project presentations, workshops and conferences. While it is true that the majority of these individuals were already familiar with or curious about CSA, these forums provided honest insight, informational resources and personal contacts on the subject. It is also true that at every one of these forums, several people started thinking for the first time about local direct marketing and community-based agriculture. As these individuals begin educating others, the movement will pick up critical mass. This is the way things work at the grass-roots level.
With respect to Objective 3, the Midwest Small Farm Conference and Trade Show allowed CSA members in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana to interact with one another (as well as with CSAs in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri). To our knowledge, no such interaction had ever occurred before. While an attempt to create an instrument for multi-CSA coordination similar to MACSAC or NOFA-CSA seems premature, we have availed ourselves of emerging CSA infrastructure. All the CSAs profiled in the guide are now also listed in the national website directory compiled by SAN. (Andy Clark also has offered to put The Many Faces of… directly on the web.) All CSAs are now acquainted with The Community Farm, a national CSA newsletter published by Five Springs Farm in Bear Lake, Michigan. And, all are aware of (and several are frequent contributors to) “prairienet,” the national CSA list serve. Though not created by this SARE project, these instruments have been strengthened by it and, in turn, work to strengthen individual CSA enterprises.
With respect to Objective 1, the project literally brought information about community supported agriculture to the doorstep of every county extension office in each of the three states. Extension staff were expressly invited to schedule slide shows and attend the ANR workshop and Midwest Small Farm Conference. As mentioned earlier, there was minimal response. In Michigan, a random follow-up, telephone survey of 24 of the state’s 83 counties found that (of the 13 responses received) five agents were somewhat familiar with the concept, three remembered receiving the guide and knew where it was, two had read it, and none had occasion to use it. A few of the conversations with agents were particularly revealing. Two agents earnestly explained that they were impressed with the CSA model, but saw no way to make it happen in their sparsely populated regions. One agent said that he had no interest in CSAs whatsoever. He then back-peddled a bit to say that it wasn’t because he had no interest, it was just that his constituency had no interest and his job was to respond to their wishes. One agent said she referred all inquiries to the CSA in her county. Still another allowed that he knew nothing about the guide but extended an open invitation to come and give his small farm discussion group a slide presentation. Very similar patterns were noted in Ohio and Indiana.
Why does this feel like a ‘you can lead a horse to water’ scenario and what might be done about it? County extension staff, it appears, are swamped with paper and information; it is very easy to lose or file away reports and publications especially if they are not addressing an immediate issue or problem. Providing extension offices with more literature, then, may not be the best way to get their attention. In addition, extension staff, due to time constraints as much as training, are conservative in their approach to agriculture. With few exceptions, they are not willing to take risks or overtly advocate non-commercial strategies. They facilitate the transfer of ‘scientifically-verified’ information and technology and attend most closely to those farmers who can make it work.
CSA with its ‘built-in’ diversity, small scale, local focus, and social orientation is a radical departure from traditional, efficient market-driven agriculture. As a result, extension is not a preferred source for information about this type of grass-roots operation. The fewer inquiries agents get, the less they need to know and the less they know, the less they will be consulted. It is a difficult cycle to break.
Still, extension has vast resources and a tremendous infrastructure that could help position the CSA model within rural and urban settings. In addition, extension staff as respected professionals could run critical interference for CSA enterprises within a local food system as outlined in The Many Faces… (1999:5-9). Extension, in turn, would be connecting with under-served segments of the population and with a more ecological and sociocultural approach to agriculture and the food system.
While CSA practitioners and advocates have limited surplus (resources, time and energy) with which to educate extension staff, several things can be done. One would be to start focusing on individuals rather than whole institutions. This after all is CSA’s strong suit — farming with a face. Without making heroic efforts, CSAs (through their growers or core committee members) can routinely (and personally) invite individual county agricultural and horticultural agents to CSA workshops and conferences, send them copies of relevant CSA proceedings, newsletters and articles, and perhaps most importantly of all, invite them to attend on-farm tours, pot-lucks and parties. At the same, time, organizations like MOFFA, OEFFA and Sustainable Earth can provide a voice for larger regional and state-wide needs — writing press releases and opinion pieces, evaluating agricultural policy (e.g., tax credits, labeling, certification, land trusts) and organizing major programming efforts on behalf of CSA. Here, it would be especially appropriate to invite ‘experts’ from out-of-state to discuss how the relationship of extension to CSA has been evolving elsewhere.
This project has publicized the nature and needs of CSAs in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. For all its positive outcomes, it is still only a beginning. What is needed now is to continue to promote public and extension education and inter- and intra-state networking on behalf of CSA.
As discussed above, the need for extension to be a more active advocate for CSA can prove beneficial for both institutions. To this end, in-depth dialogues with people like Jerry DeWitt (Iowa), Shelly Gradwell (Iowa), Elizabeth Henderson (New York), John Hendrickson (Wisconsin) — people who have successfully overcome much institutional inertia — might be very constructive. Any one of these people could be invited (in cooperation with OEFFA, MOFFA and/or Sustainable Earth, Inc) to address an extension in-service training session in Michigan, Ohio or Indiana. Within this context, CSA growers and members might also be asked to share their experiences in a more personal and effective manner.
As CSAs grow in number and in popularity, growers have found ways to compare notes on production, distribution and marketing. Newsletters, list serves and books are full of this sort of ‘how to’ information, as well as grower-focused strategies and concerns. Less well developed is the community dimension of CSA and the involvement of members beyond the role of ‘enlightened green consumer.’
In addition to providing growers with a just and well deserved income, CSA can be vehicle for creating commonwealth and social change. Some CSAs and CSA-like farms are moving in this direction. They are attending quite directly to such issues as hunger and urban food security, collective land ownership, biological restoration, material consumption, and democratic self-reliance. These efforts, however, can not be the sole or even the primary responsibility of CSA growers — they belong to all members and the community-at-large. Giving them greater visibility and support will help to transform both growers and eaters into engaged citizens. We need to hear and share these stories and study how human and natural resources have been mobilized beyond self-interest within the context of CSA.
In addition to more technical and agricultural policy driven issues, CSA’s ‘rapprochement’ with extension and the study of CSA as a dynamic social institution could be addressed in a tri-state workshop or conference. The working relationship that now exists among MOFFA, OEFFA and Sustainable Earth could be tapped to assist this CSA networking. CSAs from all three states might be invited to participate in workshops as was done last year in Indiana. As interaction increases, a tri-state conference dedicated specifically to CSA could further facilitate dialogue and serve to mark CSA growth both in terms of numbers and programmatic diversity within the region.
Compiled by Laura B. DeLind
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