Community supported agriculture and the complexities of survival

Final Report for GNE12-048

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2012: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Grant Recipient: Boston College
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Juliet Schor
Boston College
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Project Information

Summary:

This SARE graduate student grant funded a multi-method project to examine the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) landscape in New England. I used interviews, ethnographic work, and a survey to better understand how CSAs have changed, the reasons for those changes, and their effects.

The world of CSA is now complex and a bit crowded, i.e., there are many farms using “CSA” but doing different things under that label. In order to better understand what is happening, I applied what’s called the “conventionalization thesis,” which refers to organic growers reproducing conventional practices. Conventionalizing organic operations industrialize and mechanize, taking advantage of economies of scale. They substitute capital for land and labor and purchase more off-farm inputs.

The theory behind conventionalization is basically neo-Marxian. Over a long trajectory, technological developments and economies of scale give advantages to the most capitalized farmers. Farmers that would like to limit how capital-intensive their operations are have little choice but to invest like other farms. This is because land prices rise in competition with development and growers are compelled to operate more intensively as well as switch to higher-dollar crops and innovate new practices. An analogy would be large-scale housing developments in and near urban centers. Without price controls, the developers who can afford to build the most efficient buildings (in terms of return on investment) will dominate. Developers that resist the drive to maximize returns on investment will see their capital decrease relative to others and will see less outside investment in their enterprise. At least that’s how the theory goes. There are clearly openings for different pathways, if consumers value “inefficient” food or housing, which might also be more nutritious or quainter, respectively.

I use the conventionalization thesis to make an argument about why CSAs have changed and where they might be heading. When I refer to “conventionalization,” I am not referring narrowly to CSAs using non-organic practices (though some CSAs now do that). Rather, I am referring to a process whereby CSAs move away from what the model’s early proponents and practitioners understood as CSA. In addition to agroecologically sensitive and organic practices, this original formulation had a strong sense of community that required much from shareholders, including a deep sense of shared risk and shared reward. Early CSA farmers were very interested in earning a livelihood, but relatively disinterested in maximizing returns on investment.

I found there to be three general forms of CSA in New England today. “CSA Original” remains true to the model’s early ideals and has not conventionalized. “CSA Scaled Up” has not conventionalized like organics, though these farms have veered away from CSA ideals in important ways. They have reduced the shared risk and shared reward component. This is done partially through their ability to reduce risk in general, by virtue of their scale, but also through making purchases to compensate for crop failures. Relative to Original farms, Scaled Up CSAs tend to hire more wage labor and, in general, they have rationalized and intensified their operations. Scaled Up farms have opened the CSA market to more consumers by driving down the price and increasing the overall quantity of shares.

“CSA Lite” has partially conventionalized. Here, growers less committed to agroecological principles compete with Original and especially Scaled Up farmers. I argue that such a process parallels the case of organics: Lite farms “do CSA,” but with more consumer choice, less agroecological commitment, and virtually no shared risk and reward. On the one hand, this further opened up the CSA market and allowed for more sales overall. On the other hand, some of the benefits of CSA may be diluted. Scaled Up and Original CSAs may also feel pressure to match prices and what are seen as consumer preferences. Some Lite farmers are conventional growers who added CSA and have partially “alternativized.” To some extent then, Lite farms appropriate and dilute the symbolic value of CSA; at the same time, they frequently represent cases of conventional farmers taking on alternative practices.

I do want to be clear: no two CSAs are identical. Each operates in a unique context with a unique history. These are broad strokes only meant to help us understand how what CSA has come to mean for different farms and how this might impact the larger field. more generally might be going and what this means for existing farms.

Introduction:

CSAs (farms using the Community Supported Agriculture model) have been around in the US since the mid 1980s. CSAs allow for customers to become “shareholders” when they purchase a “share.” A share typically entitles the “member” to a weekly offering of seasonally and regionally appropriate foods. From the beginning, CSA has been celebrated for its ability to help producers and consumers share the risks and rewards of agriculture, which would help increase the viability of farms using the model. On the risk side, a farmer is buffered from the economic consequences of a poor growing season because shareholders have already paid and understand there is risk involved in their purchase. On the rewards side, CSAs provide fresh, organically grown (most CSA farmers exceed USDA requirements) produce and other farm products in great diversity.

The question motivating this research came from knowledge that CSAs may not be providing economic benefits in the way that the original proponents of the model intended. That is, anecdotal evidence indicated some CSAs concluded the season with very little income left after expenses and sometimes without meeting full costs. Clearly, that is not sustainable (nor is it particular to the CSA model). This project aimed to understand different practices at CSAs and how those might influence outcomes.

            As indicated in the summary, I have used what is called the Conventionalization Thesis to help inform the analysis of changes in CSA. Therefore, it is useful to explain this term and where it came from. Buck, Getz, and Guthman (1997) originally put forward the conventionalization thesis for the case of organic farming in California. By conventionalization, they meant that organic agriculture was becoming increasingly similar to conventional agriculture, the model it set out to oppose. Conventionalizing organic operations industrialize and mechanize, taking advantage of economies of scale. They substitute capital for land and labor and purchase more off-farm inputs. Guthman (2004b) articulated three mechanisms towards conventionalization. Here, I describe these claims and how they relate to CSAs.

Following Clunies-Ross (1990), Guthman (2004b; originally Buck et al. 1997) argued that organic codification that uses standards rather than processes leads to conventionalization. Standards allow for simple input substitutions that agribusinesses—large-scale, often vertically integrated, corporate enterprises—and other large-scale growers can easily adopt while a focus on process represents significant challenges to rationalized “cookie-cutter organic practices” (Guthman 2004b:307; see also, Rosset and Altieri 1997; Guthman 1998). Standards are straightforward: “prohibit this synthetic pesticide.” Processes are more complex and situation-dependent: “use crop rotations” hardly conveys the sophisticated approaches employed at highly diversified farms, and crop rotations vary significantly depending on climate, weather, soil, market preferences and more.

Most CSA farmers do not certify USDA organic (e.g., Lass et al. 2003; Woods et al. 2009), instead preferring to explain their practices directly to consumers or sometimes using an alternative codification scheme like Certified Naturally Grown, which is positioned explicitly as “a Grassroots Alternative to the USDA’s National Organic Program” (Certified Naturally Grown N.D.). The question then arises: what makes a CSA? In the end, when farmers and shareholders call what they are doing “CSA” then it becomes so. That is why I have tried to position CSAs relative to one another. How much is risk and reward shared? What produce and other products go into a share? What are the requirements for farm membership?

Appropriation is the second mechanism, which occurs in two ways. The first, following Goodman, Sorj, and Wilkinson (1987), is the direct economic threat when agribusiness transfers on-farm processes into the factory (e.g. tomato processing). Second, on-farm capital is deployed to industrialize operations and economize through scale. Agribusiness has yet to enter CSA to a significant extent. But growers do not have to be “agribusinesses,” they only have to be able to purchase equipment that less capitalized growers cannot (or that growers deem inappropriate for agroecological or other reasons such as worker health or water quality). An example of appropriation can be seen in the packaging of salad mix. Many CSA farmers continue to cut baby salad mixes by hand, rinse them off with a hose nozzle, and hand-package them (or have CSA members do the packaging). Such a process is especially labor-intensive compared to growers who have mechanized the activity. As in the first claim of codification, appropriation is relevant to CSAs.

The third claim was conventionalization through price competition. Specifically, growers practicing deep forms of agroecology are undercut by growers without such commitments. This is a similar claim to the second part of appropriation (capitalized farmers doing things more cheaply) in that the outcome is the same: those planting land to cover crops will have fewer marketable crops and earn less revenue; those with less capital will have less efficient equipment, higher costs, and lower profits. In the case of CSA, there exist a wide variety of land management practices. Many growers are highly committed to careful agroecological stewardship, often for ideological reasons, but also because of the known ecological benefits (Altieri 1995; Gliessman 2007). At the same time, some CSAs entering the New England market are practicing a shallower agroecology.

References

Altieri, Miguel A. 1995. Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Buck, Daniel, Christina Getz, and Julie Guthman. 1997. “From Farm to Table: The Organic Vegetable Commodity Chain of Northern California.” Sociologia Ruralis 37(1):3–20.

Certified Naturally Grown. N.D. “Brief History of Certified Naturally Grown.” Certified Naturally Grown. Retrieved January 14, 2014 (http://www.naturallygrown.org/about-cng/brief-history-of-certified-naturally-grown).

Clunies-Ross, Tracey. 1990. “Organic Food: Swimming against the Tide?” Pp. 200–214 in Political, Social and Economic Perspectives on the International Food System, edited by Terry Marsden and Jo Little. Aldershot, UK: Avebury.

Gliessman, Stephen R. 2007. Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems. 2nd ed. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Goodman, David, Bernardo Sorj, and John Wilkinson. 1987. From Farming to Biotechnology: A Theory of Agro-Industrial Development. Oxford; New York, N.Y.: Basil Blackwell.

Guthman, Julie. 1998. “Regulating Meaning, Appropriating Nature: The Codification of California Organic Agriculture.” Antipode 30(2):135–54.

Guthman, Julie. 2004b. “The Trouble with ‘Organic Lite’ in California: A Rejoinder to the ‘Conventionalisation’ Debate.” Sociologia Ruralis 44(3):301–16.

Lass, Daniel A., G. W. Stevenson, John Hendrickson, and Kathy Ruhf. 2003. CSA across the Nation: Findings from the 1999 CSA Survey. Madison, WI: Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at UW-Madison.

Rosset, Peter M. and Miguel A. Altieri. 1997. “Agroecology versus Input Substitution: A Fundamental Contradiction of Sustainable Agriculture.” Society & Natural Resources 10(3):283–95.

Woods, Timothy, Matt Ernst, Stan Ernst, and Stan Wright. 2009. 2009 Survey of Community Supported Agriculture Producers. University of Kentucky. Retrieved June 4, 2013 (http://www.uky.edu/Ag/CDBREC/csareport.pdf).

Project Objectives:

I have completed all of the following unless otherwise noted:

1) Participate in CSA farm in as many different ways as possible.

2) Build core group that includes farmers, farm workers, researchers, consumers, and activists.

3) Complete survey and interview protocols.

4) Build farm database.

5) Administer pilot survey

6) Administer survey

7) Conduct interviews (50+ complete)

8) Complete analysis (done for one paper, another in progress)

9) Write up findings (one paper submitted, another in progress)?

10) Publicize findings (in progress, mostly limited to academic settings currently; this will become easier after the peer review process)

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. Juliet Schor

Research

Materials and methods:

I relied on a multiple-method approach that combined interviews, participant observation, a survey, and historical analysis. Combining these tools allowed for a more complete and contextually rich analysis relative to a single method. My decision to utilize multiple methods was also informed through my initial outreach to gauge farmer, consumer, and researcher reactions to the project. This group consisted of five academic researchers, two researcher-practitioner, three farmers, and five consumers. They provided input into survey and interview instruments and the project more generally. My survey was thus collaborative and grounded, developed in conversation. Grounded surveys are useful in that they allow for a tailored approach meant to elicit accurate responses by asking questions in a way that best reflects the population (Dillman, Smyth, and Christian 2009; Fetterman 2010; Patton 1982).

The resulting survey includes basic CSA characteristics—e.g. number, size, cost, and content of shares, distribution options, farm events—and questions regarding motivations, farming background, farm finances, demographics and more. I utilize both Likert-scale and open-ended questions that gave farmers liberty to express their views. I have attached a copy of my survey, which was heavily influenced by my initial outreach as well as earlier surveys used by Ryan Galt, which itself was adapted from previous work by Michael Bell on Practical Farmers of Iowa and Ron Strochlic on West Coast CSAs.

I obtained my population through LocalHarvest, a website where users self-populate information regarding their farms, which can be an issue as some information is dated. Additionally, I supplemented the population with listings from the Robyn Van En Center, Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), Certified Naturally Grown, Eat Wild, and a number of more geographically narrow sources such as the Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership. I administered the survey in early February 2013 with the intention to burden farmers as little as possible. Because of resource constraints, I used a stratified random sample based upon a proportional number of CSAs in each New England state depending on the total number of CSAs in each state. Out of over 700 farms, I mailed the survey to 114, with 15 returned to sender.

I used the “tailored design method” and began with a postcard that explained the project and provided a URL to more information and the survey. Following the initial mailing, I sent a hardcopy of the survey, half with two dollars and half with a promise to send a $10 check upon completion. I received 20 surveys from those who received cash and 16 from those receiving a $10 check. Unfortunately, I was not able to send out follow-up postcards, make phone calls, or email. Considering this, 36 percent (36/99) is a fairly high response rate. Of course, response rate might have little to do with representativeness. Here are the figures for where the surveys came from and the corresponding response rate for each state: seven from CT (50%), one from RI (25%), fourteen from MA (42%), six from VT (30%), six from NH (43%), two from ME (14%).

I conducted 52 semi-structured interviews, usually on the farm, and ranging from forty-five minutes to half a day. These interviews were mainly with farmers but also with farm workers. In total, I interviewed 45 farmers and six farm workers. They represent 39 farms: one from CT, three from VT, two from ME, eight from NH, two from RI, and 23 rest from MA. Thirty-one were with Massachusetts farmers with the others covering all the New England states. 16 identified as female, 35 as male, and one as queer. Traveling to farms provided an excellent opportunity to better understand and verify management practices and how closely they meet agroecological ideals. During these in-depth interviews, I sought to understand CSA farmers’ challenges and ways of overcoming them, along with background, motivations, CSA decisions, and farm management strategy more generally. I used a purposeful and theoretically informed sample where I identified highly informative interviewees based on emergent themes recognized through guidance from the core group (nine people including three farmers, one farm worker, one extension person, one food non-profit person, four academics, and three shareholders; some double counting here), exploratory interviews, participant observation, and review of the literature. In purposeful sampling, cases are chosen to inform and elaborate emergent theoretical frames.

I observed and participated at CSA farms themselves, delivery points, farmers markets, conferences, and social events, logging approximately 450 hours. The majority of this time (approximately 350 hours) was spent in and around Boston where I managed three CSA delivery sites and worked at a farmers market. I became acquainted with customers and other farmers and farmworkers. As I was regularly writing down material for my work, it was easy to write field notes from interactions.

While I never did any systematic data collection, I talked with CSA and farmers market participants with a wide variety of experiences and histories: been with multiple farms, stayed with the same farm for over a decade, moved to the city where food was an important connection to a romanticized past, CSA evangelists who successfully recruited others to CSA, high-powered managers in a rush to homeless folks waiting for scraps, real estate brokers who had others pick up food for them, those who balked at prices, and those who insisted on paying extra. I learned about how people made choices at farmers markets; what made farmers happy and what frustrated them. I participated in a food bartering system that helped subsidize the low-wages of most workers. On farms, mostly while interviews were underway, I picked berries and seeded peppers, watched cow milking at two very different operations, went to farm benefits and barn ho-downs, mulched with hay and another time straw, walked the land and listened to the bees, gathered eggs from hens and ducks, and studied plot rotations and chicken tractor designs. It has been difficult to incorporate these experiences into this paper due to length, but the experiences helped inform interviews and my analysis.

Data obtained from the grounded surveys also provided background and descriptive information to inform my typology of the CSA-scape in New England. I transcribed interviews using an iterative coding process. For example, some themes emerged at an early stage, like difficulty in shareholder retention and selling as many shares as farmers desired. Other themes only emerged later, which required me to turn back to earlier transcripts to see if I had missed them, which was sometimes the case.

[1] I have experience working with CSAs, including a three-acres-in-production-farm in Southern Illinois as well as a 120-acre CSA in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts.

References

Dillman, Don A., Jolene D. Smyth, and Leah Melani Christian. 2009. Internet, Mail, and Mixed-Mode Surveys: The Tailored Design Method. Third. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley & Sons.

Fetterman, David M. 2010. Ethnography: Step-by-Step. Third. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Patton, Michael Q. 1982. Practical Evaluation. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Research results and discussion:

I argue there are three general forms of CSA in New England. The following are not, however, categorical rules, but characteristics that make a CSA more like one type than another. The first I call “CSA Original.” These farms have not conventionalized. They remain rooted in biodynamic and agroecological practices and take seriously the equity notion of shared risk and shared reward between farmers and shareholders. Original farms typically have a smaller number of shareholders who are relatively close to the farm (within 50 miles), members are often required to work at the farm, many continue to incorporate animals, and the CSA portion of Original farms comprises a significant percentage and often the vast majority of farm sales.

The second type, “CSA Scaled Up”, is the model that came on-line in the 1990s when farmers developed more rationalized and production-oriented systems, mainly through increased mechanization. These farms typically have a few hundred shareholders, though the largest range into the thousands. As part of the scaling up process, there was a general decrease in shareholder participation and commitment.

“CSA Lite” arrived on the scene in the mid to late 2000s. Lite farms use the discourse and symbolic value of CSA without following its main tenets: there is generally less consumer commitment, the equity model that was and remains crucial for Scaled Up farms and especially Original farms is practically non-existent; produce is increasingly purchased from other farms, sometimes at great distance; and, growing practices suggest decreased commitment to agroecology.

In calling the third form “CSA lite,” I follow Guthman’s use of “organic lite” (Guthman 2004b; see also Buck et al. 1997). Guthman (2004b:301–2) writes: “California agribusiness involvement does more than create a soft path of sustainability – an ‘organic lite’, if you will. For the conditions it sets undermine the ability of even the most committed producers to practice a purely alternative form of organic farming.” In a similar way, I argue that CSA lite may undermine the operations at Original and especially at Scaled Up farms, unless Original and Scaled Up participants make clear their differences from Lite farms.

Lite farms strengthen price competition and the drive to intensify, which pulls the CSA field away from what Goodman (2000:218) calls “‘movement’ farming.” In doing so, they blunt one radical edge of the domestic food movement as the model becomes more concerned with profit-maximization. However, some of the entry into Lite farms is from conventional growers, some of whom have changed various aspects of their farm, e.g., growing a broader range of crops, placing more land into organic production, and selling more produce directly to consumers. In other words, conventionalization appears to be a two-way path. I elaborate on the importance of this finding in section six, Impact of Results.

Out of 36 useful survey responses to the question on farm income, 17 earned less than $10,000 and twelve earned more than that but less than $25,000. Those earning below $25,000 receive a much higher percentage of farm income via CSA shares and farmers’ market while those above $25,000 receive a higher percentage from on-farm sales and especially wholesale orders. Of those earning less than $10,000, the median percentage of off-farm income is 50-75 percent. The higher income farmers tend towards Scaled Up farms, but in general there appears to be little correlation between farm income and position on the typology spectrum. In terms of feelings regarding farmer income, 33 percent felt they earned far less than deserved, 39 percent felt they earned less than deserved, 26 percent felt income was about right, and one felt income was more than deserved.

There are weak correlations (none of them statistically significant; very difficult with such a small sample size) between higher farmer education, more community support, and higher farm income. There is a very weak correlation between lower levels of agroecological practices and higher farm income. This is likely not due so much to poor practices on some farms; rather, extremely high levels of sustainable agroecological practices including perhaps an over-diversification of animals and crops on some farms relative to their size.

References:

Buck, Daniel, Christina Getz, and Julie Guthman. 1997. “From Farm to Table: The Organic Vegetable Commodity Chain of Northern California.” Sociologia Ruralis 37(1):3–20.

Goodman, David. 2000. “Organic and Conventional Agriculture: Materializing Discourse and Agro-Ecological Managerialism.” Agriculture and Human Values 17(3):215–19.

Guthman, Julie. 2004b. “The Trouble with ‘Organic Lite’ in California: A Rejoinder to the ‘Conventionalisation’ Debate.” Sociologia Ruralis 44(3):301–16.

Research conclusions:

Many believe the food system needs to be much more regionally and locally oriented in order to decrease greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other harmful effects of the industrial agro-food system. A more agroecologically sensitive food system would not only help reduce harms, it would be beneficial to human health and well-being. CSAs aim to help farmers manage more agroecologically sane systems by providing a model that directly links local consumers and producers in a novel way that builds relationships and agroecological knowledge. Importantly, under CSA, consumers and producers share risk and reward.

As more CSAs have come online, and others have changed, a process has begun in diluting very important aspects of what makes a CSA. Many CSAs have stayed very similar to their original form, others have had changes that improve the system without diluting important aspects of the CSA, but some farms have made changes (and some farms new to CSA) have begun make qualitative changes in practices. For instance, some new CSAs use synthetic pesticides prohibited under USDA Organic standards. Others ship produce in from over 1,000 miles away. Others no longer provide extra produce to members when the season is productive (and there’s been a similar decrease in decreasing produce for members during poor seasons).

Because of these and other changes, CSAs themselves may face negative consequences, including lower prices for shares and more difficulty in selling them. Shareholders may see decreased benefit as well. Most CSA farmers are interested in diversifying (or at least having more options) their crop production, but they need to be able to sell the crop. At the same time, some shareholders may not be willing to try new vegetables. If they are amenable to new produce, they may need advice on how to process and cook the produce. Helping shareholders increase their culinary repertoires takes time and money. So while all CSA farmers who have an interest in growing a diverse array of vegetables would benefit from more shareholders consuming more produce they can grow, it requires a time horizon beyond a year for farmers to be able to rationalize the extra effort. Some CSA farmers may not be considering a longer-term perspective when they are making decisions about their operation.

The knowledge produced from this work (and see more about publication and outreach in section eight below) can help CSA shareholders and farmers make more informed decisions about the operations they participate in and run, respectively. For their part, shareholders can research a farm, talk with the farmer and/or others who know how the CSA works. Shareholders can remember the adage, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” and let farmers know what they like, which may give a counterbalance to those small but boisterous group that want “the conveniences of a supermarket wrapped up in a CSA.” Farmers, for their part, can be explicit about what they do and why. For example, many CSA farms are later than they could be with tomatoes, and it’s ok to state the reasons for that. CSA farmers should let their shareholders (and others) know why they make the choices they do (and the consequences of those choices).

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The main paper reporting results was submitted in early December 2014. Another paper is in progress but yet to be submitted. As these peer-reviewed publications come out, I expect it will be easier to promote the research. At the same time, I will also present the findings at farmer conferences, especially the Northeast Organic Farming Association yearly conference. Presentations thus far are listed below. I’m also planning on resurrecting the CSA-L email listserve that was very active for a number of years and hasn’t been used much since 2011. I want to promote more farmer to farmer sharing of information and resources and hope to kick that off by sharing my findings.

 

“Enter CSA Lite: The Partial Conventionalization and Dilution of Alternative Agriculture’s Radical Edge.” Presentation at the Boston College Sociology Graduate Student Association Research Symposium. Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA. April 14, 2014.

 

“Cooperation Is the Heart of the Moral Economy: The Case of CSA in New England.” Invited Guest Lecture for Rachel Rybaczuk’s course, The Sociology of Food and Labor: Who's Your Farmer? at Boston University, Boston, MA. March 27, 2014

 

“The Entry of CSA Lite and the Dilution of Alternative Agriculture’s Radical Edge.” Media/Movement Research Action Project. Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA. October 16, 2013.

 

"Inequality in the Alternative Agri-Food System." American Sociological Association. New York, New York. August 13, 2013.

 

“Agroecology, Capitalism, Justice: Community supported agriculture past, present, and future.” Society for the Study of Social Problems. New York, New York. August 11, 2013.

 

“Cooperative farming in a competitive environment: Small-scale agriculture in New England.” Rural Sociological Society. New York, New York. August 9, 2013. Also served as moderator for the session.

 

“Agroecology, Capitalism, Justice: Community supported agriculture past, present, and future.” Agriculture and Human Values and the Association for the Study of Food and Society. Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI. June 21, 2013. Also served as moderator for the session.

 

“Scaling up through Replication: Sustainable Agriculture in New England.” Media/Movement Research Action Project. Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA. March 27, 2013.

 

“Community Supported Agriculture and the Complexities of Survival.” Eastern Sociological Society. Boston Park Plaza, Boston, MA. March 24, 2013.

 

“Sustainable Agriculture in New England: Sustainable for Whom?” Boston College Environmental Sociology Working Group. Boston College, Chestunut Hill, MA. February 17, 2012.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The economic analysis comparing the different types of farms is still in progress, and I am writing up the results. The main findings thus far are that the more capitalized a CSA farm is, in terms of machinery, buildings and animals, and land, the higher the likelihood of earning a yearly profit. More hired labor is also correlated with higher earnings. Surprisingly, there is no correlation between agroecological practices and profitability, at least not in the farms in this New England sample. Two issues may be at play here. First, those with higher agroecological standards may not be explaining that enough to shareholders so that it can be reflected in their prices and/or their ability to sell shares. Second, better agroecological practices require upfront costs with long (decade or more) payback periods.

Farmer Adoption

I have extensive notes on interactions with farmers and farm workers. I also have over 100 hours of interview with farmers and farm workers and hundreds of hours of ethnographic data from farmer and consumer experiences. Some of this material will be in the peer-reviewed publications. Other material will be used (and has been used) at presentations. I’d like more of it to get out to farmers but haven’t yet been able to do so in ways that have been effective.

I’d especially like to help CSA farmers better understand the slippery slope of consumer choice and flexibility and what that might do to farmer compensation. I think a special challenge here is that some CSA farms understand themselves in competition with other CSA farms. While this is no doubt true, especially for scaled up and Lite farms and in areas where multiple CSAs reach the same population, there is a collective benefit in growing the overall market for shares. This can be done in a way that makes CSA shares more appealing, with more consumer choice and flexibility and less shared risk. There is another way, which is slower and more difficult, but it involves holding firmly to shared risk and shared reward, maintaining and deepening agroecological practices as well as environmental stewardship more broadly, and helping people participate in a love for the land and the unique possibilities all around New England (or wherever someone uses the CSA model). This path is aligned with the “movement farming” I mentioned earlier.

CSA farmers appreciate that not all CSAs are the same. They also understand many of the reasons for those differences. Some are slightly irritated at what other farmers are doing (and calling it the same thing, “CSA”), but few if any our outright hostile to other CSA famers. In general, CSA farmers would like to do a better job explaining what they are doing and why, to shareholders and others, but they are first and foremost farmers. That is not only what they are good at, but that’s what they enjoy doing. It doesn’t make sense for every farmer, especially small ones, to put lots of resources into making sure folks understand what is special about their farm and why they do what they do. But that is likely unnecessary. Instead, a farmer (or someone who works very closely with the farmer and understands why things are done the way they are, even if practices are ever-evolving) can take a small amount of time to explain the motivations of the CSA and how each year progress is made towards meeting larger goals. Many farms already do this and shareholders appreciate it. It may not seem like the best use of time, but I am confident it will pay off in the future.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

CSA will increasingly become an important area, if for no other reason than the rising number of diversity of operations. But the topic is also interesting and requiring more research because it is such a fascinating and fruitful line of inquiry. For example, some CSAs maintain the premise that agriculture must be completely withdrawn from the fluctuations and vagaries of the marketplace. No farm starts with a blank slate though, they begin in an existing marketplace with rules and norms. How CSA farms, and other small farms and businesses, go about realizing their goals in the face of an existing agro-food system will continue to be an area of interest.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.