This project will begin in winter/spring 2018. To date, a relationship has been established with the participating farm. Over the spring semester, I will seek project approval from the Institutional Review Board; formalize the plan with farmers using a written agreement on expectations and commitments; defend my dissertation proposal, enabling me to begin research recognized by my program; and begin research on the farm. Initial stages of research will involve participant observations, farmer interviews, and on-farm sustainability analysis. Later stages, in late 2018 or early 2019, will involve CSA member interviews and PhotoVoice, along with business model analysis. Educational outcomes will be geared towards farming communities (for example, at NOFA conferences) and will also be directed by results and conclusions.
The purpose of this project is to explore the viability of a “full-diet” CSA model for increasing regional food consumption and supporting livelihoods of northeastern farmers. “Sustainability” in food has three pillars—not only environmental, but also economic and social (Van Cauwenbergh et al., 2007). For farming, sustainable operations must maintain ecological capacity for output, economic inputs of sales, and the support of surrounding community. This study aims to assess whether such outcomes can be achieved through a novel CSA model incorporating a whole diet approach.
CSAs have been identified as one way of creating local, sustainable food systems.
CSA operations usually function as subscriptions, with members buying in at the beginning of and receiving food throughout the growing season. This approach allows farmers to share financial risk with their customers in the case of disasters and low yields; calculate how much food to produce; have a reliable market; and save on labor costs associated with selling at farmers’ markets. Environmentally, CSAs tend to use agroecological methods, cultivate biodiversity, and meet or exceed National Organic Program standards of practice (R. Galt, O’Sullivan, Beckett, & Hiner, 2012); agroecological practices have been identified as a primary opportunity to create resilient and productive agroecosystems in the face of climate change and other natural resource degradation (Altieri, Funes-Monzote, & Petersen, 2012). On the consumer side, CSAs have been shown to significantly increase fruit and vegetable consumption (Cohen, Gearhart, & Garland, 2012), foster a sense of community (Lang, 2010), and fulfill a desire to re-embed food in a local context (Schnell, 2007). CSAs vary in their structure, but replicability is high, tripling between 2009 and 2015 to over 6,000 operations nationally (Paul, 2015).
A new model is emerging in this community: the full-diet (or whole-diet) CSA, which is designed to provide all the food needed for its members’ diets—no supplementary shopping necessary. The U.S. has at most a few dozen full-diet operations (Massey, 2015). All the benefits of CSAs can be enhanced by a full-diet CSA, providing more reliable income for farmers, fully diversified farming systems, and fully localized diets. The model takes one step further an established recommendation for CSA farmers to diversify their business models through offering meat, winter produce, and products from partner farms (Cannella, 2011).
Despite the potential of full-diet CSAs to address economic, environmental, and social goals, the scientific literature contains significant gaps that impede understanding and wider adoption. Much of existing CSA literature focuses on farmer and consumer perceptions, and some on health benefits of CSA membership (Wilkins, Farrell, & Rangarajan, 2015; Allen IV, Rossi, Woods, & Davis, 2017). Interestingly, almost all studies take for granted that CSA practices are eco-friendly, without questioning or analyzing impacts of specific practices. Preliminary research suggests CSAs do transform member diets and localize consumption (Schor & Thompson, 2014). No studies appear to address the interplay between economic, environmental, and community dynamics, and there is no research on the full-diet model and its relationship to these three pillars of sustainability.
Our proposed response to this gap is a full-cycle case study of a full-diet CSA. Case study represents the best method here, partly because there are too few examples to survey, and partly because a whole-system analysis is the only way to capture the multiple, interacting facets of an operation’s impact. The study will ask two essential questions: 1) is this model economically viable and environmentally resilient, while transforming local diets? 2) If so, is it adaptable for other farmers, in different contexts?
This inquiry will benefit not only researchers, in their understanding of viable food systems solutions, but also the farming community itself. CSA farmers are more likely to self-exploit labor than other farmers (R. E. Galt, 2013), and while CSA operations do better than the USDA farming average, they still usually do not provide adequate incomes to workers and farmers (Paul, 2015). Perhaps exacerbating these issues, CSA farmers are less likely than others to come from farming families, and tend to underutilize services such as agricultural extension; in other words, they are especially in need of institutional knowledge as well as viable financial examples (Worden, 2004).
In essence, “sustainability” is ability to continue into the future (Hansen, 1996). This study aims to illuminate the opportunities and potential obstacles of the full-diet CSA model to meet farmer and consumer needs and thereby promote sustainable, local food systems.
All objectives will be supported with NESARE funds, if granted. All objectives will be supported with NESARE funds, if granted.
1. Assess the full-diet CSA business model
Is the farm profitable? Does it provide livable income for the operators as well as employees? What are the major expenses and revenues; what is making the business profitable, or not? Is there potential to expand? Are more expensive CSA shares (e.g. NYC) subsidizing less expensive pick-up shares?
2. Evaluate the degree to which CSA members’ diets are supported by the farm share
Are members eating exclusively, or nearly exclusively, from their share? If they purchase outside ingredients, what are they, and in what volumes? How have diets changed, or not, as a result of membership? What are the implications for members’ health? What are the implications for members’ personal finances?
3. Gauge the environmental sustainability impacts of farm practices
How do the farmers conceptualize and practice environmental sustainability? Do practices align with established standards of sustainable farming? How does the farm compare to other organic farms? What are future metrics for measuring sustainability on-farm?
4. Determine adaptability/scalability of the model
Is the model meeting farmer and member needs? Does this model seem to be usable in other places, or are there particular circumstances that allow it to thrive in this context? Are those circumstances replicable?
Approach and Methods
We propose a case study of Essex Farm in Essex, NY. The farm runs a “full-diet” CSA designed to provide all its members’ food needs, and offer on-farm pick-up for locals and delivery to subscribers in Albany, NYC, and the Tri-Lakes area. Essex farm produces meat (grass-fed beef, pastured pork, chicken), milk, eggs, fifty varieties of vegetables, fruit, grains and flour, and maple syrup. Animals are fed certified-organic food. The farm is powered by people, horses, and solar power. They use no conventional pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. They employ 20 people and feed approximately 225 members. Mark Kimball, co-owner and operator with his wife Kristin, claims that he only works 40 hours per week and has a maintainable lifestyle.
This project will follow a concurrent mixed methods design, collecting both qualitative and quantitative data and combining them at the analysis stage for a holistic case study. This approach allows research and analysis to maximize the strengths of both kinds of data—what is happening (quantitative) and why it is so (qualitative) (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2007). It is a single-subject case study (Neuman, 2011) designed for a depth and richness in observations and conclusions.
Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval will be obtained before any research begins.
Methods for each objective are as follows:
- Assess the full-diet CSA business model
- Quantitative analysis of financial records from 10 years of farm operation
- Farmer interviews (n=7: 1 operators, 5 employees, 1 office manager)
- Participant observations on the farm (once per week for 8 weeks; 8 total)
To address whether the business model is a viable alternative for other CSA farmers, the farm’s financial records will be analyzed in QuickBooks and SPSS Statistics software package. Researchers will consult with farmers and with an experiences quantitative researcher recruited at UVM about the best approach for financial analysis.
Farmer interviews will supplement this data and help direct analysis with explanations of major costs, revenues, profitability, and opportunities. Particular attention will be given to employee remuneration, valuation of owner/operator labor, and overall farmer livelihood support. Interviewees owner and operator Mark Kimball and office manager Anne Brown, plus 5 farm employees that will be recruited from the pool of 20, selected for a range of experience and duration at this farm. All interviews, for this and other objectives, will be semi-structured, with pointed questions that also allow for unexpected data to emerge. All interviews will also be audio recorded, transcribed, and coded in data analysis platform ATLAS.ti, following established qualitative coding guidelines (Neuman, 2011).
Participant observations will ground analysis by embedding results in the existing context, both embodied and social, and will be conducted by assisting as a farm volunteer on tasks and events. Observations will be transcribed after each session and then coded in ATLAS.ti. Coding protocol will be mostly directed toward answering questions related to objectives, but will also allow for emergent themes.
- Evaluate the degree to which CSA members’ diets are supported by the farm share
- Interviews and in-kitchen participant observations with CSA members (5 pick-up members, 5 NYC members) (n = 10)
- Photovoice participant photography of personal pantry, meals (same participants as interviews) (n=10)
- Survey emailed to all CSA members (n=225)
To address whether a full-diet CSA model can support and transform people’s diets, members will be interviewed, surveyed, and observed. Questions will be developed based on literature review and consultation with extension agent Lisa Chase and will be focused on: meals produced with CSA contents; groceries purchased elsewhere; perceptions of change in diet, lifestyle, and health. Surveys will be administered online, following the Dillman Total Design Method, which traditionally garners very high response rates (Hoddinott & Bass, 1986) and has been updated for Internet data collection (Dillman, Smyth, & Christian, 2008).
Interviews and participant observations will follow the same protocol detailed under Objective 1. Interviewees will be recruited through CSA records and pick-up, with a group as diverse as possible in terms of demographics such as age, socioeconomic status, and race, and gender; interviews will take place in home kitchens to allow for simultaneous participant observations. Interviewees will also take part in a Photovoice project, a participatory action method of allowing people to document what they deem important in their lives, in this case directed towards pantries and meals made from CSA and other foods. This method has established use particularly in food projects (for examples, see (Tallant, 2011; Valera, Gallin, Schuk, & Davis, 2009; Díez et al., 2017). Participants will be given the option of receiving a disposable camera or taking digital photographs with their own phone or camera.
- Gauge the environmental sustainability impacts of farm practices
- Interviews with farmers (n=7)
- Participant observations of on-farm practices
- Completion of 2014 Organic Survey for farm
On-farm practices will be compared to environmental standards for sustainability from the literature on organic, diversified and integrated systems, and agroecological practices. Practices will also be compared to national data from the 2014 Organic Survey conducted by the USDA (“Census of Agriculture – Organic Survey,” n.d.). This information will be compared with information from the farmers to gauge whether this method of full-diet CSA farming is environmentally resilient. Interview questions and participant observation protocol connected with this objective will be developed directly from the Organic Survey and related literature review. Interviewees will be the same as for Objective 1.
- Determine adaptability/scalability of the model
- Interviews with farm employees (n=7)
- Integration and analysis of collected qualitative and quantitative data
This stage of research will be analysis of collected data to answer the question “can this model be implemented elsewhere?” Farm employees—again, the same as interviewed for Objectives 1 and 2—will also weigh in on this question directly. Is the model economically viable and environmentally resilient? What is the connection between the two?
Lisa Chase will provide input on which findings are relevant to other farmers. Integration of qualitative and quantitative data is a new approach and lacks consistent guidelines (Creswell, 2013); data integration will depend largely on findings in each category, but will be designed to present statistical and financial analysis alongside narrative explanation to illuminate otherwise abstract numerical findings.
There are no results as yet.
There are no conclusions as yet.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Education and outreach will commence after research has concluded (late 2018-early 2019). Anticipated activities are detailed in the grant application; actual activities will be guided by this plan and also by the kinds of results coming from the research.
There are no project outcomes as yet.