Community supported agriculture and the complexities of survival
As 2014 approaches, this SARE-supported project–Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and the Complexities of Survival–is nearing completion. Data collection is complete, data analysis is progressing, and I have begun writing up the main findings. This summary will highlight findings at this point. First, I should note that the scope of the project has expanded. Surveys were sent to approximately one-seventh of CSAs in New England on a weighted basis, meaning the states with more CSAs listed in my aggregated database received more surveys. While the interview portion of the data collection is still biased towards Massachusetts CSA farmers, I have successfully expanded the project to examine the changing nature of CSAs in all of New England and factors that influence their survival.
Thus far, there are two main findings. First, I argue there are three main types of CSAs, with a fourth “faux CSA” on the horizon. These types work to periodize CSA while also clarifying how they have changed in response to survival and profitability concerns. The types are not “hard and fast” but rather guideposts. A CSA farm can have features of different types of CSA, for instance. Here, I provide a very brief overview of the types. I also raise my second main finding at this point–the different types have arrived on the scene in response to specific issues, such as desire of some CSA farmers to earn higher wages necessitating farm growth and mechanization. On the other hand, the most recent iteration–CSA faux–is coming about through extant farm operations capitalizing on the cachet associated with “CSA”. While more accented in the latter CSA faux case, both processes dilute the intentions of the original model and may not bode well for CSA profitability and survival in the future.
The first type, “CSA original” was associated with biodynamic farming. These CSAs usually had animals and cultivated as much on-farm fertility as possible. They were low-tech operations, and still “figuring out” how to do CSA. CSA original shareholders were required to “buy into a whole lifestyle” meaning the commitment was high. Most of these farms required shareholders to work on the farm or otherwise help with the operation. Some of these farms were run by members or at least started with a core group that included shareholders. This model still exists. The main change to the next type came from the desire to earn a higher income (sometimes described as enough to be able to afford healthcare and to help children with college), which, when combined with a desire to make shares more affordable, meant scaling up the operation.
The main changes to the second type, “CSA scaled up”, came from mechanization, more sophisticated agroecological knowledge and planning especially regarding the requirements of weekly CSA shares, and generally reducing the commitment from shareholders. Scaled up farms began sending shares to pick up points in urban and suburban settings, as opposed to requiring pickup on-farm.
“CSA lite”, the third iteration, further reduces shareholder requirements. Customers are no longer required to pay in advance; sometimes they can receive refunds. A greater proportion of food is grown on other farms, sometimes at far distances including food that could be grown on-site. I argue that CSA lite farms have reduced shareholder commitment to the point that many benefits of the original notion of CSA are lost, and that, ultimately, these farms are eroding their own profitability in the future.
While many of these changes have come about from rational decisions, some of the benefits of the CSA model are in jeopardy. For example, CSA farmers have put in a great deal of work to educate shareholders on seasonality and what can be grown in different regions at different times of the year. As CSA farms increasingly ship in produce from greater distances, this benefit is eroded. Importantly, shareholders will come to expect such choice in CSA and may be unhappy if they subscribe to another CSA that only provides what they can grow on-farm and perhaps fruit from a nearby orchard.
I discuss many other changes, but I want to stress here that they are usually rational and “make sense” from the farmer’s perspective. However, CSA farmers would do well to consider themselves as a class of farmers trying to do something different from other purely profit-maximizing firms. Some CSA farmers already understand this, but there would be benefit in more macro-level as well as longer-term thinking.
In addition to the completed goals mentioned in the 2012 annual review for this project, I have now completed the following:
1) Complete farm database
2) Administer survey
3) Conduct interviews (35 complete)
4) Complete analysis (in progress)
5) Write up findings (in progress)
6) Publicize findings (in progress)
I have reported initial findings at four annual conferences–Agriculture and Human Values, Rural Sociological Association, American Association of Sociology, Society for the Study of Social Problems.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
In addition to the higher level impacts mentioned in the 2012 report, I aim to contribute a detailed analysis on the changing nature of CSA farms and what these changes entail for the enterprise. I hope that clarifying this issue will assist current and future CSA farmers in fulfilling their own goals, as well as those of the original CSA proponents (see, e.g., Trauger Groh and Steven McFadden, “Farms of Tomorrow Revisited: Community Supported Farms, Farm Supported Communities”).
I will make a concerted effort to publicize these findings to CSA farmers and other interested parties around New England and when possible nationally.