On My Soapbox
It’s Fall CSA Share
sign up time, for many
farms, including mine here in southeast Dallas County. That means I’m
on my soapbox. So, kick off your shoes, grab something to drink and check
this article out. It’s a bit longer than a “blog” entry, so I guess I'll
have to qualify it as a self published article. Oh well. I was on a
roll, what can I say?
Back in 2007 or so, a certain book crossed my path.
I’d started toying with the idea of starting up a farm using the CSA model
Sharing the Harvest was the go-to instruction manual as well as
history book on the subject.
By paraphrasing here for you parts of the Forward, Introduction,
written by then co-founder of the CSA movement in the States, Robyn Van
En, as well as the beginning of the book written by her co-founder
Elizabeth Henderson, you may see how it absolutely touched my soul, as
well as my conscience. As just a person who shopped for food, prepared it
and ate – like most of America, it was certainly an education.
It took me many years to feel worthy enough to
acknowledge myself as a farmer because of how indebted I felt to the many
generations of farmers that had fed me all of my life, without my having
given it a second thought.
“Most of what we pay for our food goes to companies
that transport, process and market what comes off the farm, not to farmers
themselves. The people who actually grow food don’t get paid enough to
keep on doing it.” (From the book’s Forward, written by Joan Dye Gussow,
PHD, Food Producer
Producers + Food Consumers + Annual Commitment to One Another = CSA”
“The CSA equivalent was developed in Japan in 1971,
initiated by a group of women concerned about the use of pesticides, the
increase in processed and imported foods, and the corresponding decrease
in the local farm population.”
These women apparently approached a local farmer and
worked out an agreement and what was called the teikei movement was begun.
Teiki means “partnership” or “cooperation”, but philosophically, it meant,
“food with the farmer’s face on it.”
Chapter one of this book starts by saying that CSA
“is a connection between a nearby farmer and the people who eat the food
that the farmer grew.”
“Food Producers +
Food Consumers + Annual Commitment to One Another = CSA”
“The essence of the CSA relationship is the mutual
commitment; the people support the farm and share the inherent risks
and potential bounty. By pre-paying for their food, essentially, they
helped the farmer not only financially, but saved them countless hours of
marketing the sale of the bulk of their crops, by providing a guaranteed
market of eager consumers.
Many generations ago, growing food nearby to where
one lived, was pretty ordinary, it was as basic as breathing and drinking.
If this basic connection were to be broken, trouble was sure to follow.
Well, guess what – it’s pretty broken these days. In
the USA, most citizens have no clue where their food comes from, how it is
grown, what it takes to go from seed (or cutting/transplants) to the food
that they pick up off the shelf at the store, at their favorite eatery or
out of a vending machine. They don’t know who grew it, nor can they see it
growing, much less touch the soil that produced it. And many could care
less, so long as it’s cheap.
With the onset of “free trade” the number of miles
food traveled was extended. Plus, it’s often produced in countries where
the people’s pay, and sometimes growing standard, is considerably lower
than our own. Wages here are already pretty low for agricultural workers,
which means our own country’s farmers can’t even sell what they grow
within our own country, and many of the workers can't afford to buy it!
But everyone is all excited at the supermarket when
there’s a sale on this or that vegetable or fruit, especially if it’s not
even “in-season”. Most don’t usually stop to think about where it came
from or at what human cost that cheap price came at.
Enter NAFTA and walah! We had tomatoes year round as
well as other produce normally only found seasonally, and at much lower
prices than before.
Then, the WTO allowed government supported apple
juice concentrate from China – to undersell our prize winning state of
Washington’s juice. (Contrary to what many may not know, most produce is
not subsidized by the “farm bills” often in the news during renewal time.
go to farms producing commodity crops like alfalfa, cotton, and
genetically modified animal feed crops, corn, soy and sugar beets, that is
later turned into sweetener and cheap, mass produced foods.
Oh yeah – cheap snacks and cases of cheap soda! Woo
hoo for us! (And our declining health.)
Farmers of produce, however, were – and still are -
shouldering the risk, entirely on their own, of this brave, new “free
trade” market. This forces many off of their land because they just can’t
cover costs anymore. It is often more profitable for them to sell out to
developers, as we lose farmland at alarming rates every year.
CSA to the rescue! – “the only model of
farming in which customers consciously agree to share the risk and
benefits with the farmers.”
CSA offers one of the most hopeful chances to save
small, family farms from a downward spiral, that only promises to get
worse, the more global trade and retail co op programs that pop up,
keeping prices lower than American farmers can compete with; large or
Community shared the risks of nature, (crop failure, due to weather,
disease, pests, etc.), with the farmer, who’s tireless hours of work, was
CSA programs were started up all over North America
in the 90’s at the urging and coaching of Robyn and Elizabeth. They soon
gathered brochures and newsletters from CSA programs all throughout Canada
and the US in order to write the book, in hopes of helping other
struggling farmers, farmers who needed help starting a farm and consumers
who wanted to help secure a local source of food for their families.
The culmination of all of what was sent in, became
the foundation for the book, which revealed many different nuances of CSA,
but all came with the same underlying philosophy;
shared the risks of nature, (crop failure, due to weather, disease, pests,
etc.), with the farmer, who’s tireless hours of work, was always
basic element in and of itself, is what sets CSA apart far and wide from
any food co op share program, on-line ordering to your door food club
service or really even shopping at the local farmer’s market.
There is no shared risk in paying only for what you
get, when and if the farmer is able to produce it and get it to market.
Shopping around for the best price or out of season
selection from a grocer, means the many layers between you and the farmer
leaves pennies on the dollar going to those who grew it, and took all of
the risk. Small, indie owned grocery stores, like Green Grocer, The Green
Spot, Poteger's Other Stuff, and various others, are your best bet for
better farmer compensation, but there still has to be some loss of
margin if the retailer is going to stay in business and still compete with
other grocers. (Although, you often find exclusive items at these
CSA answers the growing concern of production and
distribution of food that is grown to the standards we expect – high
quality, carefully and responsibly grown.
Early on in the movement, in the mid 90’s, however,
large farms started adding CSA to their other marketing programs, which
often watered down the original sense of involvement and shared risk by
When there is a lot of competition for the same
product, as there is in CA, it was often risky on the part of the farmer
to ask for this risk sharing, because some people, who may not fully grasp
the importance of that very unique aspect, will find a more secure source
of produce if an interruption in the flow of shares comes along. Sometimes
doing so, by-passes the local or organic sources, through a co op or other
food club, unbeknown to the consumer.
This is something I’ve seen happen a lot in DFW as
various non-farmer entrepreneurs came to town a few years ago when the CSA
movement was just starting to take hold here.
Farmers who had 150 – 200 members, and were making a
decent income, saw those numbers drop considerably as more food co-ops and
big out of town farms moved onto the local scene to grasp some of the
quickly increasing interest in local food.
Unable to compete with a guaranteed food “share”,
especially with the ensuing effects of the drought, and the input of
imported fruits and veggies when our state’s weather or season didn’t
produce them, many have all but gone out of business, or nearly killed
themselves trying to compete.
Keeping up with the Joneses is financial suicide in
farming when the Joneses are compiled of several out of state, or at the
very least, much larger more accomplished, farms looking to expand.
is happening all over the country, especially where genuine farmer direct
CSA is not truly understood or promoted by media.
Co-opting food from several sources is much different
than pulling a share of the harvest together from one's own property. And
buying and re-selling produce is kind of counter productive to being a
farmer, unless you're buying things for your members that you are unable
to grow. But, this is very risky, too, and not how most core members would
want their share membership monies spent - to support some out of state
of the differences between CSA and Co-op, however, many consumers
unwittingly had a part in what has resulted in only a handful of truly
small, local family owned farms hanging on by a wing and a prayer here in
our North Texas region.
And this is happening all over the country,
especially where genuine farmer direct CSA is not truly understood or
promoted by media.
Many newbie farmers start out with corporate career
savings only to find looped together one or two poor seasons of drought,
flooding, extreme freezes, etc, taking a huge bite out of any profit they
may have enjoyed, and quickly draining their safety net.
Many are forced to send one partner or the other back
to an off-farm job – when there is a partner to do so. Many times both
work multiple jobs and try to keep the farm going in the wee hours, while
siphoning money into the farm from the “real-world” job. And they slink up
to a drive-through and eat way below their normal standards, just because
there just is no time to work so many hours and prepare the beautiful food
they’re growing and raising – and selling to others to eat!
It’s sad to me to see the fast food wrappers in the
trash of a fellow farmer’s front seat, when I know full well they are
growing gourmet quality food, but have to do chores instead of preparing
their own meals.
CSA was designed to keep this craziness from
happening! Yet, more and more people are steering away from this
livelihood saving model, and snatching up the home delivery services of
food co-ops often masking themselves as “just like a CSA”, when nothing
could be further from the truth, or being offered more payment options, or
It was similar when large chemical companies started
with the introduction of “eco-friendly” labels being sold right next to
their own brand of highly toxic, un-environmentally friendly products.
Sure, it’s a free market, and I support that. But
calling your company “earth friendly” on one label while selling something
that kills the planet on the next – seemed a bit hypocritical to many, and
thus was tagged as “greenwashing”. Not a tag a company wants, yet still
today, so many get away with hiding behind because consumers are
ill-informed or outright misled through deceptive marketing. I've seen
this right here in our local food scene as well.
farmer direct purchase means that all of your food dollars are
going to the farmer to help pay the budget to keep that farm in your
community sustainable during hard times.
Now, we’re also seeing large conventional companies
buying up small batch, organic and sustainable independent producers;
presumably so they can keep as much of the % of your food dollar as
possible. Organics is growing, but geez, we don't make up but a very small
percentage. Some want it all!
This morphing of smaller, organic companies, also
gives them a lot of scary clout at the USDA’s and FDA’s tables when
discussions come around for what should and what should not be allowed in
the process of growing organically and food safety standards.
lobbyists make various promises, or former big ag employees have
persuasive positions within our government, small, local farmers don’t
have much of a chance to have their voices heard. Nor does the consumer
end up with a voice, either, as they are kept in the dark because of lack
of informative labeling, or again, misleading marketing.
So you see, if you really want to know where
your food comes from, how it was produced, who grew it and look your
farmer eye, like you can your mechanic, your doctor and lawyer; CSA is the
Your farmer direct purchase means that all
of your food dollars are going to the farmer to help pay the budget to
keep that farm in your community sustainable during hard times. Your money
is not going to some middleman, wholesaler, and transportation company,
Trust me, all
of the small farmers I've known, have lowered their overhead much lower
than most people would choose to live, just to survive another season.
Your food dollars spent "farmer direct" help keep
people from losing their homes, working without proper equipment; and
potentially, giving up their very livelihoods.
They work hard for you – and appreciate you.
We all love what we do, but can't do it for pennies
on the dollar, and keep doing it very long, any more than any one else who
works for a living could.
Shake the hand that feeds you.
CSA – Farmer Direct – All the Way!