Pt. I – Local Food, CSA and the Business of Farming

I loathe the expression “Community Supported Agriculture”. And I say that as a grower who is doing it. It’s just that it sounds like a welfare program for farmers. The title is not necessarily that far from the truth, but I think that it significantly undervalues what small farmers produce, as well as what we (farmers and consumers together) are trying to accomplish.

It’s not that far from the truth because, yes, members of the community are supporting small scale agriculture in one form or another by giving their money to farmers in exchange for food of some kind… The same could also be said about our local Loblaws or Food Basics. The community is supporting another form of agriculture, just perhaps not local, healthy, organic, responsible, or really anything other than industrial and highly efficient (in a very narrow sense). All agriculture is community supported because all people eat food, and all people live in some community or another. So other than being technically correct, the CSA moniker does very little to describe what small farmers and informed consumers are trying to do when they deliberately work together to produce and direct market high quality food.

klSommar,_målning_av_Carl_Larsson*If you haven’t heard the expression before, CSA refers to co-operative arrangements whereby consumers invest in a farm early in the growing season and receive as their dividend regular shares of vegetables, meat, apples, eggs, raw milk, foi gras, emu grease, or whatever.

So when families, individuals, and groups of friends decide: “Hey, I want to eat really good, really fresh food that reflects the land around us, and the seasons we experience,” They aren’t really deciding to “support agriculture”, but they’re deciding: Let us be nourished, let us fully enjoy what the creation around us can yield, let us have health, let us savour, and relish and celebrate the fat of the land.

Or when consumers take a little look at the frightening world of the global food economy and decide to buy shares in a local farm instead of shopping at the grocery store, they are really saying: Let’s invest our hard earned money with people in our community, who will spend it here and employ people here, rather than sending our food budget away through big box stores to agribusiness multinationals.

klPOT464Or when a person realizes that they are ACTUALLY MADE OUT OF FOOD (’tis true, the you that is sitting on that chair is made out of everything you every put in your mouth), and because one is ACTUALLY MADE OUT OF FOOD, that rather than being made out of mass production, industrial chemistry and a ruthless drive for profit, decide that I would rather be a person made out of holistic integrity, and craft, and love, and healthy biology, and a sensitivity to the world around us.

What I am trying to articulate here (you tell me if I am or not), is that when eaters and growers work together to do things in a vibrant, diversified, mutually beneficial way they are engaging in something WAY more profound than “Community Supported Agriculture”. CSA doesn’t even scratch the surface of the values, or levels of intent, or amazing potential for growth and change that happens when people work together to generate a sound and sustainable, healthy and beautiful, accessible and responsible, neat and interesting, economically sensible food system.

kl52d8751e41387ec03b59194b0c168e65So, for now our working title for our farm’s CSA programs is “Farm Share“. It will have to do for now, but I think we’ve needed a new name for CSA for a while. Not that this blog post is going to change anything, but for the sake of it, let’s look at what that could be…

The CSA Model has been around for a goodly length of time now, in a number of different forms. In Elliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower, (Bible of the new generation of small-scale market gardeners) he breaks down all of the different global permutations of the system – and this was back in 1988. What he called his CSA was a ‘Food Guild’. I think that’s a more fitting title (if not vague), because it emphasize 1) the craft of farming, and 2) the special relationship between growers and consumers the arrangement entails. I like it better… but still not there yet.

So, CSA is worldwide, let’s look at the titles of some of the different systems (with help from Wiki and Google Translate).

  • France: AMAP “Association for the maintenance of peasant agriculture”. Kinda cool. I’m not really interested in being a peasant, though I believe the context is again one of craft – and the maintenance of small holdings.
  • Japan: 提携 “Alliance”. I like it. Simple, yet boldly suggestive of the profound and powerful possibilities of the arrangement. It might be a while before the Stockwell Day taint wears off that word, however…
  • Germany: Solidarische Landwirtschaft “Solidarity Agriculture”. Oooh. Very political sounding. Very provocative. I appreciate the emphasis on unity, and the political overtones are very suggestive of the movement’s potential to bring about change.
  • Norway: Andelslandbruk “Share of Agriculture”. I always thought the Norweigans did everything better… Maybe that’s the Swedes. Anyway, let’s keep looking.
  • Italy: Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale “Fair Trade Groups”. Hmmm. Don’t you think it’s funny how the emphasis on Fair Trade products has always been on imported luxury goods, like coffee and chocolate, while every year here in Canada there are fewer and fewer farms? Think the Italians might be onto something with this, but it doesn’t capture what we’re going for either.
  • Bulgaria: Съпричастно земеделие “Participatory Agriculture”. Now we’re getting somewhere! That’s getting much closer to what we’re aiming at – and really, I think, why consumers are drawn to the CSA model. The culture has become so completely disconnected from our food and the land around us (and the deep meaning inherent to it) that what we want now -as much as healthy food- is to PARTICIPATE, to be a part of something real, and challenging, and beautiful. To see it, smell it, feel it, eat it, and ultimately make it a part of ourselves. SALT OF THE EARTH Съпричастно земеделие PROGRAM…!
  • Croatia: Grupa solidarne razmjene “Group Solidarity Exchange”. BAM! Now there’s a title. We’ve got the heaviness of solidarity in there. The group element. The notion of exchange (ie: two way benefits). What are we exchanging again…?

My notions for new titles for CSA aren’t any better, and don’t lend themselves to acronyms…

SUPER AWESOME FOOD FROM SUPER AWESOME FARMERS FOR SUPER AWESOME CUSTOMERS. SAFFSAFFSAC. “Hey did you sign up for a saff saff sack this year? They’re great!” Sadly, this might be my best one.

A TOTALLY DIFFERENT APPROACH TO EATING, FARMING AND ECONOMY. TDAEFE. Dammit, I can’t even pronounce that.

ENVIRONMENTALISM AND SOCIAL JUSTICE IN ACTION. ESJA. Less of a mouthful at least.

The I DON’T WANT MY KIDS TO GET CANCER OR WANT MY FAMILY TO STARVE WHEN THE FOOD SYSTEM COLLAPSES program. Emphasizing the health, and food security aspects of CSA. noCANCnoSTARVprog. Maybe not focussing enough on the positives?

Ok. My ideas are awful. What is missing is the essential reason I am drawn to farming. It’s the hardest part to articulate, it’s impossible to pencil out, and it’s always changing… I can’t speak for other farmers, or you (whoever you are), or anyone else, but the reason I love farming -enough to pursue it like this- is because I find it utterly amazing and magical.

klAPP783Yes, just plain magical. Absolutely amazing. Mind blowing. It speaks to a wondrous providence that seeds want to grow, and animals want to reproduce, and that we can hitch things behind horses to drag through the ground, and somehow food emerges. Not only that, but that we have the power to orchestrate and harness these forces. It’s never gotten boring. It is truly endlessly interesting. Every crop, every year, every plant, every birth, every death is a story; our lives get woven into it. Every year the farmer’s eye gets more subtle, new details emerge, lessons are learned: accumulated experience becomes wisdom.

At one point in my life, I wanted to try to change the world. What idealistic person hasn’t? Every now and then it actually happens. For me at least, farming has become that outlet. I literally get to change the face of the earth -just a little bit of it. What a strange privilege. 400 acres to bring into productivity. To establish order in chaos, productivity in waste, beauty in neglect.

klwoodcutters-in-the-forest-1906(1)Not just a woodlot: a managed forest, producing maple syrup, edible mushrooms, nuts for hogs to fatten on, lumber, warmth for people’s homes…

klFER762Not just an old hayfield: intensive gardens that grow richer and more productive every year. Producing fruit and vegetables that nourish our community, that entertain and excite us, that challenge our culinary skills and imagination.

klcowgirl-in-the-meadow-1906(1)Not just some growed up bush: rotationally grazed pastures, that go from scrub land to green fields. That produce meat and eggs, multiplying herds, leather, wool, horse power to work the land.

How can I condense that into a three letter acronym? How do I articulate the profundity of our role as stewards, beneficiaries, and humble inhabitants of this earth? It is all just so beautiful.

Thanks for reading. More on the business side of small scale agriculture coming soon.

klon-the-farm-1905(1)Paintings by the Swedisn illustrator Carl Larsson, from his beautiful, 100 year old book of watercolours, “A Farm”

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