Collaborative CSAs

One important idea of sustainable agriculture is diversified small farms. But, how many species/varieties is enough?

Sometimes I wake up at night or think of something before bed that I have to write down before I can get back to sleep.  In this case, it’s still before midnight (yay), although more often, it happens around 4:30 in the morning (boo).

How diverse should a new generation of farms look?  How many crop species and crop varieties should a small farm have at any given time?  Many would look to history and a time when every farmer grew a little bit of everything; they’d grow everything they needed to support their family and sell surpluses for a little bit of income.

The modern CSA (community supported agriculture) mimics these farms, often quite well. Most provide a huge array of produce, which sometimes intimidates first-year subscribers.  But, I challenge you to find one CSA that lasts more than ten years or is run by a grower that works less than 55 hours a week.

Is that sustainable?

I’ve worked on a couple CSAs and in some ways they helped me realize the benefits of efficiency. (Perhaps my German background and brief life as engineer/programmer is talking). With a little bit of inspiration from innovative markets like Athens Locally Grown (which I plan to talk about more later), I thought of a new potential model for a CSA. What if a team of farmer’s got together to provide baskets of food like a CSA, but each of the growers only grows a couple crops per year?

Ideally, this might help decrease participating growers’ work-load down to something manageable for a part-time farmer (which many growers are). It might also help decrease those really successful growers’ 60 hour work-week down to something more reasonable.

Technology makes marketing this approach as easy as marketing a CSA. And while there might be a few kinks in the supply chain, it seems likely a single box truck could be shared between the farms, further streamlining the distribution process.

I know there are no silver bullets when it comes to marketing, but this approach seemed like one worthy of writing down. I’d love to hear some feedback from any new readers! What do you think? Hare-brained scheme or an idea with some potential?

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8 thoughts on “Collaborative CSAs

  1. I like your questions and the lines you’re thinking along here, but I come to different conclusions, especially now that I’m 8 (going on 9) years into farming for a living and all but the first year with a CSA.
    The biggest disadvantage I see to a multi-farm CSA is that it directly undermines the very most important part of the CSA concept as I see it, namely getting consumers that are used to scattering their dollars all over the place to invest in a particular place enough to get to know it just a little bit and begin to understand and value the differences between production systems. Our consumer model wants to turn everything into a commodity, and as soon as a product is defined as equivalent to its counterparts, then the race to the bottom begins, trying to produce that product as efficiently/cheaply as possible. That’s no path to sustainability. The CSA is a wonderful tool for breaking out of that consumer-centric model. Instead of a consumer-centric model, I think we need to be pushing for a place-based/land-based/farm-centric model, if we want to develop any real alternative to our present way of business. So what I think we need most, and what our particular CSA is all about, is a deepening of connections, not streamlining.
    A couple other random thoughts. Yes, my wife and I work 55+ hours/week, but what model of farming (that you’d want to imitate) has there ever been in the history of the whole world where the farmers (and their 14 children) didn’t work 55+ hours/week? Is that sustainable? It has been historically for many generations.
    Another very big issue I see with the multi-farm CSA concept is the specialization vs. diversification issue. Can you give examples of how growing a couple crops would be more efficient than diversification? The only examples I can think of would amount to “sustainable” farms operating more like conventional or “industrial-organic” farms. If my farm were more specialized, I could use more plastic (for irrigation and mulch, etc.) instead of relying mainly on natural rainfall and watering limited crops in especially dry periods; I could use chemicals to thin far more acres than I could hand thin in the narrow window of time for the task; I could use chemicals to keep the apples from falling of the trees so that I could widen the window for that task and thereby grow more acres…

    1. Hey Eric, thanks for commenting! I hope you come back in the future to share more ideas.

      1) a) Even if there were no historical examples of farmers working less than 40 hours a week, I think we could both agree that doesn’t mean it’s technically impossible. b) I have heard (but don’t have time to look up) that in the middle ages peasants worked *less* than we do except perhaps during the pinnacle of planting and harvesting seasons. In the source that i can’t recall, their math required including the time we work outside the 40 hour work week, eg. raising kids, maintaining houses and other things that could be classified as work. One way they did this was through simpler living (smaller houses are easier to maintain) and community effort (community child-rearing). When it came time for planting and harvesting seasons, everyone chipped in, crop mob style. The whole village would take part.

      I had a second response that I accidentally deleted…about streamlining doesn’t necessarily mean less sustainable. My examples were Alex and Betsy Hitt’s farm and Joel Salatin’s polyface farm, which both have a streamlined production system and are both recognized as leaders in regional and national circles respectively. I think you’re right that sometimes community gets left out, which is another reason I think Crop Mobs are an important effort that I hope remains vibrant.

  2. Hi Eric,
    Thanks for the response. I like your vision, but there are parts that don’t seem very realistic, and I’d be afraid for what would fill the gap between the vision and reality. The Hitts and Joel could highlight some of those gaps.
    Let me say first, though, that I respect the Hitts and see them as a positive influence, but I see Joel mainly as a corrupting influence on the local-organic movement. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’m in any way lumping the Hitts and Joel together when I criticize Joel.
    I think Joel is the leading example for how to make money off the local-organic movement without even trying to build a separate system of agriculture. Joel imports/buys more calories of fossil fuel-intensive, chemically fertilized, chemical herbicide- and pesticide-intensive feed than he exports/sells calories of food. His chicks come from completely conventional hatcheries. I assume his feeder pigs are similar. He talks a grand talk and I’m sure he’s making good money off the cause, but what he’s really selling is chemical-intensive corn and soy dressed up as “beyond organic.” And he’s leading lots and lots of small farmers to imitate his model. We’re not going to accomplish anything for the cause if our expectations are built on the kind of profits that can be made by reprocessing cheap, chemical-intensive grain.
    Joel is an extreme, but I think a major failing of the local-organic movement more generally is that it has focused on the most profitable niches and left so much else out of the equation. What are we really changing if we grow/eat local-organic garden crops and meat like Joel’s? We wouldn’t be changing 10% of the cropland in America. That’s a big part of why I think we need to go deeper. Maybe we can think about streamlining 200 years from now, but if we can’t achieve some significant independence from the consumer-driven food system what have we got to streamline?
    -Eric

    1. To be honest, this is probably not my most realistic or far-reaching idea. This is essentially a sandbox idea, which is why it is in the blog and not linked along the mainpage links (like integrated crop-livestock systems: http://wp.me/P1IVme-1P) One thing that I think has the most promise about this idea is to help form a community of farmers that are all working together as a coalition. Sure farmers markets can facilitate positive interactions but in my experience there is a slightly cold/competitive environment.

      I also think this idea could really help bring underrepresented groups, particularly existing farmers of color, into the food movement. These groups often have less access to upscale markets that we often take for granted. Sure I’m a young farmer starting from scratch, but I could learn a hell of a lot from a farmer of color in the South about hardship. Bringing everyone in is crucial in my view to our mutual success. For example, farmers with few resources that grew up farming will have some pretty innovative solutions that I would never think of. At the same time, they might be open to or, indeed, already practice/have knowledge of traditional/organic agriculture.

      I think the future of farming will depend on more collaborative and mutualistic relationships between farmers. CSAs *can* build a mutualistic relationship between producers and consumers, but it’s not always true and they definitely don’t help build cohesion withing the farming community. The most sustainable models (based on conversations with part-time anthropologists and full-time farmers at the SAEA conference) are those that require a truly mutualistic investment of not only financial capital, but also time and energy in the form of labor requirements on the farm. Once people really understand the work that goes into farming, they are happier to keep paying what they fully understand is a fair price.

      One example of a collaborative CSA that I recently learned of is called Carolina Grown (carolinagrown.org). They sound interesting but I know of little more than the name.

      I apparently haven’t done my homework on Joel and I defer to your judgement. Although, while finally reading Omnivore, I was surprised that this was Pollan’s idea of “small/local/organic” based on the scale of the operations I read about. However, I have met at least one disgruntled former intern and got the sense that Joel may have fallen into the intern exploitation racket.

      Finally, I 100% agree that we need to go deeper. The way I see it, better markets and *any* market for staples are the biggest barrier in that movement. We have moved on from vegetables to meat. Staples seem like the next frontier. All three sectors need better market penetration though, and I hope to discuss some ideas I have about that in a future post/front page article.

      Cheers! Look me up if you’re in Durham sometime.
      Thanks again for your comments.
      -Eric

  3. There’s so much to discuss here, and I’m only just hitting the edges. Thanks again for the reply. It would be nice to be able to talk in person some time. You’re likewise very welcome to visit us here (west of Winston-Salem).
    I think you’re right to point out the importance of shared labor. But that’s another reason I have a bias for lower tech, more diversified farms. For one thing those kinds of farm tend to have more grunt projects that consumers might safely get involved in. For another, those kinds of farms depend more on other such farms, so I think they tend to help each other out more than the more mechanized and specialized farms.
    Even if this is just a sandbox idea, issues of specialization in the local-organic food movement are very real. You point out very valid advantages of cooperation, though. I think getting people to “really understand the work that goes into farming,” as you put it, is fundamental to building a better system of alternative agriculture.
    If we break things down even further than the major groups of vegetables, meat, and staples, I think how weak the local-organic food movement is really comes across. I think there’s a good supply of fresh vegetables, but fresh vegetables are probably only half or less of what I eat. My family eats various canned tomato products 12 months of the year. We eat mostly canned and frozen vegetables for several months. I think the local-organic movement has a very long way to go in enabling consumers to do the same.
    And then local-organic fruit, especially tree fruit, as easy a sell as it might seem to be, is extremely weak in our region. Consumers in the local-organic movement are still stuck on apples and peaches (and oranges and bananas), which really aren’t very suitable at all to local-organic production. Pears seem a lot more suitable to organic production, and they’re a familiar fruit, but I’ve never seen significant quantities of organic (certified or otherwise) pears at farmers’ markets. I’ve communicated recently with a Triangle area Asian pear grower that had been growing organically, and he was lamenting how little market interest he’d found for his pears. And mulberries, figs, sour cherries, jujubes, pawpaws, persimmons… all amount to about nothing.
    As for animal products, grass-fed beef is about the only local-organic product that’s available. There’s plenty of “pastured” pork and chicken and eggs, but very few of those producers are any sort of organic, and practically none are based on local-organic agriculture/feed. There are a few organic cow dairies in North Carolina, but so far as I know all of them are shipping their milk a few states away for processing. So far as I know, all of the several goat cheese dairies depend on chemical de-wormers and conventional dry feed mixtures.
    And those are just the easy categories. Where’s the beer made from local-organic barley? (I do actually know of one organic winery in the state.) Where are the local-organic sweeteners? (What North Carolina beekeeper can sell honey without feeding conventional sugar?) Where are the grains, the dry beans, the oil, all the conventionally combine-harvested things…(to say nothing of local-organic clothing)? Where are the local-organic peanuts and popcorn and sunflower seeds?
    All these holes lead me to two conclusions, at least in the context of our discussion: (1) we need to go a lot deeper, and (2) one of the best ways to expand into these harder things is for the farmers in the local-organic movement to use the customer connections they already have (from selling the vegetables/easier things) to diversify and pull their customers along with them. I feel that local-organic farmers that are already making a living with the things they’re already doing are best positioned to lead into other things (by diversifying), especially because they already have loyal customers.
    Thanks again for bringing these things up and thanks for all the helpful thoughts.
    -Eric

    1. Wow! Great comments! I can’t address even 1/5 of what you said at this time, but the biggest barrier I know of to local barley/beer production is a malthouse. I heard of one opening in Asheville, but none out this way. @Fullsteam has some aspirations to provide fully locally sourced product, but it is difficult without a local malthouse. Perhaps a mobile malthouse (similar to the mobile slaughterhouses I plan to post about or Piedmont Biofuel’s mobile oilseed crusher, which I should also post about) would be an idea worth thinking through.

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