From the Field To the Kitchen

The Shifting Landscape of Community Supporting Agriculture

Community supported agriculture. The concept, which originated here in the Northeast in the late 1980s, is as simple as it is fundamental: People who want fresh, local produce sign up with a nearby farm as CSA members for a full growing season. Payment is made up front, typically in the winter months, providing farmers with critical resources to purchase seeds, repair equipment, amend their soil—all of the essential activities that must take place at a time when many farmers’ coffers begin to run empty. In return for this investment, members get regular shares of the harvest throughout the season and, often, a direct connection to a farm in their own community.

Since the CSA concept first emerged, the model has expand-ed across the country, with well over 12,000 CSA farms operating in the U.S. as of 2012, the most recent agricultural census by the USDA. The numbers have mushroomed alongside the rise of the environmental and organic farming movements, all deeply intertwined with core principles of sustainability, supporting the local economy and natural growing practices.

Here in the Northeast, where several counties are home to more than 50 CSAs each, the model has proven vital in sustaining farms, particularly smaller ones. Dave Bihldorff of Pakeen Farm in Canton, MA, says that the concept seemed almost “magical” when he and his wife were contemplating how to transform his family farm into a true working one: “Here it was that people were starting to really respond and be interested in a model where you go to a farm and pick up what they have, as opposed to picking the prettiest vegetable off of a store shelf.”

Indeed, many farmers cite CSAs as a critical tool for getting off the ground without taking on huge loads of debt, in addition to providing an essential source of pre-season funding.

What began as a deeply philosophical idea, rooted in concepts of communal property ownership and creating a col-lective economy, has in many cases become more of a simple, farmer-managed business model. Even so, most CSAs still hold true to the original tenet of relationship-building, allowing consumers to connect directly with the people who grow their food, joining with farmers to share the risk that comes with agriculture, trusting them to deliver a bountiful yield. Through this relationship, consumers have a clear alternative to shopping at big-box stores selling zucchini from Mexico, opting instead to support a system of local agriculture and food distribution.

In the last several years, the CSA concept has continued to change, shaped by increasing competition and a growing demand for flexibility. Indeed, while some people embrace the CSA ideal of supporting their local farmer unconditionally and taking whatever that harvest might provide, others want the ability to pick and choose what they get, challenging the magic that farmers like Dave so cherish in the true CSA model.

“Some folks do not like it because they want to be able to eat exactly what they want when they want it,” says Johanna Flies, who runs Two Field Farm in Wayland, MA. And, while this presents a challenge for farmers, she acknowledges that consumer preferences are a natural force that continues to shape the market. Julia Coffey, of Mycoterra Farm, which sells gourmet mushrooms at markets around the state, also understands that consumer perspective. “When the CSA model works perfectly, it’s great for mushroom production,” she says, but also jokes that “thousands of CSA members have been, like, ‘What am I gonna do with kohlrabi?’”

As a result, Julia, Johanna and other farmers are now experimenting with more flexible sales models. Julia has shifted from a true CSA to a new punch-card system, allowing customers to still pay in bulk—including a small amount of free product as an incentive—but giving them the freedom to use their card at markets to choose what they want and how much. Such models, which are also being used by Two Field Farm, Neighborhood Farm and others, represent an emerging middle ground where farmers can still get larger influxes of capital while offering customers more control.

Even as such pressures are making traditional CSAs more challenging for farmers, another surprising trend has emerged: More and more food producers—not growers—are using the term to help boost their business in a nonagricultural realm. Artisans and hobbyists who are familiar with the local food scene know the model is a recognizable, familiar term that captures a certain type of relationship, a community supported system that they want to capitalize on for their own wares.

“People understand it,” says Jeremy Ogusky, who helped to pilot Boston Ferments, a fermentation CSA in Jamaica Plain last fall. “A lot of people know what it is, and it’s a fairly easy way to describe a system where you have a group of people who say, ‘We are going to support your project.’” He also emphasizes the level of trust required for members to sign on, which in his case allowed him and his collaborators to deliver shares that contained both traditional ferments like kimchi and more experimental ones.

Such CSAs represent an even bigger jump from tradition than the growing number of less-conventional shares on offer for dairy, seafood, eggs, even mushrooms such as Julia’s. While these memberships may not involve vegetables, they are centered on products that are harvested locally from the natural world, the production of which includes all of the risks while still incorporating the “community-supported” element.

For many farmers, there is also an emotional connotation to the relationships that CSAs were designed to foster, one that has to do with connecting back to the land in a world where doing so becomes ever more challenging. “Many people have an instinctual or historical response to farmland, in the sense of their personal histories and memories,” says Johanna. 
“Giving people a place to reconnect to that activity, even tangentially, can be a very grounding and moving experience.”

To that end, she offers work shares in addition to her CSA, allowing those people with the time and inclination the opportunity to contribute directly on the farm in exchange for produce. Dave, from Pakeen Farm, agrees: “The folks who come back every year are not only the folks who love the vegetables but they actually love coming to the farm and the experience that they have when they’re here. It delivers value. It’s something special that is hard to get in other parts of your life.”

Still, even as farmers bristle a little at the use of a once philosophical term for marketing purposes, they acknowledge that the trend seems inevitable and may ultimately hold benefits for everyone. “One way to look at it is, the rising tide lifts all boats,” says Johanna. In other words, the more people who are involved in sourcing and producing their food with intention, whether it be a raw cucumber or a pickled one, the more awareness there is around food-related issues. “That’s a good thing,” she says. 

Indeed, while someone like Eric can’t possibly source local cocoa beans, there is value for many people in knowing that their purchase is going toward sustainable agriculture and ethical labor practices somewhere in the world, in addition to supporting a local business.

“I believe in the efforts of people to work together and put their lots in together,” says Johanna, in thinking about how her own childhood in a community-oriented urban setting shaped her views around farming and the CSA relationship. In the end, if people respond to a broader range of food products, and if it leads to options that are better than participating in the wholesale marketplace, says Dave, then the overall trend is a positive one. Indeed, just as consumer preferences are pushing farmers toward more flexible CSA models of their own, the success of these unconventional CSAs will also ultimately be decided by whether or not they resonate with consumers and get them on board. At a time when people are increasingly interested in understanding where their food comes from, how it is grown or produced and the resulting impact on the community, the rising tide may indeed lift all boats, near and far.