Food consumers must play role in strengthening viability of community-supported agriculture
Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 6, 2015, by Philip Korman and Margaret Christie
Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a farm business model in which people share with the farmer the risks and benefits of growing food by buying shares of the farm’s potential harvest. The first CSA farms stated in New England over 30 years ago and there are now over 6,000 CSA farms in the nation.
In Massachusetts, the percent of farms offering a CSA nearly doubled from 2007 to 2012, reaching 6 percent, the highest rate in the nation (Agricultural Census 2012).
The CSA farm business model has had success on many fronts, resulting in increased farm income, reduced farm debt and opportunities for beginning farmers. Most CSA farms use environmentally sustainable growing practices. Here in the Valley, CSAs have connected thousands of residents to farms, and our farms also supply CSA shares to consumers in Boston and New York City.
Pioneer Valley CSA farms have worked creatively to make their food available to all members of the community. Next Barn Over Farm in Hadley collaborates closely with Gardening the Community, a food justice and youth leadership organization, to deliver farm shares to residents in the Springfield Mason Square area, where there are few outlets for fresh produce. Enterprise Farm worked with Partners for a Healthier Community and others to launch a mobile market that drives to senior centers, child care groups and other locations to ensure some access through the summer months. Twelve CSA farms work with us at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) to provide 400 farm shares during the summer to low-income elders in Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties, and many other CSAs accept SNAP (food stamp) benefits or offer a low income share price.
Yet, as the Gazette recently reported, a new study by UMniversity of Massachusetts graduate student Mark Paul indicates that key challenges remain. Paul interviewed 16 of the 39 CSA produce farms in the Valley and found that:
- A majority of the 16 farmers interviewed found it hard to make a living for themselves and the people who worked for them.
- The farmers could not raise prices for farm shares because the supply of farm shares appear to have met the current demand for farm shares.
- And despite farmers’ efforts to make shares available to low-income residents, some residents are unable to afford a farm share.
None of these findings surprise us. We work with over 250 farms through our Local Hero program and about 20 percent of these farms provide CSA shares, offering not only produce but meat, fiber, flowers and even beer. Our CSA farms, like all of our farms, operate in a national economy that prioritizes cheap food, and in which more and more of the wealth is held in the hands of fewer and fewer people. With some exceptions, our government farm policies favor large farms that produce the raw ingredients for processed food products, not diverse, family-scale farms growing real food.
Against this background, our farms struggle to achieve conflicting objectives: charging enough for their products that farmers and farm workers can make a decent living, while making those products affordable to all.
What can we each do to further our farmers’ efforts to achieve both of these essential goals?
First, there are actions we can take as individuals here in our own communities. Choose to buy local food. Buy it directly from the farmer, at farmers’ markets, CSAs and farm stands, when you can. Choose grocery stores that prioritize local sourcing, and urge those that do not, to increase their purchases from local farms.
Support efforts to ensure that local food is available to residents with fewer resources, including community farms, meals and food pantries. Many farmers’ markets raise money to match purchases made with SNAP benefits, and you can contribute time or money to those efforts.
We raise funds to pay CSA farmers to grow more farm shares for low-income elders — our Senior FarmShare program — and by next winter, we will launch an initiative to match SNAP purchases at farmers’ markets, farm stands and CSA farms.
Second, we must take action together to change the government policies that support industrial farms, to reverse vast economic inequality and to recognize and account for the true costs of growing food, including human and environmental costs.
At the state level, we have the chance to give input as the first comprehensive food plan since 1974 is being developed. At the national level, our food and farm policies should support good food for all.
Our farmers work for us every day of the year. It’s our job to make sure they can keep doing it, through our own daily actions: eating, shopping, investing, volunteering, and educating our elected officials. Learn more at buylocalfood.org.
Margaret Christie is special projects director with Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA). Philip Korman is its executive director.