‘It’s a lose-lose situation’: Vast majority of CSA farmers don’t make living wage

The Recorder. April 6 2015. Richie Davis.

When farmer David Fisher arrived here in 1998 and set up his Natural Roots Community Supported Agriculture farm, taking a cue from farmers who were trying to get people to pay for shares in his organic farm, “it seemed like it was booming. The crowds would just pour in.”

But within eight years or so, other farmers were also turning to the CSA model, Fisher recalls, “And we were seeing like two new CSAs popping up every year.”

In addition to providing a way to get fresh, local farm products, CSAs offer customers a way to feel they’re paying their farmer a guaranteed amount up-front, which means he had less need to borrow for start-up costs.

Yet more than 80 percent of full-time CSA farmers in a recent study by a University of Massachusetts doctoral student report they aren’t making a livable wage — even though the median farm income of those CSAs interviewed was $1,280 above the nationwide average reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The case study, by Mark Paul, is based on interviews at 16 CSAs around the Pioneer Valley, including Natural Roots, Upinngil in Gill, Sweet Morning Farm in Leyden, Red Fire Farm in Montague, Enterprise Farm in Whately and Wilder Brook Farm in Charlemont.

As farmers attempt to remain competitive with a growing number of CSAs, they struggle to pay their workers a decent wage at the same time they try to make their produce affordable to a broader cross-section of customers. It’s a “lose-lose situation” that leaves many farmers feeling frustrated, Paul says.

“A core principle of early advocates of CSA was to provide farmers with a living wage,” Paul writes. “In addition to striving for a living wage, the nature of CSA provides farmers with a solid understanding of their income for the upcoming season. Previous studies have provided mixed results on CSA farmer income.”

One 2003 study found, for example, that CSA farmers are nearly twice as likely to have gross farm incomes exceeding $20,000, greatly reducing reliance on off-farm employment compared to the average. Yet while CSA farmers rely less on off-farm income, nearly half of those surveyed reported a lack of satisfaction with their compensation.

“In theory, the farmer’s income is priced into the cost of the share, which is determined prior to production, thus ensuring the farmer a living wage,” writes Paul. “However, share price often does not include the cost of the farmer’s labor. These findings are fueling a growing concern amongst researchers that CSA, like most agriculture, fails to compensate farmers for their work.

“It’s been tough,” said Fisher, who last year sold about 230 shares and who has worked hard to keep shareholders coming back by also selling farm-raised pork and eggs, as well as fruit, dairy and bread at the Natural Roots farm store, and is also offering limited share options.

“It’s tricky,” he said. “It’s such a tough nut to crack.”

Ryan Voiland, whose Red Fire Farm sells 1,600 shares in western Massachusetts and the Boston area — providing about half of his business, with the rest split between wholesale and retail at farmers markets and the farm stand — says, “There are still big challenges. We feel we should pay more to our staff.”

Voiland, who offers a sliding scale and various payment options to help customers, says, “I think it’s a pretty good value for the quality of food you get,” and says that it’s frustrating how hard farmers have to work to make what they do.

“If it’s going to be sustainable in the long run, we’re going to have to pay people more than what we’re paying,” says Voiland, who employs about 80 workers at the peak of the season.

Paul says CSA farmers, like other farmers, have had to diversify their offerings, particularly because their shareholders are taking a risk that the food they’ve paid. Many CSAs, like Red Fire and Natural Roots, also provide ways to actively involve their members to help them feel part of the farm community and also — through you-pick options for labor-intensive crops, to keep costs down.

But ultimately, he said, truly increasing income for farmers is a matter of national policy.

“A comprehensive reform of our national food policy is exactly what’s needed,” the study concludes. “Future economy initiatives, like CSA farms, can help invigorate a national debate of restricting the food system by providing real-world examples of how the economy can be reorganized in a way that puts people first. CSA has plenty of room for improvement, but that needs to be received as part of the learning process. Alternatives to business as usual can’t be expected to be perfect.”

Of the 60 or so CSA farms in the Pioneer Valley, representing abut 10,000 shares, there hasn’t only been diversification to sell other kinds of farm products, which may be produced by other farms, but also a blossoming of the kinds of CSA themselves, says Philip Korman, executive director of of Deerfield-based Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture — including meat CSAs, grain CSAs, flower CSAs and even beer CSAs.

Like Paul, Korman says the challenge for local farmers to get the price they deserve is to change policies that allow the market to be flooded with products from across the country and across the world.

“How do we ensure more demand for high-quality, fresh local food?” he asks. “When someone grows something and ships it thousands of miles, someone else is paying the cost, and the cost will come back to bite us.”