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Community supported agriculture

Community supported agriculture is a community-led initiative connecting organic growers with local consumers, each group of consumers supporting a farm by purchasing directly from the grower, in order that the grower may have an assured market for the produce and the consumers know exactly where and under what conditions their food is grown. Each such initiative is known as a CSA.

Organic farmers supply simply GREAT food for Wellingtonians

I bought the name and membership list of a failed commercial venture, Simply Good Food, in 2009, feeling the time had come for Wellingtonians to secure a food supply that meets environmental, health and nutritional values. Wairarapa Eco Farm had been producing in the expectation of supplying a CSA market for a number of years. Without effective support for such farms our society is in grave danger of having them vanish into the ether of industrial fertiliser.

It was becoming increasingly clear to me that the conventional food distribution model, involving wholesalers, distributors and retailers, is responsible for the ever-diminishing quality of food, because it reduces returns to farmers who are forced to turn to commercial farming methods to survive. To succeed in a classic business sense, Simply Good Food needed to maximise profit for its shareholders. This runs completely counter to the core values of community-supported agriculture — a fair deal for the farmer and the consumer. The grower and the consumer are the big losers in the current food-distribution dynamic and Simply Good Food was in danger of falling into the same traps and patterns — being forced to exploit grower and consumer to make the enterprise “economic” and “profitable”. Although very much more efficient than conventional distribution chains, Simply Good Food was still a distributor, still drawing off a significant slice of the farm’s income, and still constituting a barrier between its customers and the source of their food. 

Over the next year, Simply Good Food evolved into what I have since discovered is a well-documented model of community supported agriculture:

The CSA is the place in a web of complementary farms where consumers connect with the land.[1]

I was learning that community supported agriculture needs to be community-led; it cannot be controlled by one entity, especially not a private company. The community needs to steer the direction of the venture. In Simply Good Food’s infancy, this principle was being compromised.

The supplier was able to meet the demand for high-quality nutritious food grown in an environmentally-sustainable manner. But to ensure a return adequate to maintain the farm, the means of distribution would need to be as streamlined and efficient as possible. A volunteer-based workforce would fit the economic realities of such streamlining. But who would volunteer to work for a private company? Volunteers need a project they have a stake in financially and emotionally —- to be a community with common objectives and ideals.

Unless running, organising and being responsible for the distribution were a collective enterprise, the CSA would be just another business with an organic bent exploiting the current buzz of sustainability.

But how to make Simply Good Food a joint venture? What was to prevent the suppliers treating it as just another retail outlet and the consumers treating it as just an online natural foods shop? Author Peter Reynolds points out what happens when CSAs are perceived as retailers:

At this point the psychology of the marketplace kicks in, placing self-interest at the forefront of values. Soon the CSA farmer is maximizing profit and the members are dickering about price. Even worse, the connection to the land is lost, and a great opportunity squandered. [2]

In this form of relationship there is no commitment, and no loyalty or shared-risk concepts being entertained by farmer or consumer. The challenge of the CSA movement is to turn this perception around and create a sense of ownership.

… and city consumers support “our farm”

Simply Good Food decided that a cooperative company is the structure that — by bringing farmers and consumers into a direct relationship — would best express CSA principles. All the ingredients were in place for a CSA pie: appropriate infrastructure, committed farmers Frank and Josje of Wairarapa Eco Farm, a city base to work from, a committed group of regular purchasers, and above all an understanding of what a CSA is truly about.

Eight of Simply Good Food’s customers stepped forward in 2010 to form Growers and Consumers Cooperative Society Ltd (G&C Co-op), launching Wellington’s community supported agriculture scheme — New Zealand’s first. After six months of operation, G&C Co-op has grown its subscriber base from 23 to 35 and the farm’s income has stabilised and continues to increase. The share capital is still intact and the operation runs totally at break-even. Trust between consumer and grower has been re-established and solidified. A real community has evolved.

The farmers, freed from the stress of competing in a market place designed for mass production at the expense of food quality, are able to plan their operation for ecological integrity: healthy soil, crop diversity, rotational planting, nutrient-rich heritage-crop varieties and a satisfying diet for consumers. Equally significant is the change in perception of the CSA’s consumer members, who know exactly where their food comes from and have opportunities to visit and take part in the operation of “their” farm. 

Wellington’s CSA offers a new model as a multi-stakeholder cooperative: it is currently the only New Zealand cooperative that exists for the mutual benefit of both consumers and producers. For growers, it seeks to create a return to help grow the farm, provide better farming resources, expand its own coverage, improve distribution mechanisms and promote the health values of producing food in this manner. The consumers appreciate the availability of nutritious healthy food, produced without leeching and destroying the land as modern industrial farming does, as well as the social benefits of working together voluntarily at the tasks involved in running their cooperative.

Consumer members share the risks and rewards of farming by directly supporting the farm. Subscription-based payments guarantee the farmers’ income for a whole season in advance, ensuring continuity for the farm and aiding crop planning and farm management.

The grower-consumer relationship is fostering a closer understanding in the members of the importance of food quality in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. In order not to compromise that relationship with a distributor layer, the cooperative keeps its organisation and overhead slim, simple and efficient. Members are reducing the cost of their food by running the organisation themselves. 

The CSA has effected a way of making agriculture sustainable — making it financially viable for growers to produce — through strong connections and interaction with consumers. It is helping to develop a regional food supply and a strong local economy, maintain a sense of community, encourage environmental land practices and acknowledge the experience of producers working on small-to-medium farms.

Simply Good Food has stepped out of the distribution role and now exists as another producer-member of the cooperative, providing website and online tools and educational and CSA startup resources for other enterprises linking organic farmers with local consumers.

Endnotes

  1. http://www.organicconsumers.org/Organic/csaforward.cfm#ExtendingSocialSustainability: Organic Food at the Crossroads, Peter C. Reynolds, Ph.D. Fearless Foods, LLC
  2. ibid.

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