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A different way to spend – CSA style

Even if we buy certified organic or fair trade marked products it is still very hard to avoid long and large retail chains which contribute to the pressure to industrialise and exploit human and non-human alike somewhere along the line. The idea of fair trade products in a supermarket is somewhat of a contradiction in terms, as is buying organic from Argentina…… Yet most local production succumbed to the pressure to industrialise and exploit human and non-human alike a long time ago. Local production round my way is largely involved in defense (an offensive misnomer!) and the arms trade…..

How can we combine local, fair or ethical, and organic together in a way that at least has half a chance of caring more for human and non-human alike?

One set of possibilities (albeit limited possibilities) lie in Community Supprted Agriculture (CSA) schemes. There are a number of CSAs popping up around the country at the moment, and a few that have been around for a decade or more, so it is arelatively new phenomenon in this country. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, which can be a bit confusing at times (even misleading) but that is true of anything with genuine community involvement; they take on a life of their own that isn’t restricted to anyones’ definitions. What most of them have in common is the practice of “farming with a face”; that is there is a direct relationship between the community members, the farmer/grower(s) and the land – middle men/machines and long distances are removed from the food chain!

A second common principle is that of “shared risk, shared harvest”, which again can be worked out in a number of ways. One of the ways of doing this involves a simple switch in what members are paying for, it offers a different way to spend.

At the cornershop or supermarket you spend your money in order to buy vegetables, fruit, meat, milk, bread etc., Similarly, with a veg box scheme you still pay for your vegetables, even if the way or your level choice is not the same in order to harmonise with seasonal realities. We are customers buying things, buying products.

In the two CSAs that I have been part of, the veg share members are not customers buying vegetables every week. Instead, they are co-owners of not-for-profit businesses; they spend their money on growing vegetables or more precisely on running the farm/garden. The members spend (or invest) in the doing (the growing, the raising, the caring) not on the product or thing. Switching from spending on the product/thing to the doing/co-producing can shift a number of qualities.

It can widen our attention from the physical qualities of the product (how it looks or is packaged on the shelf) to include the who, where, how and why of the whole process from seed and soil right through to our front door. This is not dissimilar to what certification and trade marks try to do but it includes the local and doesn’t overlook what happens between farm and fridge, between producer and consumer.

It shifts the risk from farmer/grower(s) to shared risk, everyone acknowledging and taking into account that plants and animals are not inanimate objects to be fashioned in factories by machines but part of nature (which is not in our control). So if yields are low the losses are spread and the farm business is less likely to go under or be forced to become more factory like. In a year with high yields, members enjoy a bumper harvest and/or surplus can be sold to increase reserves or improve the farm/garden. This can make for a more resilient farm/garden in both ecological and economic terms. If you are in direct relationship with the grower, land, and/or consumer and can see how you depend on them it, it makes sense to take care of them, to nurture them.

Switching emphasis, from product to producing, also helps us to see the real cost, consequences, and value of different ways of spending.

Spending itself is opened up, as we can spend time or sweat investing in the farm too.

Owning and sharing the farm instead of being customers expands ‘what can I get?’ from a product to an improved quality of life and starts to ask ‘how can I improve the farm?’. When enough people start asking ‘how can we improve a place?’ it can release the kinds of creativity that generate new kinds of doing or bring back to life older but less alienated ways of doing.

We know that we cannot buy our way to sustainability. For some this may result in a desire not to shop at all. For many, probably most of us, changing how we spend is going to be an important part of changing our impact on the planet and its inhabitants. Shopping ethically (by certification) is important, as is consuming less. Finding ways to spend that shift our focus from the product to relating face to face with the land and our food may prove to be more transformative and a lot more fun!

The simple economic shift operating in some CSAs can act as an entry point into exploring a whole range of other shifts in spending that might help us to escape the destructive dynamics of consumerism as usual. Shelter, clothing, and heating come to mind. Of course, many experiments might not work or at least not without serious changes but they might still be worth the risk, in the hope that we shall share the fruit of the harvest with all of its many faces. After all growing, indeed, living is a risky business.

Editorial Notes: About the author: Tim Lawrence (based in Bristol, UK) is a community development worker, former apprentice grower at Stroud Community Agriculture, community gardener with ASAP (Asylum Seekers Allotment Project) and one of the main growers at Sims Hill Shared Harvest, a CSA initiative in Bristol. Tim wants to see more land available for community based food growing. This post is an excerpt from a book in progress about CSAs. Reposted with the author's permission. Full disclosure: I am a Board member of Sims Hill Shared Harvest, on whose blog this article first appeared. -KS

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