in touch with the global organic scene know that European
farmers and consumers are way ahead of the U.S. when it comes
to ground-breaking food-system alternatives.
Keynote speaker Thomas Harttung of Denmark artfully showed
just how far European models have developed in an hour-long,
mind-boggling presentation to the crowd at the 2004 NOFA-NY
conference. This 22nd conference for the group was held at
the Holiday Inn Conference Center in Liverpool NY.
For comparing the U.S. “out-of-the-box” ag effort,
start with scale. The largest CSA in this country is in the
neighborhood of 2,500 subscribers. Harttung described how
he oversees service to 44,000 households who receive a bi-weekly
box of fresh organic veggies, eggs, meat, fish, bread, cheese,
fruit and just about everything else (except milk) delivered
right to their door.
Starting in 1999 with 2,000 households, this Aarstiderne
project has been growing at an astounding rate of 10,000 new
subscribers a year.
Describing his personal voyage, Harttung cites his “profound
encounter” with the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
paradigm during a farmer group visit to California in the early
1990s. Coming from a sustainable forestry background, he took
over his parents’ farm in coastal Denmark in the 1980s
and was ripe for the alternative concept. His farm’s alternative
effort began in 1996 with the help of a government grant. His
goal was to grow for 250 households.
||"The focus was on a positive
food future, so there was no effort to make people feel
guilty about unsustainable food choices."
The CSA structure only lasted 2 years before “things
got out of hand” and Aarstiderne was born. It was based
on one key idea: reconnecting urban households and farms utilizing
a box scheme patterned on the British model, where members
receive a box full of fresh vegetables along with numerous
other farm products from a consortium of organic farms on
a weekly basis. The concept clicked and the project has experienced
phenomenal growth ever since.
A predominantly urban clientele prepays for a year’s
share. In the 2003 season Aarstiderne moved 25,000 boxes each
week to half the customer base on an alternating, two-week
schedule. Initially, the group used numerous central drop-off
points but has found it more effective to deliver right to
each customer’s door.
Trading fairly from plow to plate
Establishing their more ambitious version of a box scheme
project required some fresh thinking. The planners set out
from the beginning to create a fair and equitable trade model
based on cooperation rather than competition. The overall
concern is managing the planet in a sustainable way through
Harttung said he relished the opportunity to be a farmer,
a foodie, a philosopher and a revolutionary all in one and
was thankful to find kindred spirits who shared the vision
– and the ability to realize it.
Along with its bold founding principles (see sidebar “Reasonable
ideas, radical application”), Harttung
credits transparency bookkeeping for a large part of the organization’s
success. He refers to these open-for-all-to-see practices
as the “Organic Full Monty.”
Unlike most conventional business practices where transactions
are kept as hidden from view as possible, all the books are
completely open and posted in the public domain. Prices paid
to participating farmers are listed along with customer income
data. Pricing is based on the actual cost of production along
with a fair profit and some resources going toward investment
and human development on the farm. Selected farmers receive
premiums for high quality, special varieties and exceptional
environmental conservation efforts.
The underlying intent is decidedly revolutionary. The planners
regard the company as a living organism – a self-organizing
ecosystem that is open to total scrutiny. A goal is to nurture
the cooperative spirit within company relationships to unleash
the creative energy of all involved. The group seeks to set
a new standard in the overall food business: to promote closer
links between farm and kitchen, and to move the food industry
toward more open, ethical trade practices.
To accomplish this within the Danish food system, those leading
Aarstiderne first had to develop trust on all levels within
the group. This meant resolving internal conflicts before
going public. Harttung says you have to live values to communicate
Department of Conversation
The principles of empathy, creativity and growth were exercised
at various points as the organization faced issues in its
rapid ascent. Thomas says they have managed to achieve a true
sense of community in the process.
One example is how customer service was transformed by applying
the principle of conversation. Early on, the group’s
staff couldn’t handle all the incoming phone calls from
members with questions and requests to get more involved.
The initial reaction was to establish a major presence on
the internet as a defensive move. Then the benefits of potentially
expanding rather than reducing customer contact sunk in.
Realizing that many companies pay considerable money to gather
feedback from their user groups, Aarstiderne created a Conversations
Department, staffed with employees who love to relate to others.
It now handles some 6,500 phone calls and more than 10,000 emails
per month. Since word-of-mouth is the primary recruiting tool,
this personalized outreach component has proved invaluable for
numerical growth and course-corrections.
||"Harttung credits transparency
bookkeeping for a large part of the organization’s
success. He refers to these open-for-all-to-see practices
as the “Organic Full Monty."
Also at the heart of the project is a strong educational
component with a demonstration farm at its core. Here members
can walk through the beautiful grounds and see all the crops
they will receive in their boxes growing in garden patches.
School children come 3 days to a week to experience lessons
in permaculture and natural ecosystems.
The demonstration farm’s gardeners test vegetable varieties
under Danish conditions. They partner with Seeds of Change
in the U.S. to develop heirloom varieties and expand their
Taking it to the capitalists –
and to streets
Harttung said that having the right creative partners was
instrumental to the company’s success. Finding the right
financial backers took some doing, however, as the local banks
were quickly scared off by the radical aspects of the project.
The organizers found a Dutch venture capital fund willing
to cooperate which now holds a 20 percent stake in the company.
In the process they created a model for ethical equity financing
that has been helpful to other alternative groups, including
a new sustainable forest products organization.
A prominent Danish chef was a key player from the beginning.
He stayed in touch with what the involved citizens wanted
to eat, balancing the group’s food-selection decisions
with farmer input. He also initiated a concerted effort to
connect with urban audiences to make the process work with
their busy lifestyles.
While on-farm visits were important early on, the group discovered
it was more effective to go where the people were -- in the
streets. The group set up temporary street kitchens/restaurants
outdoors under tents for 4 or 5 days in a row in different
locales. They cooked great meals and gave them away to passersby.
The idea was to meet potential customers on a personal level,
give them a positive fresh-food experience, and demonstrate
the high quality of the organic food offerings. The events
generated considerable enthusiasm, leading to an explosive
growth in new members.
The organization also developed a contemporary tone in their
advertising. They felt an old-fashioned, down-on-the-farm
approach was condescending. The focus was on a positive food
future, so there was no effort to make people feel guilty
about unsustainable food choices. The promotions featured
a vision of high-quality food in sync with nature, communicating
a mindfulness that seeks to provide the highest quality possible
with the greatest ecological good.
Something’s not rotten in Denmark
Could something like this happen in the U.S, the home
of hefty government props for conventional agribusiness-as-usual?
Attending the NOFA-NY conference all the way from Alabama,
Jerry Spencer thinks so. As founder of “Grow Alabama”
he’s already begun organizing farmers in the state to
produce for a state-wide, farmer-to-consumer cooperative based
on a blended CSA/box scheme model. (As of press time, Spencer
said about 25 farms (veggies to dairy to meat) had committed
for the 2004 season, along with 300 customers. He’s
eying 1,000 customers by Sept. 1.)
Public support is stronger in Denmark, to be sure. The country
has the highest per capita spending on organic produce in
Europe in 2000 – some 5 percent (more than double rate
in the UK). Denmark also levies a 25 percent value-added tax
on food, with proceeds going directly to support Danish agriculture,
organic farmers included.
In this respect, Aastiderne has managed to marshal its considerable
and highly committed customer base into a potent political
force. Its model of a flexible, living organization committed
to cooperative and ecological principles has created new opportunities
for farmers and new food connections for citizens. The organization
joins them in shaping the economics and politics of a new
food system that breaks lots of new ground.
(English and Swedish versions of the site available)
Steve Gilman is a long-time organic farmer/writer, currently
waiting for the April snows to melt in Saratoga, New York.