U.S. farmers 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
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
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 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 organic agriculture.
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
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 them.
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.
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 offerings.
Taking it to the capitalists – and
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
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” www.growalabama.com
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.