Over the last 18 years Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
has taken root in North America with moderate speed and has
gradually grown to include as many as 1,700 farms spread over
every region. Against a surging tide of decline for small farms
in general, CSA has set roots deep and wide.
CSA is providing direct support for hundreds of small farms
and clean local food for thousands of families. As side benefits,
CSA is also establishing a matrix of environmental oases,
building networks of families who are cultivating new and
healthy aspects of community life, and helping to shape a
new vision of agriculture.
As CSA approaches its 20th anniversary, the possibility of
a substantial third wave of development looms large. The workable
paths are well known by now; meanwhile, a host of food- and
farm-related issues is steadily building a groundswell underneath
this grass-roots movement.
Oddly, the origins of CSA in the United States have remained
indistinct and are routinely reported incorrectly.
PART I: The Origins of CSA in America—Dispelling
an “Agrarian Myth
For years, one standard albeit erroneous telling of CSA’s
history has been echoed in hundreds of articles and web sites.
That version was recently repeated by Time magazine: "The
CSA movement began in Japan some 30 years ago with a group
of women alarmed by
pesticides...Their teikei [partnerships with local farmers
through annual subscriptions] spread to Europe and the U.S.
From a single Massachusetts CSA in 1986, subscription farms
in the U.S. have boomed..."(1)
I can fault no reporters for repeating this false history.
While I did know all along that CSA sprang forth from not
one U.S. farm, but from two, for most of the past 18 years
I also labored under the misimpression that some of CSA’s
inspiration had come from Japan, for that is what I read everywhere.
But that’s not how it happened.
An email discussion on the CSA-L list (http://www.prairienet.org/pcsa/CSA-L/index.html)
piqued my curiosity. Correspondents such as Wolfgang Stranz
of Germany, Allan Balliett of West Virginia, and Connie Falk
of New Mexico uncovered many of the details of how CSA unfolded
here in the United States. I’ve been reporting on CSA
since 1987, so when I read their postings, I was prompted
to research the movement’s beginnings to unearth a clearer
sense of what really happened and why. I also wanted to see
how the beginnings might bear upon the present and the future.
I learned that while community farm initiatives got under
way in both Japan and Chile in the early 1970s, those efforts
did not directly influence the 1986 start of the CSA movement
in the states. The U.S. impulse came from Europe, and specifically
from the biodynamic agricultural tradition.
The ideas that informed the first two American CSAs were
articulated in the 1920s by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner
(1861-1925), and then actively cultivated in post- WW II Europe
in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The ideas crossed the Atlantic
and came to life in a new form, CSA, simultaneously but independently
in 1986 at both Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and Temple-Wilton
Community Farm in New Hampshire.
The two original CSA farms are still thriving as of 2004.
Both have established enduring legacies, even though they
have confronted many challenges over the years.
The stories of these two farms illustrate many of the challenges
the entire CSA movement faces. Their stories also demonstrate
many of the potentials.
Indian Line Farm
Susan Witt was there at the beginning. She is director of
the E.F. Schumacher Society, headquartered about a mile down
the road from Indian Line Farm in South Egremont, Mass.
Susan recalls that articles in Rodale’s Organic Gardening
magazine (2) attracted a young gardener named Jan Vander Tuin
to South Egremont in 1985, where he met with her, Robyn Van
En and other members of the community.
According to a 1992 article that Vander Tuin wrote for RAIN
magazine (3), he had been working on a biodynamic farm named
Topinambur near Zurich, Switzerland. He also traveled to explore
other farms—Birsmatterhof in Germany (close to Basel,
Switzerland) and Les Jardins de Cocagne in Geneva, Switzerland.
Vander Tuin noted that the producer-consumer food alliance in
Geneva had been founded by a man inspired by the co-op movement
in Chile during Salvador Allende’s administration (1970-73).
These experiences shaped Vander Tuin’s thinking as
he returned to the United States and began talking with Witt,
Van En, John Root, Jr., Andrew Lorand, and others. Each individual
was generally knowledgeable about anthroposophy and biodynamic
farming (two pillars of Steiner’s legacy).
Witt recalls that their discussions were informed by Steiner’s
concept of world economy, and she felt the work of the Schumacher
Society best put those ideas into practice. "One of Steiner’s
major concepts was the producer-consumer association, where
consumer and producer are linked by their mutual interests,"
she explained. "And one of Schumaker’s major concepts
was ‘to develop an economy where you produce locally
what is consumed locally.’ We began to see CSA as a
way to bring these key ideas together."
In those early days there was much talk of biodynamics and
anthroposophy and the "Small is beautiful" philosophy
of E.F. Schumacher, as Witt recalls, but definitely no talk
of Japan. "None of us had heard yet of what was happening
On this point, Anthony Graham and Trauger Groh of the Temple-Wilton
Community farm agree. None of the CSA pioneers in the United
States had heard a word about teikei in Japan.
As Anthony recalls, "We (Anthony, Trauger, Lincoln Geiger)
all went to a conference in Kimberton, Pennsylvania, as well
as a group from South Egremont including I believe Robyn Van
En. This was after both of our farms had started, maybe a
year later. A speaker at the conference mentioned what was
going on in Japan, and that was the first any of us learned
In autumn 1985, with Vander Tuin’s enthusiasm added
to the wherewithal of the rest of the community, the Massachusetts
group undertook a project with an apple orchard. Root and
a community of developmentally disabled people from nearby
Berkshire Village sold 30 shares in the orchard, then picked,
sorted, and distributed 360 bushels of apples, as well as
cider, hard cider, and vinegar.
While that project was under way, the core group made plans.
They began as the CSA Garden at Great Barrington (not Indian
Line Farm) an unincorporated association managed on behalf
of all shareholders, with Witt, Root, Van En and Jan Vander
Tuin acting as principals. The association entered into a
three-year lease with Van En to use land at Indian Line Farm
for a garden starting in 1986, the same year the Temple-Wilton
Community Farm started about 80 miles to the northeast in
The association that leased Indian Line Farm held onto the
name CSA Gardens at Great Barrington until 1990, when there
was a difficult split. Robyn stayed on her land; the farmers
and many members departed to form the Mahaiwe Harvest CSA
at nearby Sunways Farm.
Robyn went on to write the pamphlet "Basic Formula to
Create Community Supported Agriculture," to produce a
video "It’s not just About Vegetables," and
in 1992 to found CSA North America (CSANA), a nonprofit clearinghouse
to support CSA development.
In 1997 at age 49, Robyn died of an asthma attack. Her contributions
were later recognized in the naming of a national clearinghouse
of information, the Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources.
After Van En’s death, her son was forced to sell the
farm. The farmers who had been working the land could not
afford to buy it. But with the help of the Schumacher Society,
they partnered with a community land trust and The Nature
Conservancy to buy Indian Line Farm in 1999. This partnership
serves as a model for other CSAs.
According to Susan Witt, the key idea of the Indian Line
Farm transaction is this: The consumers actively took responsibility
to hold farmland open and to make that land available and
affordable for farmers over a long term. Other CSAs, she said,
should give serious consideration to this basic idea.
The Temple-Wilton Community Farm
Anthony Graham was among the founders of the Temple-Wilton
(TW) Community Farm, along with Trauger Groh and dairyman
Lincoln Geiger. Anthony remembers that they were all talking
with one another back in 1985. "Trauger had just moved
to New Hampshire from Germany. He and I and Lincoln and others
in this community were talking intensively, making plans.
One day in the autumn we drove out to South Egremont to meet
with the people there and share ideas. There was a lot of
"The folks in Western Massachusetts had their approach
and we had ours," Anthony recalled. "A lot of our
inspiration for the Temple-Wilton farm came out of discussing
with Trauger what he knew from Germany, and from the Camphill
Village in Copake, New York, in 1961.”
Through the 1970s and early 1980s, Trauger, Carl-August Loss,
and other farmers at Buschberghof in Northern Germany had
been experimenting with ideas from the work of Rudolf Steiner.
Then Trauger met Alice Bennett of New Hampshire. They were
wed and he moved to be with her.
"Back in 1985, out of our discussions with Trauger,
we decided on our approach,” remembers Anthony. “We
asked members of the farm community for a pledge rather than
asking them to pay a fixed price for a share of the harvest.
We realized that the members of our community had a wide range
of needs and incomes and that one set price was not necessarily
fair for every family. What we do each year is to present
a budget showing the true costs of the farm over the coming
year and then ask the members of the farm to make pledges
to meet the budget.
"Our approach works. It requires honesty and good will,
but it works,” Anthony says. The last four or five years,
our annual budget meeting with the farm members has only taken
about 45 minutes. It’s fast, up front, and everyone
understands it by now."
The overall philosophy of the TW Farm evolved from some of
Steiner's ideas spelled out in his anthroposophical writings.
Some of the farm’s key ideas are:
New forms of property ownership—The
land is held in a common by a community through a legal trust.
The trust then leases its property long-term to farmers who
use the land to grow food for the community.
New forms of cooperation—A network
of human relations replaces old systems of employers and employees
as well as replacing the practice of pledging material security
(land, buildings, etc.) to banks.
New forms of economy – (associative
economy). The guiding question is not "how do we increase
profits?" but rather "what are the actual needs
of the land and of the people involved in this enterprise?"
Trauger Groh is retired from active farming but stays close
to the TW Farm. As he looks back over the years, he said he
feels satisfaction. The farm has found a permanent home on
good land and has also secured an orchard. In 2003, he said,
the farm had a record harvest, and it received funding support
from state, federal and local sources.
"The farm will easily raise the rest of the money,"
Trauger said. "There is enormous public interest. Wilton
has voted at town meeting two years in a row to spend $40,000
of taxpayer money to support the farm and its programs. Now
remember, this is in skinflint New Hampshire, where a request
for money for a new light bulb can cause a knockdown, drag-out
debate. Not one person has ever stood to speak against the
funding request for the farm.
"Now is when all our work is paying off," Trauger
observed. "We have a track record of 18 years. People
know us and trust us. They can see what we are doing for the
land and for the community."
Reflecting on the start of CSA in America 18 years ago, Trauger
said "As with all great ideas, the idea of CSA had arrived.
It just needed to emerge. The time was ripe. Who started at
what hour is totally unimportant. What is important is that
the CSA initiative has emerged and developed, and there is
now a base for people to carry forward."
here for Part II, CSA’s
World of Possibilities.
what’s on the horizon for community supported agriculture.
Journalist Steven McFadden co-authored Farms of Tomorrow:
Community Supported Farms, Farm Supported Communities (1990),
and Farms of Tomorrow Revisited (1998) with Trauger Groh.
Steven is the director of Chiron Communications in Santa Fe,