EDITOR'S NOTE: In Part
I of this series we tracked the roots of the U.S. CSA
movement to two subscription-based farms in the Northeast.
Now we’ll see where this promising movement rooted in
trust and understanding between farmers and eaters might be
In 1990, when I coauthored "Farms of Tomorrow"
with Trauger Groh, there were about 60 CSAs in the United
States. The years from 1986 to 1990, I feel, mark the first
wave of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) development.
Eight years later, when I returned to the subject with Trauger
to write "Farms of Tomorrow Revisited," we found there
had been steady growth in the CSA movement, albeit growth in
many different directions.
CSA had diversified into a range of social and legal forms,
with philosophically oriented CSAs at one end and commercially
oriented subscription farms at the other. Books were written,
organizations such as the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening
Assoc. and Robyn Van En’s CSA North America took an
active interest, and the movement enjoyed a steady stream
of favorable publicity. The CSA archetypes and infrastructure
had been established. By the late 1990s, at least 1,000 CSAs
had taken root in the United States, and growth continued
This slow, steady increase through the 1990s up through 2003
constitutes a second wave of CSA development.
While CSAs overall numbers have climbed over the years, there
has been a significant attrition rate and many CSAs have failed.
Common causes of failure include: The farmers did not ask
enough for their effort, they did not have the skill to grow
adequately, or they were farming on unsecured land. Some CSAs
have also failed because the members of the community could
not get along.
For the past five or six years, estimates of CSA numbers
have remained in a range from 1,000 to 1,200. But most educated
observers say that number is low. Many CSAs operate privately
and quietly, while most regions of the country report many
new CSA farms. Thus, it follows that a more up-to-date and
accurate estimate would be around 1,500 to 1,700 CSA farms
across the country, ranging in size from large gardens with
a few households to hundreds of acres with more than 1,000
Now in 2004, after talking with CSA observers around the
country, I see strong potential for a third wave of CSA development,
a wave that could not only triple or quadruple the number
of CSAs over the next few years, but also raise in importance
the role these farms play in their communities.
Allan Balliett has followed the CSA movement since its beginnings
and is himself a biodynamic farmer at Fresh and Local CSA
in Shepherdstown, W.V. From the outset, he said, he has heard
consumers voice concerns over food safety and quality as primary
reasons for joining a CSA.
Susan Witt of the Schumacher Society said another motivating
factor behind the growth of CSA has been awareness about the
problems of the global economy. "By now the dominance
of the mega-corporations has become so obvious that many people
recognize the danger, and the need to create something safe,
local, and sustainable. CSA does that. It isn’t easy,
but it works."
Meanwhile, food safety and security issues appear to be growing
in scale and scope. The arrival of mad cow disease to this
country is heightening concerns. When coupled with awareness
of global climate changes and the onslaught of dubious fertilizers,
pesticides, and genetic engineering into the food chain, many
people are beginning to regard CSA as homeland security of
the most fundamental kind. These linked concerns bid strong
to propel another surge of CSA growth.
Whether safety concerns act as a motivating engine or not,
the basic common sense of CSA will continue to earn community
farms a welcome place in a growing number of U.S. (and global)
cities, suburbs, and towns.
Jim Sluyter, co-editor of The Community Farm newsletter,
is enthusiastic about the future. "The Time magazine
article that was published in October 2003 (1) is having a
huge impact on CSA," he said. "The fact that a large-circulation
newsmagazine found CSA worthy of a story is a milestone; a
new threshold. It puts CSA in the big time.
"It seems as if there is another level of CSA development
taking place, not just in the U.S. but also internationally,"
Sluyter said. "There is a lot happening. Australia is
starting up a network of CSAs, we understand, and also Hungry,
India, Hong Kong, Holland, and especially England, where the
Soil Association is strongly promoting CSA."
CSAs are also developing in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela,
France, Denmark and Germany. In Japan, CSA is well developed—tteikei
[partnerships with local farmers through annual subscriptions]
is a mature movement, reportedly with millions of members.
Thanks to the existing CSA models, all these potent motivating
forces have a roadmap to some safe, economical, and creative
pathways. "The scene is much more settled for CSA now
than in earlier years,” said Anthony Graham of the Temple-Wilton
farm. “A lot of CSAs are maturing. People know for a
fact that they are worthwhile. The CSA organism is growing
older, the movement maturing. The CSA roots are deeper, broader,
and more stable. There is something to build on."
The context for growth
While still minuscule in the overall scheme of all things
agricultural, CSA does occupy an interesting niche. It represents
at least a partial answer and in some cases a complete answer
to many of the profound challenges now facing this country
and the world.
The United Nations recently released a report on global economics
(4). The report stated baldly: "There is overwhelming
evidence that 'efficient' (industrial) agriculture is not
only mining the natural resource base but also influencing
other parts of the environment in ways that are detrimental
to the well-being of humankind."
Meanwhile, the United States is drastically cutting back
on spending for sustainable agriculture in the 2004 budget
and has no clearly defined strategy for steering toward a
"Rural America is hanging on by its fingernails,"
Rep. Marcy Kaptur [D-Ohio] recently told the New York Times
(5). A member of the Agriculture Subcommittee of the House
Appropriations Committee, Kaptur said, "There's a sense
of urgency in the countryside. It's real, it's volatile."
With tightening federal and state budgets, the government
may not be in a position to help. But CSA does not need the
government or outside funding. All it requires is good land
and a community willing to care for the land so it can feed
The cooperation key
To run a CSA successfully, farmers must produce adequate,
nutritious and attractive food. That’s a baseline. But
they and the people around them also have to know how to engage
one another creatively and to weave themselves together into
a modern community. Cooperation has been a key for those CSAs
that have hung together and matured over a number of years.
In the realm of cooperation, core group participation stands
as the ultimate CSA paradox. Almost all CSA farmers say "We
need a deeper commitment." That’s something they
really want from consumers—loyalty over the long term.
But core groups of consumers who help run the farm are not
all that popular, even though they are a proven way to develop
the kind of commitment farmers want. Naturally, if a core
group has a say in the farm, the farmers can feel their lives
are more complicated.
Allan Balliett, a long-time observer of and participant in
CSA, suggested that the movement has reached a plateau on
this issue. "There’s kind of an exhaustion of emotional
energy of the first and second waves of CSA development,"
he said. "But what’s going to happen when questions
of sustainability arise for people without a set of shared
values? What happens when tough economic times catch up with
subscription farms? Is a community really necessary for a
CSA? Or do you just need a group of consumers?"
CSAs in this Mid-Atlantic region are now mostly farmer-driven,
not consumer-driven, Allan said. That is, in fact, clearly
the emerging pattern. According to Jo Meller, co-editor of
The Community Farm with Jim Sluyter, "There are regional
distinctions, at least in broad strokes.". "The
Northeast has smaller farms with more core groups where the
members are more active. The Midwest is more farmer-driven.
In California you have huge CSA farms on a scale that hasn’t
seemed feasible elsewhere."
While they are not to every farmer’s liking, core groups
are one way to extend a CSA’s range of support and commitment.
If times get tough, will CSAs with solid communities be better
poised to survive than ‘one farmer against the world’
Martha Cornwell is director of the Robyn Van En Center for
CSA at Wilson College. She sees the cooperation issue from
a broad perspective. "One thing I definitely see ahead
is more and more collaboration and cooperation among farms.
CSAs are looking for a way to work together, especially in
urban areas. We are going to see a lot more multi-farm cooperation."
Jo Meller said that she and Jim also recognize expansion
of the multi-farm, multi-product CSA operation. "We are
seeing a lot of producers joining with other producersWe see
bakeries, orchards, vegetable farms, co-ops, whatever, linking
to form networks of support."
What seems to be evolving are matrices of community farms
with different capacities and specialties. For example, the
Chequamegon CSA is a cooperative of six growers in Wisconsin,
and Maryland’s Mountains to Bay CSA links 13 family
farms to provide 20 weeks of fruits, herbs, flowers and vegetables.
Meanwhile, Angelic Organics, a 1,000-member biodynamic CSA
in Caledonia, Ill., is part of a network of more than 22 farms
partnering in an extensive apprentice program: the Collaborative
Regional Alliance for Farming Training (CRAFT) program, training
a new generation of farmers. By many accounts, that generation
is coming on strong, many young people with agricultural vocations
have a keen interest in CSA.
The land issue
1547 Rockton Rd.
Caledonia, IL 61011-9572
Fresh and Local CSA
Alternative Farming Systems Information
Of the National Agricultural Library
(national data base listing of CSAs)
Anthroposophy (general information)
Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association,
25844 Butler Road
Junction City, OR 97448
Les Jardins de Cocagne
An e-mail discussion list about CSA
Ellie Kastanopolous, Co-director
Equity Trust, Inc.
539 Voluntown, CT 06384
Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources
Fulton Center for Sustainable Living
1015 Philadelphia Avenue
Chambersburg PA 17201
Phone: 717-264-4141 x3352
P.O. Box 337
106 Market Court
Stevensville, MD 21666
40-56 Victoria Street,
Bristol, BS1 6BY
Indian Line Farm CSA
Jug End Road
South Egremont, MA
Temple-Wilton Community Farm
195 Isaac Frye Highway
Wilton, N.H. 03086
Mountains to Bay CSA
Contact Fay Northam, 301-855-0137
Susan Witt, executive director
E. F. Schumacher Society.
(Model legal documents for CSA land trust are
140 Jug End Road
Great Barrington, MA 01230
"For a host of reasons," Allan Balliett says, "I
believe strongly that for the safety and long-term strength
and independence of CSA farms, they should go hand-in-hand
with community land trusts. This is a central issue."
With the help of a community, land can be permanently set
aside for farming and made available to farmers at a reasonable
cost with a long-term lease.
Ellie Kastanopolous is co-director of Equity Trust, Inc.,
a group that has provided support to CSAs for more than a
decade. "We work with many wonderful farmers who produce
great crops that their shareholders love, and who are able
to earn a substantial income in return for their efforts,"
she said. "But they still can’t afford to buy farmland."
"CSAs tend to be near urban areas, and that’s
where the land values are high, and the whole constellation
of land issues and development is intense. A lot of CSAs are
set up on rented land. This makes them vulnerable. They can
improve the fertility of the land, and then lose the use of
it... If a CSA is going to succeed long term, then it better
start thinking about securing its land base."
Both of the original CSA farms—Indian Line and Temple-Wilton—spent
years grappling with the land issue. Both farms, operating
out of their own best judgment, eventually secured land long-term
through the vehicle of a land trust. This step has greatly
increased the farms’ long-term chances of survival.
Jo Meller and Jim Sluyter see the same thing. "So many
young people want to grow food and feed people," Jim
said. "That’s what they are called to do. But they
cannot afford land. Mostly these are people in their late
20s and early 30s who want to learn about sustainable farming
and CSA. We see CSAs moving more and more toward community-owned
Rising on Merit
If CSA is going to have a solid and progressive third wave
of growth and development, it’s not likely to be generated
by a government program or by the publicity campaign of a
well-intended nonprofit, or even so much by fear of terrorists
or corrupt food. A solid third wave of development ought by
rights to rise instead on merit: from a real assessment of
the benefits that can come from creating and supporting community
After 18 years, CSA has proven itself. Now many of the forces
that have brought it to its state of early maturity are conspiring
for what might well be another big wave of development. There
is tremendous potential.
CSA can play a substantial part in a sustainable future.
It has the potential to establish thousands of cells of environmental
vitality in cities, suburbs and countryside, and to extend
basic, healthy linkages among the people who make up a community.
As we know from its beginnings, CSA is not just a clever,
new approach to marketing. Community farming is about the
necessary renewal of agriculture through its healthy linkage
with the human community that depends upon farming for survival.
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, NM http://www.chiron-communications.com