Sustainability

Community-supported agriculture – a transformative approach

As it has been made clear in some of our previous blog posts, food insecurity is a great concern. Additionally, conventional farming harbors issues in itself. One approach to increase local food security and to move away from conventional agriculture and the corporate-driven global food production is community-supported agriculture.

Community-supported agriculture (CSA) originated in Japan (as “Teikei”, which means partnership), and in Switzerland independently from each other in the 1970s [1]. Since then, it has been propagated worldwide, and it can be found in many different forms and under various names. There is no fixed way of doing CSA. Still, the international CSA network URGENCI defines it as: “a framework to inspire communities to work together with their local farmers, provide mutual benefits and reconnect people to the land where their food is grown” [2].

Short video on Community-supported agriculture by the Lexicon of Sustainability.

CSA is an association between farmers or gardeners and private households, in which the needs of everyone – including the environment – are respected.  The members of this closed economic circle do not pay for individual food items, but rather for the upkeep and running of the agricultural business. In return, they receive a share of the harvest, which is usually provided to them on a weekly basis. This way of operating results, not only in the sharing of costs, but also the responsibilities and risks between the farmers and members, having benefits for both sides.

Small-scale, regional and sustainable agriculture are supported and furthered through these practices. CSA gives the farmers financial and planning security, besides assuring a fair wage for them [3, 4]. The financial security gives the farmers more flexibility and room for maneuver to try out new or traditional as well as more sustainable and organic ways of farming [3]. The time and money for trying out these practices often lack in conventional farming. In conventional agriculture, farmers also tend to concentrate on a small number of crops, vegetables or fruits they specialize in, to maximize efficiency. By implementing CSA, the farmers can grow a large range of products to satisfy the members of the association with a variety of products each week [3]. This increases diversity, which also has positive implications for the soil and local fauna. Furthermore, food wastage is reduced, as products that do not meet market standards are still distributed to and consumed by the members [3, 5]. The members receive fresh, regional, nutritious produce and the benefit of knowing where their food come from.  

There are different ways in which CSAs operate. Most commonly the farmers calculate the expenses for the year, based on the produce the members would like them to grow [3]. Then, either the costs are split evenly between all members in terms of a monthly membership fee, or, at a bidding round, each member can suggest what they could pay for the year. If after the bidding round not the whole costs are covered, the bidding round is done again, until they are [3]. The second option is based on the solidarity principal, as those, who can afford to, pay more, and those, who cannot, pay less. This way no one is excluded based on their financial situation.

Another aspect of CSA is the involvement of the members in the running of the farm. This is done to a varying extent at different CSA farms. For instance, members can either help out with the harvest, during planting events, or in the organization of food pick-ups. This way the consumer turns into a prosumer – a combination of consumer and producer. The idea behind this is that people do not only support the local farmer, but also experience where their food comes from. This puts the value back in the food, and it makes people think more about what they buy and eat. Therefore, there is a great educational value in CSA too.

There are many success stories of CSAs worldwide. But a relevant example, that shines a light on the problems some CSA farmers experience, is the study case by Ostrom in 2007 [4] on over 20 CSA farms in the Minneapolis and Madison area (USA). The study showed that especially the community idea behind CSA – farmers and members united as a community, sharing not only the benefits but also risks of farming – is often difficult to develop, and expectations of farmers and members tend to diverge. Since the initiative comes from the farmers in most cases, there is often a struggle to find members or to keep them involved [4]. The consequence of this is that farmers might orient the fees on what the members are willing to pay, rather than on what they really need to run the farm with fair wages and the other benefits that are meant to come with running a CSA [4]. Still, farmers, who can overcome the divergent expectations between themselves and members, and that can induce member engagement, are successful [4].

Notwithstanding, it has to be noted that this study conducted by Ostrom (2007) cannot be generalized, as it was conducted in one region [4]. A study on several CSAs in Germany, for example, found that most CSA members were motivated and engaged in farm activities [5]. Furthermore, the assessment conducted by Ostrom in 2007 revealed that members, who really engage with the CSA practices, experience a lifestyle shift, as they change their shopping behavior, cook healthier and with more variety [4]. This led the author to conclude that “part of the power of CSA as social movement lies with its ability to gradually forge a new understanding of what it means to eat” [4]. A concept that, therefore, bears ecological and social transformative potential.

If you would also like to change the way you eat and support local farmers, you can find information on CSAs around Bayreuth and how to get involved here. In Germany CSA is organized in the Netzwerk Solidarische Landwirtschaft , currently there are 368 CSA farms registered on their website [6].

References:

Where not otherwise indicated: https://www.solidarische-landwirtschaft.org/das-konzept

[1] https://urgenci.net/csa-history/ (last accessed 23.09.2021)

[2] https://urgenci.net/about-urgenci/ (last accessed 23.09.2021)

[3] Simpfendörfer C. (2017) Solidarische Landwirtschaft: Verbraucher gestalten Land(wirt)schaft. In: Kost S., Kölking C. (eds) Transitorische Stadtlandschaften. Hybride Metropolen. Springer VS, Wiesbaden. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-13726-7_6

[4] Ostrom M. (2007). “Community Supported Agriculture as an Agent of Change: Is it Working?”. Remaking the North American Food System, Clare Hinrichs and Tom Lyson (eds). University of Nebraska Press, pp 99-120.

[5] Bechtel D, van Elsen T. (2015). Potenziale Solidarischer Landwirtschaft für Naturschutz in der Kulturlandschaft. 13. Wissenschaftstagung Ökologischer Landbau. Available online: https://orgprints.org/id/eprint/26965/  

[6] https://www.solidarische-landwirtschaft.org/solawis-finden/auflistung/solawis#accordionHead131864 (last accessed 23.09.2021)

Elina Rittelmann

Author: Elina Rittelmann

Before starting the M.Sc. Global Change Ecology in Bayreuth I studied the B.Sc. Biological Sciences at the University of Konstanz. I am interested in environmental issues and my main research interest lies in plant ecology.
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