Working with Community Supported Agriculture for the Benefit of All

Healthy food. Sharing expenses, risks, and profits. Active participation. Community involvement. All of these social ideals are shared by co-ops and CSAs.

Our food production system is for the most part industrialized to the point of absurdity. Most of us working in cooperatives realize this. But as a produce manager, I also realize how strong the desire for out of season produce is. Recently, when I ordered organic strawberries and blueberries from New Zealand several customers practically kissed me. These few pints had traveled thousands of miles.

The problems with this are multiple: the capital leaves the community, never to return; there is way more energy expended than a few pints of fruit could possibly be worth. So, on the one hand we have the system that can put blueberries in the East Lansing Food Co-op in the middle of February, and at least part of the time we are forced to rely on this extremely delocalized food system. At the other end of this continuum are Community Supported Agriculture programs, or CSAs.

Over 500 CSAs have been formed in the last decade in the United States alone. The goal of CSAs is to put healthy local food on tables in the local community. Ultimately, they have the potential to bring food production back to the region where it is consumed. On the surface it is a simple concept, but one with a complex underlying philosophy and deep ramifications for the lifestyle we have grown accustomed to. I will briefly discuss the nature and history of CSAs before moving on to the philosophical connections that CSAs and food cooperatives share. Finally, I will show how CSAs and co-ops can benefit by working together.

In the middle of the 1980s, the community supported agriculture idea was borrowed from Switzerland and Japan by a few farms on the East Coast. Since then, this idea of a joint project between the producers of food and its consumers has been implemented in many communities. The rapid growth indicates the promise CSAs hold.

The CSA model of cooperation between producers and consumers works in the following ways. The consumers can be anyone who buys shares, which range from $200 to $600 each year. This money is paid to the farmer so that the costs of production are met upfront. To operate a farm, capital tends to be needed in the spring for seeds, fertilizer, and equipment. Unfortunately for the farmer, there is a long time before this money can be transformed into revenue. The shares which are purchased by the members act in some ways as a loan to the farmer. In return, the members get a portion of the crop as it is harvested throughout the summer and the fall. The farmer also benfits because there is a reduced need to market his or her produce during the growing season, which frees up valuable time to work the farm.

Besides quality local food products, there are many additional benefits to the consumer. While CSAs differ, all offer the potential for the consumer to know personally who grows their food. Consumers also gain a greater awareness of the cycles of the growing season, and this can foster an understanding of the planet we share. Most CSAs also have events designed to educate the participants, ranging from seminars on gardening or newsletters to hayrides or parties. The CSA shareholder is exposed to a community of people who share many of their views and concerns about food.

In all CSAs the responsibility of the farm is shared by both the members and the farmer, because both have invested in the farm. By sharing this responsibility and surviving both plentiful harvests and crop failures, a sense of unity is developed. The relationship between the farmer and the consumer results in a reversal of the conventional separation between the two.

Healthy food. Sharing expenses, risks, and profits. Active participation. Open membership. Community involvement. All of these social ideals are shared by co-ops and CSAs. It is important to view CSAs as an ally in raising community awareness about food issue rather than as a potential competitor. Viewing CSAs as competition to a produce department ignores the larger picture and will eventually hurt your co-op. Fostering a working relationship with local CSAs will benefit your store, because you can represent your co-op as the grocery store that is a logical extension of the philosophy that draws people to belong to a CSA in the first place. Almost anyone who would join a CSA would also join a food co-op.

There are several ways that this can occur. One of the major difficulties that a CSA faces is the distribution of the product on a weekly basis. Ideally, every member would be able to go to the farm and pick up their produce. However, farms are often far from urban areas. Many people do not have the time or do not own a car. Co-ops can offer a place close by for the members of CSAs to pick up their produce. The benefits of this to the co-op are simple. It increases the number of shoppers that are in the store on that day; the members of the CSA have seasonal produce which will need all sorts of other items to be made into a meal. Co-ops can work with CSAs by educating people on how to cook from scratch and by providing the pasta, bread, spices, etc., that are needed for cooking. After all, the CSA member already is in the store, and odds are excellent that they won't want to go elsewhere.

At Community Mercantile in Lawrence, Kansas, a co-op staff person develops recipes to place in all of the CSA bags. On Monday nights, when CSA members come to pick up their groceries, the store demos the recipes so that the CSA members can try them. According to Linda Gwaltney, "the bustling store gives everyone a good feeling." This also translates into increased sales for the co-op; Community Mercantile sells $1000 more than average on Mondays.

A savvy co-op will schedule the pick-up days on their slowest days, which will increase overall sales. It is possible that the produce department might lose out a little but this usually does not seem to be the case. Many of the members of CSAs will not be co-op members initially, so they probably have been buying their produce elsewhere. The produce department can feature items and recipes that are complementary to what is being harvested on a weekly basis. The farmer can sell excess produce to the co-op to be sold in the store.

What happens when the growing season is over? The CSA member who came into the co-op on a weekly basis during the growing season will now be in the habit of shopping there. They will have noticed the beautiful displays of produce while in the store. When the local season ends, the co-op can provide a sufficient substitute until the following season. These increased sales should more than make up for any inconvenience caused by working with the CSA.

There also is an opportunity to work with the CSA on member education and community awareness projects. Education creates a market for natural foods, and when the resources of the co-op and CSA are merged, a greater percentage of the community can be reached. Participation in local health expos and community events is a great way to increase public awareness of food issues and of your store. The co-op also will have a working relationship with the farm, which has many possibilities. After all, who wouldn't love to have a meeting on the farm on a sunny autumn Sunday?

CSAs represent a viable option for the community when it comes to food consumption. CSAs also share much of their philosophy or reason for being with cooperatives. An organized co-op will be able to work with a local CSA for the benefit of each. By taking advantage of these natural marketing opportunities co-ops can compete successfully in the increasingly crowded natural foods market.

See other articles from this issue: #064 May - June - 1996