CSAs: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

CSAs: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
by Marcia Kaplan Belgorod, member Forest Hills Tuv Ha’Aretz CSA

From two farms in 1986, to current estimates of 5,000-6,000, CSA farms in the United States have grown steadily. The number grew slowly over the first 15-20 years, then exponentially over the following 10 years or so as people became more interested in the origins of their food and the farm-to-table concept gained adherents. In recent years, the growth has stalled somewhat.

Many believe that the CSA concept originated in Japan in the 1960’s. Communities of Japanese women came together because of their concerns about large-scale farms and the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. They sought out uncontaminated or organic food by forming informal cooperatives to get produce they trusted. Thus, they created the teikei (meaning putting the farmers’ face on food) system. The women not only looked for better produce, but also a closer relationship between the farmer and the consumer.  Under the original teikei model, members pay at the beginning of the season based on how much the farmer needs to dedicate the farm to producing exclusively for the group. The Japanese model encourages the community to become involved with the farm. One example is Minowa Farms in Chiba, Japan, which implemented a Duck Owner Program in 2008. Program members visit the farm throughout the year to participate in farming events and learn about production.  The ducks weed and fertilize the rice fields, cutting labor costs. In return the members get a share of both rice and duck meat.

As defined by the Japan Organic Agriculture Association, the following summarizes the Ten Principles of Teikei:

To build a friendly and creative relationship, not as mere trading partners.
To produce according to pre-arranged plans on an agreement between the producer(s) and the consumer(s).
To accept all the produce delivered from the producer(s).
To set prices in the spirit of mutual benefits.
To deepen the mutual communication for the mutual respect and trust.
To manage self-distribution, either by the producer(s) or by the consumer(s).
To be democratic in the group activities.
To take much interest in studying issues related to organic agriculture.
To keep the members of each group in an appropriate number.
To go on making a steady progress even if slow toward the final goal of the convinced management of organic agriculture and an ecologically sound  life.[1]

Although these principles sound similar to the ideals of a CSA, many believe that the American CSA movement is not based on the teikei system, but on the European concept of biodynamic farming. In the early twentieth century, Rudolph Steiner saw the farm as a complete organism that should be self-sustaining. Steiner was an Austrian philosopher known also for his ideas on education still practiced by Waldorf and other schools in the United States and Europe. European farmers, particularly in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, created agricultural cooperatives based on biodynamic concepts, which operated very much like our CSAs. Interest in CSAs has grown throughout the world, from Australia to Hong Kong.

The CSA movement in the United States began in 1986 with two farms, Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire The Indian Line Farm model is closer to the one we know with CSA members purchasing shares. Robyn Van En, who owned the farm, and Jan Van Tuin, who had worked with cooperative biodynamic farms in Switzerland, pioneered the concept. They began by offering shares of the apple harvest to the Great Barrington community and provided members with storage apples and cider. Most of these initial members then bought shares of the vegetable harvest the next summer. When Robyn Van En died in 1997, many were concerned about the viability of the Indian Line Farm. Eventually, the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires purchased the land, and the Nature Conservancy bought an easement on part of the property.  This arrangement allowed Elizabeth Keen and Al Thorp to continue to farm the land under a 99-year lease. This model has been adopted by numerous CSA’s around the country.

On the other hand, Temple-Wilton is a cooperative in which the members own the farm, including the land. Traugher Groh had come from Germany, where he learned about the farmers in Buschberghof in Northern Germany who had been experimenting with Steiner’s ideas. He joined with Anthony Graham and Lincoln Geiger to found Temple-Wilton. They presented a budget of their costs and asked members to pledge funds according to their ability to pay. This model continues to the present. Members of Temple-Wilton contribute throughout the year; they are then entitled to take as much as they need of the unprocessed produce of vegetables and milk. Processed goods, such as cheese, yogurt, meat, bread, and eggs are available for purchase. The land is held in common by a community trust, which granted a long-term lease to the farm. Over the years, the farm location has changed, but it is now firmly in place at Four Corners Farm in Wilton, New Hampshire.

In NYC in 1991, Roxbury Farm began selling shares from its Union Square Market stand. This grew to the Roxbury Farm CSA on the Upper West Side.  Other farms and communities began their own CSA’s, while Roxbury Farm expanded to CSA sites from Albany to New York.

Today the growth in CSA’s has slowed. The original growth came from increased interest in local and sustainable produce, but other models have also grown around the concept. There are now more farmers’ markets in the City. Competition has also come from businesses that use CSA terminology, but do not adhere to the idea of a direct partnership between the members of a community and an individual farm. These businesses may provide weekly shares that they aggregate from various sources, not necessarily all local. They may also offer consumers a choice of which products they want at any given time instead of a share of what a single farm produces. Whether these models will take hold, and what their impact will be on the CSA movement remains to be seen.

Marcia Kaplan Belgorod has been a member of the Forest Hills Tuv Ha’Aretz CSA since its inception.  She was a member of the original core committee.  Although she is a native New Yorker, Marcia developed her appreciation for local farms and produce when she spent seven years surrounded by farms in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. 

[1] http://www.joaa.net/english/teikei.htm

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