I discovered that I love working in nature and so I chose to make a life in organic farming. For 35 years I made my living running a farm.
I also did a lot of policy work for organic agriculture. I was on the founding board of IFOAM North America, serving two terms. In regards to the National Organic Program (NOP), I wanted to see it uphold all four principles of Organic agriculture, including fairness. When I saw that fairness was missing from the NOP, I helped start the Agricultural Justice Project which created an add-on to organic – Food Justice Certification – with standards for fair prices for farmers and fair conditions for farm workers.
The concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) came about to enable mid and small-sized farms to survive by attracting people to become loyal members of our farms. No two CSAs that are ever exactly alike. The CSA concept is supremely adjustable to individual circumstances, and that’s the brilliance of it. When people design their CSA to their own personalities and their farm’s circumstances, that’s when it works.
Many CSAs include low-income-earning people and have developed strategies for supporting their needs by charging on a sliding scale, accepting food stamps, and raising money from the community. The thickest chapter in my book, Sharing the Harvest, is on the many ways CSAs have found to serve people with diverse incomes and ethnicities, an area to which US CSAs have made enormous contributions.
I am honorary president of Urgenci, the International Community Supported Agriculture Network. There are CSAs around the world that are adapted to local cultures. In France, they renamed CSA an Association pour le Maintien d’une Agriculture Paysanne (AMAP) since the French public knows that small-scale agriculture brought them the great French cuisine. Something similar happened in China where CSAs are spreading quickly thanks to a campaign to empower smallholder farmers.
My own farm’s CSA had about 300 members so that the farm could support four farmers with a modest living. We charged on a sliding scale: the people who paid the top rate almost exactly setoff those who paid less, and we accepted food stamps.
We designed our CSA to be highly participatory, where every member took a role – solidarity economics before the term existed. Members either took part in the core group or helped harvest and with distribution. Our core group did administrative jobs – scheduling members’ work at the farm and distribution, collecting share payments, putting out the newsletter. We divided decisions very clearly. Anything that had to do with how to grow crops, what equipment to use, what seeds to buy and how to plant them — the farmers decided. Anything about the CSA, we discussed with the core group and our members and had annual quizzes and occasional focus groups to talk about how the CSA could work better in their lives.
I think that it’s too bad when farmers take on all the work of farming when there are so many opportunities for having people help them. CSAs that ask more of their members also get more loyalty.
Most people join CSAs for the high-quality food, so if you want to keep your members, you better find out what they like to eat— and try and grow that! Due to COVID-19 and all the increase in on-line ordering, more CSAs are putting their order systems on-line to allow members to order exactly what they want.
Building a community around a farm has to be very local and based upon finding out from the people you farm for what it is that they want and need. CSAs can make a fair deal for the farmers and their workers and we can achieve greater fairness at a very local level through CSAs and conscious eater networks. Doing it on a vast scale will not happen until we take power away from the big corporations.
Our whole country’s food system is based on cheap food – not paying farmers the full cost of production and treating farmworkers unfairly. It’s a system that’s perfectly accommodated to late-stage capitalism and tremendous consolidation by a very few large companies. To resolve the smallholder crisis, food has to stop being a commodity and be treated as a human right. I am involved with the “Disparity to Parity” project which is campaigning for fair pricing and updating supply management to build a racially just, economically empowered, and climate-resilient food system.