Community-Supported Farms Have Much to Offer

A Well-Oiled Machine

(The following is an interview from AcresUSA magazine, reprinted with permission)

If current trends hold for the next few decades, community-supported agriculture will make steady inroads against the domination of corporation-supported monoculture. As the idea attracts converts, it reinstates the connection to the agrarian world for growing numbers of Americans, along with assuring them a supply of uncontaminated food. And to a large extent we'll have Elizabeth Henderson to thank for it.

As Henderson explains in her book Sharing the Harvest, a CSA farm is essentially a sort of limited partnership where as many as several hundred citizens contribute a fixed number of dollars and hours of labor to a farm in return for wholesome food. Originally adapted from European models by Henderson's close friend and collaborator, the late Robyn Van En, the CSA benefits from the ironclad virtues of elegance and simplicity. Van En created a synthesis of capitalism and collective that deftly avoids the pitfalls of both. A well-run CSA, as Henderson details below, gives ordinary food consumers a stake in the fate of a small farm while pooling their labor in small allotments of time even busy urbanites can spare. City dwellers enjoy a connection to the land they otherwise would never have known, and the farmers gain membership in the kind of community of shared interest thought to be lost forever to rural America.

Although Henderson doesn't mention literary experience in her account of her past, she turns out to be an ideal voice for Van En's vision and her own experience as a successful CSA farmer near Geneva, New York. A clear, lively writer, she makes Sharing the Harvest a friendly manifesto and history of an idea as well as a set of instructions and case histories. The tragedy of Robyn Van En's untimely death is more than a little rectified by her luck in having a friend who would devote such care to finishing the book she'd only started.

ACRES U.S.A. What are the origins of the CSA idea?

HENDERSON. Well, in this country the first people who did CSAs were Robyn Van En and Trauger Groh. Robyn was just a few months ahead of Trauger; she started in the fall of 1985. She got the idea talking to a friend who had spent some time in Switzerland and came back talking up the notion of community-supported agriculture. Trauger was a German, and he had been involved in a farm in Germany that did something similar with a community. So in the summer of 1986, they both did versions of CSA. Trauger was in New Hampshire and Robyn was in Massachusetts.

ACRES U.S.A. Did the idea have all its origins in Europe?

HENDERSON. I think it's an idea that's been floating around the world a bit. Robyn and a lot of the rest of us subsequently learned that they had been doing teikei in Japan since the sixties. [Editor's Note: According to the book Sharing the Harvest, the teikei, which translates directly to "food with the farmer's face on it," predated current organizations by some 20 years and was constructed by Japanese women "concerned with the use of pesticides, the increase in processed and imported foods, and the corresponding decrease in the local farm population."] That's very similar to community-supported agriculture. I spent a summer in France in 1977. I sublet an apartment from some Frenchmen who were Maoists. They forgot to mention that every week I'd be getting a packet of vegetables from some comrades of theirs who had a little organic farm. After I got my packet of vegetables, I did some checking and found that they were members of this Maoist group, and they delivered their vegetables to two sites. One was in this village, and the other was in the big shipbuilding center near Toulon. And the people who ate the shares were all French Maoists. I had the idea of doing it starting back then, but circumstances just didn't come together until the winter of 1988-89, when I moved to New York State.

ACRES U.S.A. Did you grow up there?

HENDERSON. Yes. But I'd been farming in Massachusetts. I was raised closer to New York City, in Croton-on-Hudson, and I'm living now between Rochester and Syracuse, the township of Arcadia, about half an hour north of Geneva.

ACRES U.S.A. What distinguishes the CSA idea from direct marketing arrangements, subscription farms, farmers markets and the like?

HENDERSON. The boundary between CSA and subscription, I think, is a bit blurry. It's a matter of degree. But in community-supported agriculture farms, people buy shares for a whole season. They get a share of the harvest. In a farm like the one that Robyn Van En ran, they literally get a share. However many people she had who bought shares - whatever they picked, they would divide it equally among that many people. That was her entire market. But the farm that Trauger Groh was involved with, I think they sold some food to other markets. But in their community the farms not only supplied vegetables, but had a store where people could get milk and eggs and butter and cheese, and could do bulk orders of other foods that were produced on the farm. So right from the beginning, CSA has had a range of meanings. Especially in Robyn Van En's work, she just became afire with the idea. After her very first season, she started going around the country to as many different conferences as she could, talking it up. I think I heard her speak about it in '87 or '88. Since I'd already encountered it in France, it sort of clicked with me. And it clicked with a lot of other people. What's special is that, unlike a farmers market or a farmstand, the consumer-members agree to share the risk with the farmer. If it's a good season, they'll get more food. If it's a bad season, they'll get less. If the farm is wiped out by a tornado, they might get nothing - but they won't ask for their money back.

In 1992, with my CSA, my farm that summer was underwater for a while. And our yields were about half of what they would have been. We continued to supply the shares, but they were smaller and much less varied, just what could survive that kind of weather. So they got some kale, they got some stumpy carrots, they got some tomatoes . . . it was a rough year. But people stuck with us. When we saw what was happening in July, when we got 5 inches of rain in one afternoon, we went to the next meeting of the core group and we said, "Look, maybe we should just forget it for this year, we'll give you all your money back and we'll start again next spring." They said, "No, you can give us just one item a week. We signed up to share the risk with you, and we're going to stick with you." And they did. They slogged with us through the mud, and people offered us money - they were more worried about us and our morale than they were about getting the food. At the end of the season, at our end-of-the-season dinner, people gave us a standing ovation. Just for getting through the season. I think that's kind of different from the experience that many people have farming. There's a whole range of CSAs. There are some that are really very close to being a subscription CSA, where members just pay a fee and don't even necessarily commit to a specific length of time. But even in those farms, there is more of a commitment to the farm than there would be buying local in a supermarket. I really think that "community-supported agriculture," in some ways, is an unfair name. Because a lot of the farms that sell at farmers markets have a tremendous amount of community support. People are loyal customers and buy from the farm they have chosen as their favorite.

ACRES U.S.A. Still and all, what you are describing when you talk about your CSA farm is a much more direct connection to agriculture - something kind of like an old joint-stock company, or even a limited partnership, sharing the risk so people have a direct stake in what happens to the farm.

HENDERSON. That's right. In our CSA and many others, all the members work to help make the CSA happen. It's really a community effort. I think our CSA may be pioneering in some ways by requiring work as part of the membership fee. We presented it to our members from the beginning as a way of keeping the seasonal fee as low as possible. Everybody would either help by helping administer the project, or would come and help us harvest the food and take it into the city. So for 12 years we've been doing this. Every single member is active. If you want to pay more money and be less active, we send people to a different CSA across town where the fees are higher but they don't ask any real participation from the members.

ACRES U.S.A. That might work better for city dwellers who don't have much energy left over from career or family but want to get that kind of food.

HENDERSON. Sure. And there are CSAs that don't require work but urge members to work, and workers have a cut in the fee and are called working members or working sharers. There's every possible variation.

ACRES U.S.A. Are children involved in labor on the farm?

HENDERSON. We encourage all our members to bring their kids to the farm, to work with them. For part of the time, we have large groups of kids there twice a month, 12 to 15, and on those days we have a friend who is a naturalist and takes the kids on a nature walk for part of the time they're here. There are older kids who come and work with their parents, and there are younger kids who come and work part of the time with their parents, and play part of the time or just hang out.

ACRES U.S.A. How does a typical split between fees and labor break down? Let's say a family of four wanted to join.

HENDERSON. For our CSA, we calculate it by the week. For a week's vegetables, we calculate that it would be about what you'd get at a farmers market for $14. However, we ask that people pay either $11, $14 or $17 for that same amount of food. It's a sliding scale. Pretty much every year the people who pay the $17 balance out the people who pay the $11. They do that normally, and they bring people who are harder strapped than they are to be members. For each share, people work three four-hour shifts at the farm, and two two-and-a-half hour shifts doing distribution in the city. They set up a distribution point in the backyard of a church. The members make sure that the food is out and that everything is going smoothly. That amount of work is over a six-month season. So it's three times at the farm and two times in the city over the course of the six months. It comes to 16 hours per share, and we have 210 shares. It's a lot of hours - about 3,360 hours of work. And some of the members do a lot more than that. Some of them are the core group, and this group is one person who is kind of a clerk, who makes sure all of the loose ends are tied. Nine people who are captains for the distribution days, they oversee that. There are two treasurers who collect all the money from the members, and we farmers just get a check. There are two people who do the newsletter. There are two people who schedule everybody's work in distribution and on the farm. There's an outreach committee that recruits new members and does publicity and things like that. Each year a few of those people do a lot of work. I'm astonished at how much work some of the people put in. The couple of people who do the most work has changed every year - somehow new people appear who are willing to take it on, and that way people haven't got burned out. Having two people for each job has been basic to our organizational structure - so that people don't get burned out.

ACRES U.S.A. How do you handle decision-making and avoid the paralysis that often afflicts egalitarian group projects when the lack of a hierarchy or lines of authority can really throw people off?

HENDERSON. First of all, we have a clear division of responsibilities. The decisions on the farm - how food is grown, what kind of equipment, when you spade a bed, how much mowing we do - those are made by us the farmers, my partner Greg Palmer and myself. Decisions about the CSA - the cost of the share, how it's distributed, the size of the share - that's all decided by the core group, and the farm is just one voice in the core group. And that seems to work pretty well. Most decisions happen pretty easily. We discuss it, there's a consensus, and there it is. Some things we can't agree on and we sort of table them, and some things solve themselves in the interim, something works out. Other ones go away. And some things we have to really hash out over an extended period of time. One of the things for which it's been really difficult to figure out the right balance is - there are people who don't want a full share. Well, we tried doing half shares, which is exactly half of a full share, but that involved cutting things in half, which nobody liked. The people who got half a cabbage, half a melon, and the distribution people who had to have knives to cut them in half, it was a big pain in the neck. Then we went to half the number of items. A full share would get eight, and a half share would get four. Well, there were people who didn't like that because they would see the full shares getting things they didn't get, and that made them unhappy. So this year we're trying partial shares. Partial shares cost a little less, get a little less than the full shares, but not exactly half - they get more than half. So far there haven't been any complaints.

ACRES U.S.A. Do the economics of the operation require you to sell at a farmers market in the city? Do you have a surplus?

HENDERSON. If we were having a good year, we would probably have a substantial surplus. But this has been a really terrible year so far. We have pretty much come through with the promised seven or eight items a week. We had to cancel one week. We did the first two weeks from what we picked out of the greenhouse, but then when we went to the field it was still too cold and wet. There wasn't anything to put in shares. We said we'll skip this week and tack it on at the end of the season. We're still selling a little bit to a very local, tiny farmers market and a health food store that's an old customer. But in a good year we would be selling quite a bit to those markets.

ACRES U.S.A. Here's a two-part question: How do attract people to a CSA like yours, and second, what kind of people tend to find it attractive?

HENDERSON. We started with people who were involved with an organization in Rochester, an activist organization called The Politics of Food. Also we put up signs around the food co-op, which attracted people who are concerned about local food and organic food. Since then we recruited by going to organizations of people who are active. So we've gone to the more activist churches, we've gone to the Sierra Club, the Vegetarian Society - but most of our recruiting has been by word of mouth. People who like it tell their friends. In my experience - I've talked to people from maybe 300 CSAs - most of the members of those CSAs come by word of mouth. Some publicity is always helpful, it gets the idea out there. But your good, solid members will come because they've heard about it, they know what the idea is, and they know what to expect, having friends who are members. Our members are economically, occupationally and racially diverse. We have people who are engineers at Xerox, some computer heads, we have some teachers, some social workers, some artists. Almost everyone I've talked to among our members are people who are active in the community in other ways. The CSA is one of the ways they are active. I'm hard pressed to think of anyone who doesn't do something like activity with their church, or hospice work, or lead a girl scout troop - something like that. They're all people who care about building community. Most of the board of directors of the new food co-op that's getting started in Rochester are also members of our CSA.

ACRES U.S.A. How do you communicate with your members?

HENDERSON. Our mailing list is now at 277 households. We communicate through a newsletter which comes out six times a year. We also have a website. One of the members about five years ago came to one of our core meetings and said, "You need a website!" I sneered, I said, "What do we need the World Wide Web to sell local vegetables to local people for?" But he was right. The website has proved to be very handy, and we have a beautiful website with all kinds of information about the CSA, and pictures and links to all kinds of related things - a map showing how to get to the farm, a work schedule for the members, all kinds of things. About half the members now have e-mail, so they're all on an e-mail list. At a distribution site we either hand out flyers or put up signs.

ACRES U.S.A. Are there any CSAs that have tried to involve people who are more typical, not activists or people who tend to join organizations?

HENDERSON. "Just Food" is a food organization in New York City, and they have been helping farmers outside the city connect with food consumers in the city. They're working with I think up to 17 CSAs in New York City who total about 1,200 members. Just Food works with community organizations, many of them with low-income consumers, so that each CSA has a low-income contingent as well as a middle- or upper-income contingent to balance out the payments to the farmers. Our CSA has as one of its members a program for recovering women drug addicts. There are 20 women in that household and they get four shares. It's a six-month, intensive rehabilitation program they go through, and part of their rehabilitation is that four of them come to the farm every Thursday and help us out. It's actually cut down on the food budget for the house. They buy less junk food, which is more expensive than our vegetables.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you see a potential for gradually replacing a part of the conventional food system in the cities where most people live now? Is the CSA idea growing?

HENDERSON. It's definitely spreading. I would hardly call it a mass movement at this point. On the other hand, the growth has been steady. There have been a lot of farms that have tried CSA and have dropped it after one to three years. There are a number of different reasons that I've been able to identify. A few of them are the normal reasons that people stop farming anyway - they get a job that pays a decent amount, they get divorced, or they have a new baby and they just can't handle all that. But another subset of people who try and give up are people who continue farming but just did not get things organized enough, so they did not get the help they needed from the members. In addition to growing the food, they found themselves not having four markets, but having 44 markets where they had to chase the money, put out a newsletter, and perform all sorts of member services without help from the members. And it's exhausting, it's very demanding.

ACRES U.S.A. Did they fail to grasp the concept?

HENDERSON. They grasped the concept but they didn't know how to organize the people side of it. It takes organizational skills that someone has to bring to the project. I think a lot of farmers are afraid to ask two things. They're afraid to ask a decent amount of money, and they're afraid to ask for help. In my book there is a list of jobs that someone has to do to make a CSA run. I've given that to people who are having trouble with their CSAs. I tell them to make a copy for each member, and tell the members these are all the jobs, and if you want to get your vegetables you're going to have to come and help do all that, because you can't do it alone. And the people who have actually done that with their members have had people come forward with all sorts of helpful offers that have taken the burden off of farmers. I don't think that anybody's members could be busier than our members. We have one family whose mother is a doctor, the husband is the main caretaker of the children - people who are as busy as busy comes. But it's important for them to make time in their lives for the CSA because they see it as a valuable thing. We have tried to package the jobs so that they don't eat up people's entire lives. When people take on a job in the core group or come and work on the farm, they know exactly what they're getting in for, and that's all that it is, so they can fit it in. That's a really important aspect of working with volunteers. I think a lot of farmers just need some organizational training of that kind. That's one of the reasons I finished writing the book when Robyn couldn't. I just wanted to see people grasp the organizational principles as well as the growing principles.

ACRES U.S.A. What happened to Robyn Van En?

HENDERSON. She died of asthma at the age of 49. It was really asthma and poverty. She should have called the ambulance to take her to the hospital, but she owed the hospital money, so when she had this asthma attack she called a friend, and Robyn's car wouldn't start, and the key got frozen in the friend's car - it was January - and by the time they fiddled with all that, Robyn passed out and never recovered. The hospital would have given her epinephrin or oxygen and she would still be with us. If she'd called the ambulance. She didn't like owing money. She was a wonderful person, and just so enthusiastic in communicating about community-supported farms and the importance of local farms. She was our Johnny Appleseed. I don't have time to do that because I'm being a farmer. So I do a couple of months of it in the wintertime, and then I knuckle down and farm.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you think this kind of farming requires a break or a shift away from the traditional stubborn individualism of the American farmer - the rugged individualist we always associate with farming?

HENDERSON. Oh, definitely. To be successful with a CSA farm, the farmer has to give up some of the control that you would have over the enterprise where you to sell to conventional markets. To get people to volunteer and work with you, you have to share, really share, some of the responsibility for the decisions that are made. That's why for our CSA it's terribly important that we have clear lines of responsibility.

ACRES U.S.A. Is it also important to get along with groups of people?

HENDERSON. Well, somebody has to. It doesn't have to be the farmer. The farmer can be a loner, but he might have a partner or somebody that he hires to work with the CSA. Someone has to do that. On the other hand, farmers who sell to conventional markets think they have control, but those markets are really dangling them around.

ACRES U.S.A. One is tempted to use a less polite term for it.

HENDERSON. The way I farm, I get to know most of the nicest people in my area. I know hundreds of delightful people. So I get a social life along with my farm work. I get lots of dinner invites, people will occasionally call on me and bring me dinner, spend the evening. I get invited for sailing trips - it's much more than just a business relationship. You know everybody's children, too.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you think a CSA can work against the social isolation that afflicts some farmers and contributes to depression and divorce?

HENDERSON. Oh yes, very much so. And I know that if I am really in a pinch, I can call people for help. I can call and say, all the broccoli came in at once, the weather fooled me, I thought it would come in over four weeks but here it is, and I have to pick it all within two weeks because it's all ripe. Everybody in the core group will call five people and say, "Do you want to freeze some broccoli?" I can call members of the core group and ask them to say we really need an extra work day, for instance because we're just getting started with this packing shed, and things are really a mess and we won't be ready for the beginning of the season - can you get five or six people out here to work with us for an extra day? And they'll do that.

ACRES U.S.A. Does a good CSA sort of replace the kind of community that's been lost to corporate farming, the decline of small towns and so on?

HENDERSON. Yes, it does. When there were a lot more farmers, farmers did that for one another.

ACRES U.S.A. How do your CSA's profit margins compare with those of a standard farm of similar size?

HENDERSON. I have a lot of trouble with the word "profit" with regard to farming. Maybe that's because I've only been farming for 20 years and I'm on the third farm, and so I have constantly had to continue to capitalize my farms. I have never seen what you would call profit - that there's a return on my investment. However, my farm is in the black, I don't owe any money, and my partner and I both earn enough for our families to live on throughout the year. We don't earn a terrific living, but we earn a modest living. That would be considered a profit for many growers.

ACRES U.S.A. Have you come across any reliable information about the fiscal health of the movement in general?

HENDERSON. Dan Lass, who is a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, has done an economic study of CSAs in the northeast. And Cathy Ross, who is an extension agent in Massachusetts, has done another study, a 10-year study of a group of CSAs. Those two studies have shown rather different things, and I think it has to do with the methods that the two researchers used. Lass sent out huge, 20-page questionnaires to maybe 20 farms, got answers back maybe half and then tallied up those answers. Cathy Ross picked 10 farms and actually went out and paid a personal visit to each farm, and stayed several hours talking with the farmers. She's done this now every two years, with a couple of visits in between, and she's going back again in two more years. In Dan Lass's study, he found that a fair number of the farms were not budgeting in a salary for the farmer at all. He found that there were a few farms where the farmers were making something like $20-30,000 a year. And he found that those farms that had a core group tended to make a significant amount more than the farms that didn't have a core group to help them run the project. He also did a related study comparing the price of a CSA share with identical or similar food purchased in local stores, and he found that the CSA members were saving a great deal of money by being in the CSA. It was much cheaper than buying organic food at the health food store or the conventional store. He advised that CSAs could charge a lot more than they were charging to their members and supply a decent salary to the farmer. That was his conclusion. The farmers Cathy Ross interviewed over the first 10 years of her study all seemed to be improving. As the CSAs matured, the farmers were doing better. The farmers felt more secure, the members were getting involved in more ways, and the satisfaction for the farmers and the members was growing. Her first survey was much more involved with values than Dan Lass's.

ACRES U.S.A. Are the lower-cost inputs of biodynamic or organic farming critical to the whole idea of the CSA?

HENDERSON. Well, what seems critical is that the people who are going to go to the trouble to join the farm are joining because they want fresh, locally grown, unpolluted food. They're trying to get away from chemicals. I do not know of a CSA on a purely conventional farm. I know CSAs on farms that have pledged to their members that they are IPM and cutting down on their chemicals, that they're moving towards organic management. But almost all of the CSA farms that I have run into are either organic or biodynamic, or close to it. First of all, the movement spread among organic or biodynamic farmers. And the people who are interested in it are people who are fleeing from chemical agriculture. Many of my members are so concerned about what they are feeding their children. They don't want to be part of the genetic engineering experiment. They just don't want their children to be guinea pigs. I was surprised to discover that we have seven members who are chemists. They're people who work for Kodak or whatever, and they are really hot on organic foods for themselves and especially for their children, because they know a lot about chemicals.
Elizabeth Henderson also co-authored the book The Real Dirt. She has been involved in CSA farming for more than a decade, and she presently lives and farms in Newark, New York.