CSA at the Turn of the Millennium: Outside the Box, Inside the Hoop

©  Copyright 2001 – by Steven McFadden

Over the last 14 years of the 20th Century, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) took root in North America with moderate speed and gradually grew to include over 1,200 farms. CSA proliferated against a surging tide of decline for small farms in general, with with virtually no government support.

farmCSAAs we move on into the new century and a new millennium, CSA is still generally regarded as outside the box of conventional agriculture. Yet from the vantage that is indigenous to our land, CSA is respectfully within the Sacred Hoop, a traditional philosophical concept of Turtle Island (North America) for 12,000 years or more.

While few CSA farms have explicit appreciation of the history and relevance of the Sacred Hoop, or its attendant precepts, they are in many ways implicitly aligned with it.

Because of this, CSA is establishing a model with potentially wide implications for the 21st Century.

CSA and the Sacred Hoop

A CSA farm is a community-based organization of growers and consumers. The consumer households live independently but agree to provide direct, up-front support for the local growers by investing in a share of the harvest. The growers in turn agree to do their best to provide sufficient quantity and quality of food to meet the household needs and expectations of the shareholders.

CSA farms typically produce a sizeable share of a family’s fresh vegetables and fruits; many CSAs also offer shares of milk, butter, eggs, meat, and flowers; some also have formal links with consumer coops, giving shareholders access to a wide variety of goods.

Within this web of economic relationships, the farms and families form a network of mutual support, whether the community is an urban neighborhood, a suburb, a church, a school, or some other social constellation. CSA has wide latitude for variation, depending on the resources and desires of the participants. No two community farms are entirely alike.

As CSA pioneers conceived of it — and as it is being practiced at many farms — CSA is not just another new and clever approach to marketing. Rather, community farming is about the necessary renewal of agriculture through its healthy linkage with the human community that depends on farming for survival. It’s also about the necessary stewardship of soil, plants, and animals: the essential capital of human cultures.

soop-with-colorIn many respects CSA embodies and expresses the original Native American social and environmental ethos, the Sacred Hoop. The Sacred Hoop is a metaphor for a core concept, or worldview, encompassing a host of subtleties and paradoxes.

The Sacred Hoop (or the “Circle of Life” as popularized in the Disney film, The Lion King) represents our interconnectedness with the Earth. It is the understanding that we are in an inevitable web of relationship with minerals, plants, animals, and natural forces.

Human beings are part of the continuum of nature, and exist within the same order governing the rest of life on Earth. What happens to part of the hoop ultimately affects all of the hoop.

To be in right relationship with the hoop, one follows the original instructions, a common Native American expression. Original instructions is a reference to a set of natural laws — laws which are inferred and shared, but not codified or written. For example, the concept of original instructions would include appreciation of the fact that if you poison your water, you will get sick.

As I understand it, a foundational premise of these natural laws — original instructions — is to express respect for all things as part of the Sacred Hoop of Life.

“In the beginning we were told that the human beings who walk about on the Earth have been provided with all of the things necessary for life. We were instructed to carry love for one another, and to show a great respect for all the beings of this Earth. We were shown that our well-being depends on the well-being of the vegetable life, and that we are close relatives of the four-legged beings.” – Haudenausenee (Iroquois) Elders

“In our way of life with every decision we make, we always keep in mind the Seventh Generation of children to come. We never forget them.”    Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper, Onandoga Nation


Over the last several hundred years the modern nation-states of Canada, Mexico and the United States have supplanted the indigenous ways of Turtle Island with whole new systems of culture and agriculture based on a different worldview with different precepts of philosophy, economy, ecology, and education.

These precepts — individuality, logic, measure, competitiveness, reduction of whole systems into discrete parts, and monetary value — are now at the heart of the global market economy.

They constitute the dominant set of agricultural ideas and approaches, and can be said to represent a significant part of “thinking inside the box.” Because the Sacred Hoop by definition includes all things, these industrial means and ends are also in the hoop. In my view, though, they are deficient in awareness of, and basic respect for, this reality.

Sacred Hoop and Superstrings

ssThe indigenous concept of the Sacred Hoop closely corresponds with what modern scientists are glimpsing about the nature of reality through the theories of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Uncertainty, and Superstrings.

These theories, Superstrings in particular, advance the understanding that matter and energy are interchangeable and, ultimately, both woven into a single unified field. As the November 1986 edition of Discover magazine put it:

“The theory (Superstrings) has turned the universe into an entity in which all matter and energy, all forces, all people, planets, stars, cats, dogs, quasars, atoms, automobiles, and everything else are the result of the actions and interactions of these infinitesimal linked strings.”

Everything is connected, and everything is in dynamic flux. The universe is “a single, unbroken wholeness in flowing movement,” as described by physicist David Bohm.

maniThe Algonquin words Manitou and Gitchee Manitou describe a similar, if not the same, understanding. They refer not a Supreme Being, as in Western spiritual conceptions, but rather to a cosmic, mysterious power existing everywhere in nature, and connecting all things.

Scientists say this universal connection occurs at the level of Planck scale, wherein the ratio of measurement is to the atom as the atom is in scale to the solar system. What happens to any one part of the vast field of matter and energy which is our reality (the Sacred Hoop) affects all other parts.

Eunice Baumann-Nelson, Ph.D., of the Penobscot Nation, is but one elder who has noted the intersection of the unified-field theories of Western science with the Sacred Hoop concept of aboriginal philosophy:

“This is a stunning insight. From it I know that I have the responsibility of caring for you and all things that exist as I care for myself. I have to behave as if everything I do to you and Creation, I do to myself. Because that’s the way it is. That’s reality. Consequently, it behooves me to act with respect and love.”

Many scientists say the Superstrings theory has potential to be recognized as the ultimately correct way of describing the fundamental nature of our universe. Our personal connection with each other and with all things is thus not a purely religious, nostalgic or romantic notion, but is also as accurate a worldview as modern physics and mathematics can ascertain at the end of the 20th Century.

This worldview — anciently indigenous to Turtle Island by way of insight and contemplation, and now joined by the leading edge of Western science — is so far grasped by only a few people. Over time many more people may come to appreciate it. If so, they may naturally employ it as a foundation for decisions and actions. And if so, CSA will likely prosper and proliferate in the 21st Century.

One’s worldview, the ideas that arise in the context of one’s worldview, and the actions that follow, have both impact and consequences. Industrial agriculture is, by and large, oblivious to the web of connections represented by the Sacred Hoop. Consequently it inflicts great harm on the air, soil, water, and animals.

The US Geological Survey, for example, has identified agriculture as the major source of ground water pollution in the US. Globally, according to the World Resources Institute, more than three billion acres of land (an area the size of China and India combined) have been seriously degraded since World War II. The cause of this degradation is primarily chemical fertilization, high-tech cultivation techniques, and livestock overgrazing — all practices intrinsic to industrial agriculture.

Society must decide if it wants to go on — and can afford to go on — bearing these kinds of consequences in the 21st Century. Or whether we want to take another direction, perhaps a direction guided by indigenous understandings and validated by careful scientific inquiry. Because of their implicit awareness of and respect for the Sacred Hoop, CSA farms are in far closer concert with prevailing realities than the colossus of industrial agriculture.

How CSA Honors the Hoop

CSA gives practical expression to the precepts that follow from understandings of the Sacred Hoop in at least three important ways:

First, CSA fosters coherent and positive links among families, communities and the specific farms that they directly depend on for their food. The families know the people who are growing their food, and they know how the farmers are growing it; the farmers know who is eating their food. Thus, relationship is reestablished on a basis of reciprocity in a new and healthy social unit. That’s outside the box of usual thinking and practice in the modern food chain, but respectfully inside the Sacred Hoop.

Seven Generations Sculpture, Boulder, CO (lunardawg, Mai 2010)

Seven Generations Sculpture, Boulder, CO (lunardawg, Mai 2010)

Second, in direct keeping with the Sacred Hoop’s precept of considering the impact of decisions and actions on the next seven generations of children, CSA takes an inherently conservative approach to new technologies such as chemical fertilization and genetically engineered (GE) plants, animals, and organisms.

Over the last four years multinational corporations have undertaken an unprecedented experiment on plant, animal, and human populations via massive infiltration of the food chain with GE organisms. According to Genetic ID of Fairfield, Iowa, 60 to 70% of all processed foods in supermarkets now contain GE components. No one can know the consequences of this kind of fundamental alteration of plants, animals, and organisms over the next seven generations of human beings.

While apparently within the box of conventional enterprise, such risky, mechanistic, mass-scale initiatives have not one generation of experience. Still, this is how the majority of agricultural resources are being lined up for the 21st Century.

CSA goes a different way. Collegial dialogue among the growers and the shareholder families who eat their food naturally governs the way the farm implements technological and dietary shifts. CSA gives families and farmers the opportunity to exercise their free will concerning the food they eat.

Most people obtain their food from the remote market channels of industrial agriculture. Thus they have neither information nor choice about participating in the great genetic experiment being conducted upon humanity in our times. Genetically engineered food is not labeled. Consumers are thereby thwarted from choosing a conservative diet; by default they are unconsciously eating a radical, experimental diet of genetically altered foods.

CSA is one of the few ways people can exercise their free will in this crucial realm. People know who is growing their food, and how it is being done. This reality is respectfully in keeping with the Sacred Hoop precept of personal sovereignty — a precept also said to be at the root of democracy.

Even while the form of CSA in America (Turtle Island) is implicitly anchored in values and precepts that have been tested and proven over hundreds of generations on this continent, CSA is endlessly innovative — striving to move wisely and efficiently into the future.

This is evident in a number of ways, including the employment of appropriate means such as organic, French-intensive, and Biodynamic growing techniques. It is further evident in the judicious use of modern tools such as computers and spaders, and newsletters, and in innovative organizational arrangements with churches, schools, food banks, inner-city programs, and suburban neighborhoods. Rather than tending toward the anachronistic, CSA is pioneering.

Third, CSA is outside the box but inside the hoop in the realm of economic ideals. An ideal CSA strives not to make a profit, but rather to make a living for the farmer and farm family, the community of plants and animals that share the acreage, the allied families and households who participate in the farm as shareholders, and the larger community and ecosystem.

In this respect, CSA farms represent a new economic and social approach to agriculture. Although CSA farms have much to learn and to put into practice in this regard, they have already proven themselves viable.

Farms arising under the impulse of CSA are guided, or at least prodded, by associative economics, which is distinct from both capitalism and communism. Capitalism puts profit at the heart of the enterprise; communism (at least as it has played out in various nations) places the state at the heart of the enterprise; associative economics holds that we must put the needs of our fellow human beings at the heart of our enterprise.

The concept of associative economy was first expounded by Rudolf Steiner in a number of public talks and writings in the years from 1917-1919. It has been developed in theory and practice by many others in the following decades. As an economic approach it is still very much in the embryonic stage of development, a lot like CSA itself.

The basic idea of associative economics is for people to make free-will associations with one another around mutual economic interests. Interested parties identify true needs in a given situation, such as a farm, and then strive to cover those needs with the least input of substance, energy and labor.

In practice, this means that all the participants in a given economic process try to listen to the needs of all the other partners. In an ideal CSA farm, for example, the active farmers listen to the needs of the member families; the member families listen to the needs of the farmers. On this basis they proceed.

No one asks, “How can we make a larger monetary profit?” That’s not the motivation. All the people try to identify the true needs of the farm and its particular hoop, or community, and then to work out ways to meet them.

This is an ideal, of course, and rarely reached in practice. Nonetheless it is a new economic approach that has guided many CSA farms in demonstrably beneficial directions — economically, agriculturally, environmentally, socially, and educationally.

Thus, the economic idea underlying CSA farms implicitly acknowledges the reality of the Sacred Hoop, and strives to be in right relationship with it, not via philosophical or scientific discourse, but through praxis – real, gritty, day-to-day labor, decisions, resources, and transactions.

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In the context of these three points, one may question whether CSA farms fall outside the box of globalization, which so often is disruptive of local community life. Perhaps not.

The surging high-tech aspects of global culture are on an apparently unchangeable ascendancy. Yet if electronic networks are to transmit messages and impulses ennobling to the human spirit, they must be grounded in something wholesome and stable.

While CSA farms cannot provide the entire wherewithal for such a civilization, they can provide an important part of the foundation.

CSA Potential

While CSAs confront many challenges and questions, they do work. They feed people, they save energy and money, they take care of the land, they make it possible for people to farm the land on a sensible scale, they provide healthy employment, they encourage a healthy diet, and they bring networks of independent households back into direct connection with each other. The farmers serve as ambassadors to the Earth for the families, and the farm as both embassy and sanctuary.

While the US alone has lost over 300,000 farms since the mid-1980s, CSA farms have generally prospered. There are now more than 1,200 such farms in America, directly involving more than 120,000 families. CSA appears poised to grow even more, albeit gradually.

In the century ahead, though, why not 150,000 CSA farms in North America? Or more? Why not millions of shareholder families? Why not at least one CSA farm in every city, suburb and town? The proven benefits could help renew and revitalize the foundation of thousands of communities and farms on Turtle Island.

These CSA farms, however, cannot be imposed externally or top-down from a hierarchy, whether governmental, academic, or corporate; nor are such farms likely to arise from what inspiration may emanate from academic papers or inspirational rhetoric.

To be true community farms, and to succeed long-term, they must rise from the grass roots based upon fully informed and free-will choices of farmers, land owners, holders of other capital, and shareholder families. People have to want to do it because they see clear benefits to themselves, their families, their neighbors, and the Earth.

Because CSA is in keeping with the basic philosophical precepts of the Sacred Hoop, and also with the physical realities described by modern science, the CSA initiative holds tremendous potential. Ultimately, it could serve as a basis for renewal not just of specific farms or communities, but possibly also for renewal of the larger human relationship with the Earth.

Might CSA eventually grow to the point where it is recognized as inside the box of evolved 21st Century agricultural approaches? We shall see. There is no certainty that CSA farms will fare well, or become significant features of culture and agriculture in the 21st Century; however, there is a distinct possibility that they will.


  1. Agriculture, by Dr. Rudolf Steiner, Rudolf Steiner Press, London, 1972.
  2. Basic Call to Consciousness: Haudenausenee Elders Address to the Western World. Akwesasne Notes, Rooseveltown, NY, 1977.
  3. Community Supported Agriculture: Can it Become the Basis for a New Associative Economy? by Gary Lamb, article in Threefold Review (P.O. Box 6, Philmont, NY 12565), No. 11, Summer/Fall, 1994.
  4. Debating Darwin: Adventures of a Scholar, by John C. Greene, Regina Books, Claremont, CA, 1999.
  5. Farms of Tomorrow Revisited: Community Supported Farms, Farm Supported Communities, by Trauger Groh and Steven McFadden, Biodynamic Assoc., Kimberton, PA, 1998.
  6. Little Book of Native American Wisdom, compiled by Steven McFadden, Element Books, Shaftsbury, UK, 1994.
  7. Profiles in Wisdom: Native Elders Speak About the Earth, by Steven McFadden, Bear & Co., Santa Fe, NM, 1991. See Chapter 4: The Mind of Scientist, the Heart of a Mystic: Eunice Bauman-Nelson, Ph.D.
  8. Superstrings: A Theory of Everything, by P.C.W. Davies, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  9. Superstrings and the Search for the Theory of Everything, by David F. Peat, Chicago, Contemporary, 1988.
  10. Wholeness and the Implicate Order, by David Bohm, Routledge, NY, 1996.

The original & classic book on CSA farms