CSA farms far transcend the concept of marketing strategy

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has this month published a report titled Community Supported Agriculture: New Models for Changing Markets. The report highlights changes – from the 1980s to the present – in what the USDA refers to as the “business model” of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

For anyone interested in local food or food security, the report is worthwhile reading: well researched and written, instructive, and enriched with informative case histories.

But the report moves me to articulate once again what I consider to be an essential point: CSA was not developed as a marketing strategy. Obviously, some companies and farms choose to approach CSA that way, as is their right. Equally obvious, there is of necessity somewhat of a marketing element involved in most CSAs.

But to assert the idea that CSA is a marketing strategy – as the USDA and many land grant institutions routinely do – is to alter the core ideas of CSA. Even though “business model” and “marketing strategy” have become widespread approaches to CSA, in my view emphasizing those concepts shifts the focus from where it needs to be.

CSA farms will likely always be at a disadvantage in the “market” in the realms of price, consumer choice, and convenience. But that’s not what the CSA model was developed to address. CSA was developed by a wide community of people as a way to renew our relationship with the land, with the people who grow our food, and with each other.

Asserting this view now, in light of the trend to define or frame CSA as a business model, will likely be regarded by some people as either anachronistic, or as dewy-eyed idealism. I’m among those who think otherwise. I think it’s essential to keep the focus and the framing of CSA on the core ideas. CSA is not structured to be part of a competitive commercial marketplace, where market forces will always be the determining factor, rather than farm needs, farmer needs, and community needs. It is, after all, not just community supported agriculture, but also agriculture supported communities.

The steady morphing of CSA from a farm-and-community collaboration to a marketing strategy is, in my view and the view of others, off the mark and ultimately inadequate to the challenges of intensifying political and climate turbulence. Something different is required, and that difference has been the ideal and overlighting spirit of CSA: communities and farmers working together on the land to create new ways of living in relation with each other and the natural world which we all depend upon for survival. Ideals, of course, exist in the realm of the mind, and in practice the best we can do is strive toward them.

To survive and perhaps prosper in an era of climate and political turbulence, CSA needs to remain the realm of mutually beneficial community association. That’s a fundamental CSA concept that gets sidelined or obscured when CSA is treated as a marketing strategy.

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Some of this understanding has found expression in the Community CSA Charter that was developed earlier this year by an ad hoc community initiated by CSA author Elizabeth Henderson.

In a community e-mail discussion of various charter drafts, Anthony Graham (a CSA farmer for 30 years at the Temple-Wilton Community Farm in NH) made this point eloquently: “Our farm members are just that – members who support the farm. We make it clear to them from the start that they are supporting a farm and receiving the produce as a consequence of that support. They are never seen as or referred to as customers and especially not as consumers. Instead the community aspect of our farm lives here very strongly – almost everyone feels some ownership and willingness to share the risk of crop failures as well as the bounty that can allow them to process extra food for the winter.”

He concluded, “Our farmers have always felt that it is important that we have regarded our farm as a community and not as a business – we always try to aim at agriCULTURE rather than agriBUSINESS.”

To endure and perhaps thrive in our extreme era, CSA cannot be redefined to a competitive selling system dependent on “customers.” CSA was never intended for that purpose.

In a CSA working toward the principles embodied in the CSA Charter (as opposed to a customer-food subscription business) people are not “buying boxes of food.” The people who comprise the community (whether a city neighborhood, a town, a workplace or place of worship) are providing direct support to a whole farm or network of farms, and then partaking in a share of the harvest. This is a key distinction.

CSA embodies the potential for a new way of life upon the land for farm, farmers and supporting community. The economic impulses are associative, rather than competitive or exploitive, the impulses that have impelled industrial agriculture to become such a destructive force nationally and globally.

Some progress has been made in the direction of CSA as a new form of economics and relationship with the land, the farmers, and the people who as a community become part of a farm. Much more is possible. And I think much more is necessary.

One Response to “CSA farms far transcend the concept of marketing strategy”

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  1. Savanna says:

    Community farms are so important to the local economy here in Minnesota. Great piece.

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