What isn’t to like about community supported agriculture (CSA)?
Farmers receive significant upfront cash flow before the growing season to help cover expenses. And 3-6 months later they get to sell their food at near-retail prices, giving them considerably better chances of surviving. Consumer “members” feel good about helping typically regional farmers, who in return help members learn about where their food comes from and how to eat better with farm-fresh food. I doubt any one would argue that its a mutually-beneficial relationship.
But what about the long-term potential of CSA programs in helping solve the large-scale sustainable food challenges we face?
With 12,549 CSA farms in 2007 (0.6% of all farms), these programs represent a tiny fraction of U.S. food sales, which totaled over $1.1 trillion that year, according to the USDA. Drill down further and you find that food sales from “farmers, processors, wholesalers, and other” were less than 0.6% of the 2007 total (with CSA sales being a fraction of that percentage). Try as I might, I can’t see CSA farms ever taking a noticeable share of the U.S. food market.
That doesn’t mean I am advocating throwing the baby out with the bath water. In fact, I fully expect CSA sales to continue their rapid growth, while shining a spotlight on the increasingly important American farmer. It is also my hope that such attention will encourage more people, especially younger generations, to consider sustainable farming as a career. But for now, we need to broaden our thinking about solutions that can scale, while still satisfying the needs of farmers and consumers alike.
Building on CSA Lessons Learned
First, we should learn from the over two decades of experience gained since the first CSA program launched in the U.S. Marcia Ruth Ostrom of Washington State University has done an effective job doing that in a study she conducted to investigate the “strengths and weaknesses of the organizational configurations, tactics, and outcomes of CSA as a social movement.” Her 10-year study of 24 CSA farms serving major metropolitan areas in Minnesota and Wisconsin collected data on (1) farmer participation, (2) member participation, (3) member-farmer relationships, and (4) farm-to-farm interactions.
What Ms. Ostrom found was an eye-opener for me personally, especially her discussion of the burdens CSA programs put on the farmers themselves. Here are some key highlights of her findings (I encourage you to read the study for yourself):
- CSA farms produce >40 crops for CSA shares v. conventional farms growing 1-2 commodity crops; “logistics…turned out to be more challenging than most had initially realized”;
- Farms don’t receive hands-on consumer support originally envisioned; shifts burden of starting, administering and sustaining CSA to farmer;
- Many CSA farms struggle with high member turnover and apathy;
- Farmers setting prices in line with conventional food system, not on real costs of production (CSA vision);
- Many CSA programs fold after 1-2 years, primarily due to economic, health and quality of life issues (in that order);
- Most CSA members are middle-class, urban, white, and highly educated (limited socio-economic reach)
When you consider Ms. Ostrom’s findings regarding member experiences, things get more interesting, and even a little concerning.
People join CSA programs for a diverse set of reasons: wanting fresh, nutritious produce; buying local; supporting small-scale farmers; and caring for the environment. All great reasons, but notice that “helping farmers out using my own two hands” didn’t make the cut. It’s why members leave that makes me seriously question how far CSA programs can reach beyond their current demographic.
According to the study, 36 percent of members cited supermarket withdrawal as their reason for leaving their CSA program, characterized as “the wrong vegetables in the wrong quantities at the wrong time.” In other words, consumers wanted more control over the food they purchase. Perhaps this wouldn’t big such a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that these people self-selected into CSA programs in the first place. Apparently, those reasons couldn’t overcome the inconveniences of the CSA format.
Where does that leave us?
Envisioning New Retail Experiences
We need to find innovative, new ways to bring local and/or sustainably grown food to broader segments of the population, in place of the highly processed food that dominate today’s supermarket aisles, which makes it very hard to imagine the conventional food system embracing such ideas. We need to offer farmers financial benefits similar to those offered by CSA programs (e.g., predictable revenues, cash flow support, near-retail margins), but without the major headaches associated with managing a CSA program. We need to continue helping consumers migrate toward eating more “real food” at home, something CSA programs have done quite well.
The good news is that there are lots of smart, energized, talented people working on such solutions all around us. What we ultimately need are new retail experiences capable of significantly growing sales of sustainably grown food, which requires that they be able to effectively compete over time with the dominate players in our conventional food system. What I see when I close my eyes is an alternative food infrastructure taking increasingly large chunks of market share away from those player, while building strong regional economies built on regional food systems.
Blur your eyes and I bet you see it too…
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