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Organic Consumers Association

Solidarity through Community Supported Agriculture

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently launched a new initiative called "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" (USDA, 2009).  The slogan of the program is "Every family needs a farmer; do you know yours?"  The irony of this "new" initiative is that one hundred years ago, before the USDA industrialized agriculture through the "Green Revolution," almost every family knew their farmer and knew their food.  One half of the nation's population resided on farms, and most farms grew the majority of their own food, as well as their neighbors' food.  In this not-so-distant past, most people knew exactly where their food came from:  the soil, sun, water, and air that surrounded them; and the labor of their friends, family, neighbors, and work animals.  Family and neighbors were tied together by a common resource base and frequently shared meals.  Entire communities worked together to pull in the season's harvest, neighbors toiling side-by-side in the fields, their future and prosperity bound together by a shared dependence on the bounty and vagaries of Mother Nature.

One hundred years ago, solidarity was a way of life in America.  Farms and their surrounding communities engaged in a de facto form of shared risk and shared rewards.  Farms depended on their community to assist with planting and harvesting.  Communities in turn relied upon their local farms to provide the food they needed to survive the winter.  When farms suffered crop losses due to severe weather or pest outbreaks, the entire community rallied to support them.  When farms experienced bumper crops, the neighborhood was invited to participate in the ensuing feasts.  Before the advent of the highway system and long distance transportation of food from massive industrial farms, every farm was in essence a community supported farm.

Shared Risk, Shared Rewards

Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a form of shared risk and shared rewards.  By investing in a CSA share, consumers provide a form of insurance and protection against catastrophic losses, thereby helping to keep small farmers in business even during the most difficult growing seasons.  Farming is inherently a challenging and unpredictable profession; Mother Nature may some years deliver ideal weather, minimal pests and diseases, and bountiful harvests, but in other years can devastate entire crops with pest and disease outbreaks, hailstorms, and floods or droughts.  During good years, a CSA farm shares its profits with CSA members in the form of large quantities of fresh produce at below market prices.  The farm makes less money from a CSA than from market sales during these years, but is provided the financial security of receiving CSA payments at the beginning of the season, while purchasing seeds, animal feed, equipment, and other necessary supplies.  In poor years, CSA members help the farmer carry the burden of the crop losses experienced by receiving smaller shares and perhaps paying higher than the average market price for their produce.  By assuming this risk, the CSA members help keep farmers afloat and maintain the farm's financial solvency by providing a source of income even when market sales may be low.  Averaged over a number of years, CSA members generally receive more produce for lower prices than consumers at farmers markets, and CSA farmers have the security of a stable source of income even during calamitous growing seasons that might bankrupt other small producers.


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