Community Supported Agriculture--The Way Forward

Date: Sun, 27 Aug 2000

Social Sustainability: Organic Food at the Crossroads
By Peter C. Reynolds, Ph.D. Fearless Foods, LLC

The Siren Song of Mass Markets
The Connection Channel A Sustainable Distribution System
Extending the CSA Model
The Optimal Size of CSAs
Security in Numbers

Organic farming began with a vision of ecological sustainability and a
commitment to rebuilding community. In fact, ecological sustainability
and social sustainability developed hand in hand by means of the farmers
market, the community-supported farm, and the local natural food store. Until
recently, community values, food integrity, and food security were ensured by
the marginality of organic producers and resellers. As an embattled minority,
organic farmers developed a strong sense of community among themselves,
while unpredictable supply encouraged organic distributors and retailers to
maintain good working relationships with farmers. More importantly, the dollar
value of the organic industry was too small to attract serious predators.
This is changing. After decades of being dismissed as a fad, the sales
curve for organic products has risen about twenty percent a year over the past five

This trend toward mass consumption promises great ecological benefits. Even an
increase in market share of only a few percentage points would yield massive
reductions in the amount of chemical fertilizer and pesticides used by farms,
creating a healthier environment for everyone. But this growth curve has also
caught the eye of big business. Natural foods stores, once primarily locally
owned, are being consolidated into national chains. Organic farmers are
scaling up production on an industrial model to meet the increased demand. Organic
products are being grown in Mexico, packed in plastic containers, and shipped
by air to U.S. distributors. In short, as organic food becomes more popular, it is
being incorporated into the systems of finance, management, and distribution
that prevail in conventional agriculture. In the long run, industrial models of
mass production and distribution threaten the future of sustainable farming
and its vision of community.

The Siren Song of Mass Markets

The industrial method of increasing volume is to increase the scale of
production: bigger farms, more high-yield varieties, and more use of mechanical
sources of energy. To scale up production on an industrial model, organic
businesses will need massive infusions of capital available only through Wall
Street and international financial institutions. Once indebted to these lenders, organic
producers will be under increasing pressure to substitute profitability for
sustainability, while truncating the ecological time scale into quarterly
reports of profit and loss. Once organic products are traded as international
commodities, their distribution will be taken over by the same multinational
corporations that created conventional agriculture. As organic standards erode,
marketers will replace organic food with a perception of organic integrity created
through advertising and political control of regulatory agencies.

Social sustainability will go too. Once bigness is selected for, community
values are inevitably left behind. The consolidation of multiple farms, packing
plants, and regional hubs under a single corporation requires the adoption of
conventional big business practices, such as multiple layers of management and
specialized departments. Soon the organization becomes the product, as status
competition drives decision making, and meetings proliferate to the
exclusion of useful work. This system is excellent for consolidating wealth and power at
the apex of a pyramid, but it is antithetical to the goals of community,
cooperation, local control, and personal responsibility that are part of the original
inspiration of the movement for sustainable agriculture.

Sustainable agriculture must be both ecologically and socially sustainable.
Organic agriculture is socially sustainable when its techniques are
embedded in a social organization that furthers the underlying values of ecological
sustainability. Ecological values include consuming only what you need,
replacing what you take, ensuring that waste products can be naturally
recycled, and that products used in one place are not derived from extractive
industries somewhere else. Needless to say, the system of multinational trade and
corporate capitalism as presently constituted is based on premises that are exactly the
opposite of ecological sustainability. The system increases aggregate
demand by creating wants where there are no needs. It seeks to consolidate production
and distribution into worldwide monopolies through the non-sustainable technology.
And it selects for get-rich-quick schemes that shift diseconomies to the
environment and the public sector.

Organic farming cannot feed the population of the planet earth by being
scaled up on an industrial model. Any radically new system of production requires a
system of distribution appropriate to it. At the end of the 19th century
the sheer volume of industrial products overwhelmed the ability of the corner
store and the itinerant peddler to absorb them. An entirely new system of marketing
and distribution was developed to meet this needñthe department store, national
brands, the manufacturerís representative, the nationwide distributor, and
consumer credit. Marketers invented advertising, show windows, and mass
media to create demand where there was none before. As William Leach
documents in the Land of Desire, within two generations in the United
States, the Puritan heritage of self-denial and simple living was turned on its head,
replaced by an insatiable appetite for consumer goods. A system of distribution and
marketing, far from being the inevitable outcome of fixed laws of
economics, is an intentional creation adapted to a specific system of production.

The Connection Channel A Sustainable Distribution System

The critical problem facing organic agriculture today is how to produce
food in sufficient quantity to feed modern populations without adopting an industrial
system of production and distribution. The organic food movement has
developed two distribution channels that are consistent with the community
values of sustainable agriculture, namely the farmers market and the CSA
(community-supported agriculture) farm. Both are forms of direct marketing.
The farmers market is very popular with a subset of consumers, but it is not a
distribution channel that can easily meet the needs of most people. Typically,
markets are held only one day a week in any one community, are open only part
of the year, and are very sensitive to weather. They are not ideal for farmers
either, for they often impose a great transportation burden, while putting
organic farmers in direct price competition with conventional agriculture. The CSA
and subscription farm, however, have the potential of providing food all year long
with a freshness and organic integrity that is impossible for conventional
channels to equal.

The CSA began as an offshoot of biodynamic farming, with its concept of
holistic community and attention to the rhythms of life. As Steven McFadden
explains it in Farms of Tomorrow Revisited, 'One gift that the CSA gives to
individuals, to families, and to culture in general is a vehicle for re-establishing a
conscious connection with the rhythm of life, the rhythm of the seasons, and the
rhythm of the farm'( p.72). As the concept first developed in Europe, a CSA
was a group of food consumers who banded together to support a local farm by
buying stock in the enterprise, helping with the work, and dividing the produce among
themselves. Since arriving in the United States the CSA concept has
diversified into a wide variety of social and legal forms, with the philosophically
committed CSA at one end of the spectrum (ìeat only what you growî) and the
commercially-oriented subscription farm at the other.

From an institutional perspective, this diversity is a good thing, as it
allows consumers to place themselves at the appropriate place on a spectrum of
commitment, from the sustainability activist to the less reflective eater.
Moreover, this flexibility allows the CSA model to accommodate to regional and
cultural diversity. In the northeastern United States, community
participation in a local farm is common; in California, where farming has been
export-oriented since the railroad arrived, people do not have a problem with
subscription farms that deliver a hundred miles or more from where they are located.
The definition of ìeating localî depends on oneís culture and technology.

From the perspective of social sustainability, 'localness' is less
important than physical connection to the farm, wherever that farm may be. The
CSA and the subscription farm are both examples of a new way of marketing and
distributing farm products that I call the connection channel. In the connection
channel, farm-direct products and farm brand identity come together to create in the
mind of the consumer a connection to the land, reinforced through physical contact
with the farm. The extent of the physical contact is a matter of consumer
preference and CSA philosophy. Some CSA members are content with a visitor
day once a year, while some CSAs demand from members actual ownership and
participation. But in no case is the physical contact dispensable. The
physical farm exposes the contemporary urbanite to exactly those things
that are missing in modern urban lifeæthe soil, the smells, the animals,
the look and feel of the countryside, the taste of food before it is
processed, and the rhythms of the seasons. At the farm, people see whole
plants, roots and all. Moreover, food from a CSA can be traced back to a
specific piece of land, giving the consumer confidence in its quality,
freshness, and organic integrity. The natural foods retailer, on the other
hand, can only connect the consumer to yet another commercial transaction.

Unlike industrial distribution, the connection channel creates community
instead of eroding it. Since CSA members recognize the farm as their source
of quality produce, and feel connected to it, they are more committed to its
survival and more willing to help out. Even subscription farms with minimal member
participation educate consumers in organic values, while giving them a
stake in political issues affecting sustainable agriculture, such as ensuring the
integrity of organic certification standards.

The farmer benefits too. The connection channel bypasses the middleman, giving
farmers profit margins more comparable to the farmers market. The farmer can
retain a higher portion of the final selling price while bringing the cost
to the consumer more in line with conventional agricultural products, thereby
reaching more people. Advance ordering and knowledge of member preferences
fine-tunes the planting process, reducing the farmerís risk of spoilage, surplus
production, storage costs, and missed sales. With a pay-in-advance policy, the
farmer gets the capital needed for planting and improvements. Most important of all,
the connection channel can produce organic food in quantities sufficient to feed the earthís
population while avoiding the social costs of industrial production and distribution. Instead
of scaling up existing organic farms, one multiplies their number, and uses an extended
CSA model to distribute the product to local and regional populations. When properly
administered, the connection channel can often deliver in the afternoon what was
harvested that morning, providing a field-to-fork time that no hub-to-retailer
system can match.

Extending the CSA Model

To become a high-volume distribution channel for organic products, the CSA
movement must take consumer preferences seriously. Our research shows that
many urban consumers perceive CSA offerings as too seasonal and too erratic. A
common complaint from former CSA members is that ìthere was too much of
this, not enough of that.î Consumers often get food they cannot use, while
certain staples, such as lettuce or fruit, have to be purchased elsewhere.
Many conclude that if they have to go to the natural food store anyway, the
extra trip to the CSA pickup point is not a good use of their time. These complaints
add up to a serious mismatch between the theory of the CSA movement and the
expectations of most consumers.

The solution is not simply telling people to ìeat in season.î The history of
agriculture is as much the history of food processing, food storage, and food
exchange as it is of food production. Shifting responsibility to the consumer
conceals the conceptual flaws in the classic CSA model itself. The unspoken
premise of the CSA model is that the single farm is the basic unit of both
production and consumption. In some interpretations, ìcommunityî becomes
redefined as the group of people who support that one farm and
ìsustainabilityî as eating only what that one farm chooses to produce. But from an
historical and cross-cultural perspective, this is an artificially narrow concept
of a human community.

Contemporary notions of self-sufficiency assume that the individual household
is the basic unit of production and consumption. But in societies where people
actually produce their own food, such as village farmers, nomadic herders, and
bands of hunters and gatherers, it is the community of households that is
self-sufficient. Should you ever visit such a society, the first thing you will notice is
that people are constantly exchanging the food that they themselves produce
with food produced by neighbors and kinfolk. There are often exchanges with
other groups that live long distances away. Even in so-called subsistence
societies, where each household could theoretically produce and consume
everything it needed, the basic units of production and consumption are not
co-extensive. The smallest unit of consumption is the household, while the basic
unit of production is the workgroup recruited from multiple households. In the
space between are sophisticated systems of social exchange that circulate
goods and services to kinfolk, neighbors, and other villages. Any social movement
that tries to short-circuit this process by consuming only what it produces is
bound to fail because it ignores the role of exchange in creating human community.

In the extended model of community-supported agriculture - namely, the
connection channel - the CSA is not a single farm but the place in a web of
complementary farms where consumers connect with the land. The flow of
agricultural products from the CSA to its members and the flow of money and
services from the members to the farm are only the first level of exchange in the connection
channel, the on-farm level. This basic unit of production is not self-sufficient, nor
should it be. For the channel to achieve the stability and volume it needs to
maintain sustainability, each CSA farm needs to be connected to a cooperative
web consisting of other organic producers. In the connection channel
approach to community supported agriculture, each CSA farm is a distribution point for
products that the CSA does not itself provide. For example, a CSA may receive
eggs from farm A, honey from farm B, and medicinal herbs from farm C, passing
these through to its members. The flow of goods and money among farms and
CSAs constitute the interfarm level.

The interfarm level can deliver many of the organic products sold by natural
food stores, but it differs from the latter in critical respects. The most
important difference is that the CSA is not selling pass-through products as line
items but using them to enhance the mix of products needed to get and retain an
optimal number of members. For example, a CSA that does not grow fruit may
determine that its members want at least two varieties of fresh fruit in their baskets each
week, so it buys fruit from another farm. Unlike a retailer, it does not present the
fruit to members as separately charged line items. Rather, it adjusts the subscription
price of the basket so that the additional cost of purchasing and packing
the fruit is covered in the basket price.

The conventional retail channel is specialized for providing unique
combinations of products on short notice, but the connection channel is far better at
fulfilling recurrent orders of perishable and staple foods. Each CSA needs to develop
categories of subscription products that reflect the food preferences of
consumers in its delivery area. In California, CSAs have developed subcategories of
baskets that reflect ethnic and dietary preferences, such as Mediterranean,
stir-fry, and vegan baskets. Other CSAs offer subscriptions for supplementary products
not wanted by all members, such as eggs and bread. These are charged as optional
add-ons to a basic subscription plan. Unlike the retailer, however, the CSA
is not trying to customize orders for each individual customer but strives to develop
product categories that best reflect the food preferences of its membership. The
idea is to add product categories that make it easier to recruit and retain
membersóthereby keeping the CSA farm at optimal size, while evolving it into
the primary channel for distributing staple food products to a local
community. The CSA farm can provide pass-through products to its members at retail price
or less because it recovers the increased cost of customized packing from the
difference between the price it pays the supplier for a bulk order and what it
charges its members for individual subscriptions. Because the pass-through
products are complementary to the CSA farmís own production, not in
competition with it, it remains the primary producer of staple crops for its

Interfarm transactions are critical to the success of the CSA model because
they address consumer complaints about choice, quantity, availability, and variety,
while bringing more farmers into the system. Some of the most successful
organic farmers specialize in one or two crops, such as rice, grapes, and
apples. These farms can never be CSAs, and their direct marketing options are
limited. Few consumers will be willing to enter into a multitude of subscriptions,
one for each of the specialty organic products they consume, but they might be
happy to add a number of pass-through products to their basic CSA subscription. In
reality, if not in theory, interfarm exchanges are already an important
feature of the CSA movement. On the West Coast, CSAs distribute a wide
range of organic products from other farms and producers, including bread,
cheese, milk, eggs, tofu, yogurt, honey, preserves, range-fed meat, citrus,
avocados, stone fruit, grapes, blueberries, olive oil, cider, and medicinal

This extended model of the CSA farm, the connection channel, helps the organic
community to meet the goal of social sustainability. When pass-through
products are identified as to their farm of origin, it gives the consumer a
connection to multiple farms, extending the sense of community. By increasing
the range of products offered by the CSA, it creates more satisfied customers while
reducing their need to shop elsewhere. By bringing more farms into the CSA distribution
system, it provides a more robust and profitable channel for everyone.
The connection channel also helps ensure the integrity of the organic food
supply in a commercial environment where this will be increasingly at risk. Since
interfarm products are shipped directly from source farm to CSA; and as the
CSA as a whole is a better judge of organic growers than the individual
consumer, the system preserves a high level of organic integrity irrespective
of whether the government actually enforces organic standards and labeling.

The Optimal Size of CSAs

In order to meet consumer preferences while remaining faithful to its role of
primary producer of fruits and vegetables for its members, the CSA must
achieve an optimal size. A CSA has reached its optimal size when it is big enough to
handle interfarm transactions and to provide diversified member baskets but
not so big that the social relations of big business are required to manage it.
Moreover, it must make enough money that the continued existence of the farm
does not depend on second jobs by members of the farmerís family. It must have
enough employees to meet its commitments through times of ill health, while
paying them enough to attract young people to farming. These social
sustainability goals are difficult or impossible to meet with the conventional
CSA model, but the increased sales volume facilitated by interfarm transactions
holds out a hope of success.

The interfarm infrastructure consists of a loading dock where products from
other farms are received, a packing shed where categories of member baskets
are configured, and a vehicle large enough to carry the combined products to
drop-off points. In addition, there is an administrative system, discussed below, that
aggregates the orders of individual CSA members and generates bulk orders to
interfarm producers. Finally, there is a permanent crew of people, either farm
employees or community volunteers, who staff the packing facility, handle
order taking, and distribute baskets to members.

Unlike the capitalist farm, the goal is not to make each CSA as large as
possible but to bring it to an optimal size and maintain it there. If the volume of
products becomes so large that multiple packing facilities need to be built and
multiple shifts employed, then the CSA is getting too big to maintain the social
relations of cooperative face-to-face work groups and a sense of member
participation. The optimal size varies with local conditions, but there are simple
indicators of an impending transformation into corporate capitalism of which farmers
should be aware. Do CSA members know the names of the delivery staff? Does the
CSA coordinator recognize most members? Are resources allocated on the basis of
status competition among managers? If an optimally sized CSA cannot meet
consumer demand in its area, then it spins off another CSA, independently
owned and operated.

The interfarm CSA must strike a balance between the volume of on-farm
products and pass-through products. If pass-through products appear to
dominate the flow of goods to the consumer, the CSA might come to be
perceived, either by the farmer or the members or both, as a natural foods
retailer. At this point the psychology of the marketplace kicks in, placing
self-interest at the forefront of values. Soon the CSA farmer is maximizing
profit and the members are dickering about price. Even worse, the connection
to the land is lost, and a great opportunity squandered.

As with the current system of organic commerce, the pitfalls of the connection
channel are the replication of industrial and commercial values under the
guise of sustainable agriculture. But unlike the present system, this development
can be prevented by maintaining an optimal size and balancing countervailing
forcesóby a social biodynamic process. Once this balance is achieved, the
connection channel can be an effective means of preserving the community
values of the organic farming movement, making CSAs more acceptable to urban
consumers, and meeting the demand for industrial quantities of organic food.
Staying Socially Sustainable in a Wired World

The connection channel provides an effective alternative to the direct
marketing and home delivery schemes now being developed on the worldwide
web. These replace the local retailer with computerized transactions and anonymous
deliveries that erode community even more. Also, in the new world order, there
is no longer any difference between retail commerce and electronic
surveillance. One of the best exemplars of e-commerce is the online bookseller,, which claims over twenty million accounts. To buy a book from
Amazon, one logs onto their web site, types in a credit card number, and selects a book
from literally tens of thousands of titles. When the order is submitted, the
book is pulled from the shelves of a warehouse in Seattle, dispatched by UPS or air
courier, and arrives at the ship-to address a day or two later. For getting
a book that is not in your local bookstore the service is hard to beat, but it has
potential dangers that are not apparent to the average reader.

Bookstore owners have expressed concern about Amazonís monopolistic
potential, anticipating the day when the majority of book purchases will
bypass the local retailer and come to rest in the computers of one or two
companies, thousands of miles away. Even less discussed is the fact that Amazon
develops a dossier on each customer based on the personís book-buying history,
which its computers use to automatically suggest other books that the customer might
enjoy. In the hands of prosecutor Kenneth Starr, even Monica Lewinsky's book
purchases were used against her.

In the grocery business, there is a similar effort underway to transform
food into customer profiles. At a major supermarket chain in California shoppers are
issued e-commerce cards that track the brands and amounts of every item they
buy in the store. Once they make a purchase with an ATM or credit card, their
food buying habits become linked to their credit history.

In the connection channel, however, customer preferences are buffered by the
local nature of the CSA. Members tell their CSA what pass-through products
they would like to order. A computer at the CSA consolidates requests for each
product submitted by members, then scans an online bulletin board for suitable
products posted by producers. In its search, the computer program can take
into account such criteria as source farm, purchase price, shipping distance, and
minimal purchase quantities. If there is enough member demand to trigger a
minimal order, the local system alerts the CSA coordinator, who has the option
of placing a bulk order with the producer. The system can also be used to
trigger standing orders at preset times. Because customer records are administered
on the local level, and any orders leaving the farm are aggregate orders for bulk
produce deliverable to the CSA's loading dock, individual members and their
preferences are invisible to the worldwide databases on the worldwide web.
More importantly, a web of farms linked by interfarm transactions is very hard
to buy up and take over.

Security in Numbers

Changing the buying habits of a nation is a large task, but it has been done
before, a little over a century ago, in the transition from familial to
corporate capitalism. And the goal is no more quixotic than that of the organic
food community only a generation ago, when it set out to re-invent agriculture in
defiance of science, economics, and the conventional wisdom. In the 21st century
food security and food integrity issues will move to the center of the political
arena, as people become more aware of climatic changes induced by global
warming, the ecological costs of conventional agriculture, and the implications
of such new and controversial technologies as genetic engineering. If anything,
food will be more politicized, not less. The survival of sustainable agriculture will
require a large, easily mobilized constituency that can apply the appropriate political
pressure, as it did in response to the U.S. Department of Agricultureís proposed
organic standards. The connection channel, by integrating organic food consumers
with food producers in a tight-knit web of grassroots communities, linked by high-
speed telecommunications, is a formidable political force.

The connection channel makes organic farming socially as well as ecologically
sustainable. It connects food buyers to the land instead of to retailers.
It makes each organic producer economically stronger while providing jobs at
the local level. It increases the volume of organic food while preserving the
integrity of organic standards. It gives local communities a more secure and controllable
food supply, while preserving product diversity and a high degree of consumer
choice. Most importantly of all, it provides an institutional alternative
to the new world order that can inspire the next generation of sustainability activists.

Distributed with permission of the authour.

About the Author Peter C. Reynolds received his doctorate in anthropology
from Yale University. After doing field research in subsistence societies
in Asia and the Pacific, he moved to Silicon Valley, where he worked in technical
product marketing and software development. He is co-founder of Fearless
Foods, L.L.C. (, a company that provides CSA
management tools and transaction processing for sustainable agriculture. He
can be reached at

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