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The Homegrown Tradition Of CSA Farming

The popularity of CSA farming has grown exponentially over the past several years--but where does it come from?

A small herd of milking cows walk away from the camera down a dirt path.  There are grassy pastures to their left and red autumn trees to their right.

Photo: courtesy of the Temple-Wilton Community Farm

Temple-Wilton Community Farms provides both produce and milk to subscribing patrons, who make pledges according to their income in exchange for weekly food shares.

(Read part two and part three of our series profiling the past, present, and future of CSA farming around the world.)

Growing Profile

In August 2010, Earth Eats reported on how Life Organic Farms, based in Monroe County, Indiana, runs a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program to help manage the costs of their farm.

CSAs are growing in popularity around the country as a way for farmers to manage their expenses and for consumers to build connections with their food sources.

Given the growing profile of CSAs both in and out of the United States, Earth Eats is going to publish a short series of articles that profile the history of the CSA initiative and its connection with the organic movement, the current life of the CSA in the United States, and the CSA overseas.

CSA What?

When subscribers sign up for a CSA, they pay a sum of money to a farm early in the planting season, usually around March.

The farms then use that money to cover early season expenses ranging from seed purchase to equipment maintenance and the hiring of labor.

During harvest season, subscribers receive boxes of food from the farm according to a predetermined schedule (usually weekly) for a fixed number of weeks (usually 20-25, depending on the region).

Consumers often find CSAs to be an economical way to get organic produce, and to encourage healthy eating habits.

Farmers appreciate the fact that it decreases, and sometimes eliminates, the need to take out early-season loans to pay start-up costs. Those loans would be taken out against the anticipated revenue that comes from selling the harvest, but if the harvest fails due to bad weather or other natural disasters, they still need to be repaid.

Under a CSA model, subscribers agree to adopt some of the risk that goes along with farming as an enterprise.

The origins of the CSA model are disputed. There are a few versions of the story that circulate, and nobody is really sure which one is true.

Organics And Ethics In Japan

The most common narrative, which collective wisdom has inscribed on the Wikipedia page for CSA, is that in 1965, a group of Japanese women were concerned by the possible effects of pesticides on arable Japanese land, and the associated increase in imports.

These women started the first CSA projects, called Teikei, out of a desire to make local, pesticide-free food available in their communities.

This is also the story told by many CSAs themselves.

A Homegrown Tradition

Steve McFadden of The Rodale Institute, traces the American CSA movement to a root much closer to home: the American CSA movement had its origins in Europe’s biodynamic agricultural tradition, with no awareness of the similar project going on in Japan at the same time.

The two pioneering ventures were Indian Line Farms in western Massachusetts and Temple Wilton Farms in New Hampshire.

Temple-Wilton Community Farm: Running On Pledges

The Temple-Wilton Community Farm was supported through pledges paid in advance by consumers at whatever rate they could afford, rather than paying fixed prices at harvest time.

Its managers would publish the farm’s annual budget and ask members to pledge whatever they could contribute to help the farm to meet its budget requirements.

Indian Line Farms: Growing Human Connections

Indian Line Farms, however, coined the term “Community-Supported Agriculture” and designed the CSA model as it currently exists.

The farmers who built Indian Line were advocates of sustainable farming, the idea that food should be grown and sold locally, and of strengthening the fading connections between farmers and consumers.

“We began to see CSA as a way to bring these key ideas together,” says Susan Witt, one of the founders of Indian Line Farms.

Robyn Van En, the original owner of Indian Line Farms, developed and distributed educational material explaining how to start CSAs.

Both Indian Line Farms and the Temple-Wilton Community Farm are still functioning in 2011.

(Read part 2 of our series profiling the past, present, and future of CSA farming around the world.)

Read More:

Sarah Gordon

Sarah Gordon has been interested in food ethics since she was 15, learned about industrial slaughter, and launched into 10 years of vegetarianism. These days, she strives to be a conscientious omnivore. Now a PhD candidate in folklore, her research has caused her to spend a lot of time in the remote Canadian sub-arctic, where the lake trout (sustainably harvested) tastes amazing.

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