Episode 017: The Future of CSAs with Jean-Paul Courtens and Steven McFadden

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Community supported agriculture is a social movement that arose in the US in the late 1980s because people recognized a need to produce healthy, clean, safe, ecologically sound and spiritually energized – foods while caring appropriately for the environment. It was clear then as it is today that agriculture within the pressures of the current economic system is subject to so many degrading economic forces that it is incapable of producing foods that provided the nutrients necessary for proper human health and development. While there are larger issues at stake when children (and adults) are developing with only a fraction of the nutrition required to reach their full potential, we can see these nutritional short comings in increasing rates of cancers, allergies and intestinal problems. In addition, the environmental impact of extractive industrial agriculture is seen everywhere.

The ecological movement and the biodynamic movement in particular sought to find models of farming that would allow small and medium sized farmers to produce the highest quality foods with traditional “unbusinesslike” methods of farming without the fear of bankruptcy. In other words a successful socio-economic mode. around food and farming. In the beginning, CSAs were without question organic and, usually, biodynamic, contributing substantially to the health of their members through minimizing toxicity and maximizing nutrition of the foods provided.

CSA was a simple but profound model in which cooperation between a farmer and the people who would eat what he produced assured clean, nutritious foods for the consumers, a guaranteed, if small, income for the artisan farmer, appropriate husbandry of soil, plants and livestock, as well as the peripheral benefits of providing access to the land for the children of member families, habitat that promoted and supported biodiversity as well as , in the early years, providing an example that farming without chemicals could actually work. In other words, CSA provided much more than ‘a bag of produce every week for the growing season.

Steven McFadden has pointed out that CSA farms in the USA are so popular that they have grown from 2 in 1988 to 8500 in 2013. Unfortunately, not many of the CSAs in the 2013 figure even try to address the values that made CSA so important to the future of local food and farming in the beginning.

One of the great short comings of the CSA nationally was the failure for its leaders to provide at least a minimal definition of CSA, instead promoting the open minded foolishness that “the wonderful thing about CSA is there is no definition.” Really? Nothing as simple as ‘A group of consumers coming around a farmer and a piece of land to tend to the land in every way appropriate while producing the highest quality food for the community and a dependable living wage for the farmer”?

A whole raft of ‘produce delivery’ schemes have arisen, all of them using the term “CSA” to market under, which, apparently, was defined as ‘a box or bag of produce once a week.” There’s a farm outside of Baltimore that sells 800 CSA shares off from 2 acres of land and, then, if you can believe it, wholesales shares to a retailer in Rockville who, with no farm and nor farmer, has posed as a “CSA” in for many years. (This really became distasteful two years ago when the source farm dropped ‘organic’ from its description (because the produce was coming from a general commercial produce auction) but the reseller in Rockville continued to offer that same commercial produce as “organic” “CSA” shares.)

Even more insidious are the aggregators, the ones that have pulled many farms together to compete against the many family farms that until recently have been making a reliable living with traditional CSAs. A major reason that the CSA arrangement is necessary for keeping small organic farms viable is that small farms cannot produce enough ‘product’ to qualify as suppliers for commercial retail organic food stores. They are too small to enter the marketplace (never mind how the wholesale returns for doing so would most likely degrade their ability or willingness to properly care for their land). Now we have ‘co-operatives’ of dozens of organic farms that were assembled by corporate organic specialists for the noble task of providing the wholesale markets with local food but instead have turned onto the CSA marketplace since their return price-per-pound is much higher if the get “CSA retail” rather than wholesale. So, keep in mind that these cooperatives have access to markets but have chosen to compete with small farmers in a system that was initially designed to support small local biological farming. To me, this has all the ethics of upper class bullies stealing the lunch money of younger students simply because they are able to do it. Worse in this case, because these co-ops are profitable, the very sustainable ag organizations that should be pulling them out of inappropriate competition with small farmers aid and abet them in their efforts.

Another really sad thing has happened. If you want to enter the CSA marketplace for no more reason than to make money, you can call yourself a CSA, source your produce from anywhere, and use any of the web-based CSA advertising platforms – – that the CSA movement either developed or the brilliant intentions of the original CSA movement inspired others to create- -to advertise your fake CSA without fear of restriction.

Jean-Paul has told me in private conversation that the original CSA movement need not fear these commercialized intruders in the CSA movement because ‘we will beat them on price and, more importantly, we will beat them on flavor.’ Jean-Paul is right but Jean-Paul’s farm has deep pockets and can suffer a season or two of reduced income. Most of the small farms in the original CSA movement have never been able to look more than a season ahead, unfortunately.

It is true, two of the biggest commercial aggregators in the DC area have folded. Unfortunately, so have a number of small CSAs that have been established for years. On the national level, great CSAs like Angelic Organics are selling to the whole sale market for the first time ever, their CSA share sales reduced some 30% by so-called competition

Which reminds me: it certainly can be said that there weren’t lots of farmers markets back in 1988 when CSA started and now they are everywhere on almost every day. That’s true but, at least in this area, few of the market stands are organic and even fewer offer as many benefits, short and long term, as CSA offers for dollars spent on food. For those who cannot be motivated by principle, only by dollars-and-cents, most CSA’s provide a season of organic produce and appropriate land management for much less than the same food, perhaps not organic, perhaps not grown in a deeply sustainable fashion, will cost at farmers markets.

Here’s a version of what was once a  standard definition of CSA (from the now defunct Wilson College CSA center):

CSA is a relationship of mutual support and commitment between local farmers and community members who pay the farmer an annual membership fee to cover the production costs of the farm. In turn, members receive a weekly share of the harvest during the local growing season. The arrangement guarantees the farmer financial support and enables many small- to moderate-scale organic and/or bio-intensive family farms to remain in business. Ultimately, CSA programs create “agriculture-supported communities” where members receive a wide variety of foods harvested at their peak of freshness, ripeness, flavor, vitamin and mineral content.

The goals of Community Supported Agriculture support a sustainable agriculture system which . . .provides farmers with direct outlets for farm products and ensures fair compensation.
• encourages proper land stewardship by supporting farmers in transition toward low or no chemical inputs and utilization of energy saving technologies.
• strengthens local economies by keeping food dollars in local communities.
• directly links farmers with the community- allowing people to have a personal connection with their food and the land on which it was produced.
• makes nutritious, affordable, wholesome foods accessible and widely available to community members.
• creates an atmosphere for learning about non-conventional agricultural, animal husbandry, and alternative energy systems not only to the farmers and their apprentices, but also to members of the community, to educators from many fields of study, and to students of all ages.

One fact also to consider, organic food produced within local communities is not the same as organic food transported over long distances. When members obtain food from local farmers, environmental costs associated with the transport, processing and distribution of organic food and the consumption of fossil fuels are significantly reduced. Considering that the organic food available to members was produced locally rather than transported over long distances, the cost to the environment is significantly less.

Today’s program, “The Future of CSA,” addresses many of these issues.

About Steven McFadden & Chiron Communications

Steven McFaddenChiron Communications is a conceptual umbrella to unify my diverse work as a writer, speaker, consultant and healer.

I’m the author of 12 non-fiction books. Most of them are on display at the bottom of the page if you wish to learn more.

I’m also the author of an epic nonfiction saga of North America: Odyssey of the 8th Fire. The 8th Fire tells a true story arising from the deepest roots of our land, but taking place in the present and the future. In it, circles upon circles, elders make a great and generous giveaway of the teachings they carry.

As of 2013 my most active blog is The Call of the Land: An Agrarian Primer for the 21st Century.

I founded Chiron Communications in the early 1980s, but then rested the enterprise in the 1990s to serve as National Coordinator for the annual Earth Day Celebration (1993) and later as director of The Wisdom Conservancy at Merriam Hill Education Center in Greenville, New Hampshire, as a member of The Balaton Group, and as one of the pilgrims on a great universal prayer walk from the eastern sea across Turtle Island (North America) to the western gate at the edge of the Pacific.

Reiki Master of long standing, I’ve taught the Reiki healing techniques to hundreds of students across North and Central America. It was my privilege to help John Harvey Gray and Lourdes Gray, Ph.D. write Hand to Hand: The Longest Practicing Reiki Master Tells His Story. I’ve also had the privilege to travel with and to learn from many gifted healers from all over the Americas, as well as from Australia, Africa and Ireland. For over 25 years I’ve offered consultations to individuals through the soul language of astrology; then at the turn of the millennium I was honored to earn certification as a yoga instructor.

As the land calls out ever more powerfully, I maintain an active interest in farming and gardening in general, Food Co-ops, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)  in particular; I’ve reported on the growth and development of CSA in America since its inception in 1986.

With my wife Elizabeth Wolf I am a founding partner in Good Medicine Consulting. We are development consultants and writers for organizations and individuals. We also publish ebooks via our venture, Soul*Sparks Books.

Jean-Paul Courtens, Farmer at Roxbury Farm CSA

Jean-Paul Courtens
Jean-Paul Courtens

Jean-Paul started Roxbury Farm in 1990 in Claverack after starting the vegetable garden at Hawthorne Valley Farm.  Jean-Paul attended a 4-year training school for Biodynamic Agriculture in the Netherlands before he emigrated to the United States.  In 2000, Roxbury Farm moved to new land in Kinderhook, gaining secure land tenure in perpetuity.  Jean-Paul works constantly to maintain and build soil fertlity on the farm.  He hopes to change our outlook on soil by calling it “earth” instead of soil or dirt as this implies something unpleasant (you soil your clothes or you get your hands dirty).

Jean-Paul is committed to furthering the practices of sustainable agriculture by educating customers and future farmers.  He  works closely with many other organizations such as Northeast Organic Farming and Gardening Association, the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Columbia Land Conservancy, Cornell University, Just Food, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Equity Trust, the Open Space Institute, and the National Park Service at the Martin Van Buren National Historic site to expand the circle of organizations promoting and supporting sustainable agriculture.

RESOURCES

Steven McFadden’s Chiron Communications: Keys for the Health of the Human Being

Jean-Paul Courtens  Roxbury Farm CSA

If You Don’t Know a Farmer You Aren’t in a CSA: THE FaceBook site for outing or vetting fake or suspicious CSAs https://www.facebook.com/ifyoudontknowyourfarmeryouarenotinacsa 

 

 

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6 Replies to “Episode 017: The Future of CSAs with Jean-Paul Courtens and Steven McFadden”

  1. My thanks to Allan Balliett for creating and hosting BDnow podcast Episode 017, and also to Jean Paul Courtens for sharing his experience and insight.

    I want to demur on the matter of “foremost…philosopher,” which is a description applied to me in the podcast. CSA farms arose as community supported concept. “The idea of CSA was in the air in the late 1980s,” as observers have recalled. Many different people were contributing to the ideas and practices, including Jan Vander Tuin, John Root, Jr., Andrew Lorand, Robyn Van En, Anthony Graham, Lincoln Geiger, and Alice Groh. Trauger Groh – my coauthor for ‘Farms of Tomorrow’ and ‘Farms of Tomorrow Revisited’ – had a profound and eloquent grasp of farming and of the budding CSA vision. My role with CSA in those days, and ongoingly, has been not to philosophize, but rather to listen closely and then to write about what I learn. – Steven M.

  2. Great conversation, thanks to the three of you for taking the time to put this out there. There’s no question that the CSA label has evolved over time but I think it’s really important for folks to have access to information on the origins and the initial concepts that set it apart. It’s even better to get glimpses into how that is still working to this day.

  3. IMO the future of CSA is going to be the same as what happened with organic agriculture. It started off with farmers trying to demark themselves from the perverted nature of industrial food production and distribution, local groups of like-minded people forming to create certification schemes to give assurance to consumers that they are participating in a grassroot movement that provides and alternative to the wickedness of Big Ag, the rise of a plethora of independently run certification schemes being swallowed by the government through the backdoor intervention of Big Ag, and the creation of a single authority government spawned “Organic Agriculture Certification” mark that is constantly watered down, perverted, legally-binding, and moving away from the original intent.

    This is the path unfolding in the world of CSA’s.

    Now, the only way out of this mess is to remove ourselves from using official denominations such as Organic or CSA, and simply to “do what we need to be doing with people who wish to participate in what we do best”. Because when farmers choose to enter systems that are out of their control, such as certification schemes run by “authorities”, they surrender themselves to regulations and become actors in a play for which the final scene will be a tragedy. We can try fighting against the “perversification” of system, but will fail, because those that usurp our good intentions have much more resources and vested interests to change the outcome to meet their agendas: one small compromise after the other and the play becomes a nightmare. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions…

    Social engineering is going on and we’re being programmed by people who don’t have our best interest at hand.

    I’m currently managing a community garden but I refuse to participate in labeling what I do into schemes such as “Organic” or “CSA”. Technically, I’m not even allowed to call it Organic, because I don’t pay membership fees, haven’t been audited, and don’t follow the standard. And I never will, because I don’t want to be part of that perverted system. You see, good farming techniques co-exist with borderline chemical big-ag-like techniques in the Organic certification scheme, and this is the tragedy! CSA is going down that rabbit hole and eventually we’ll need to develop another labeling scheme to extract ourselves from the borderline members involved in the scheme. This is an endless cycle…

    This is why I say do what you do best with those that participate in what you do, but don’t feel the need to be part of a global movement, or certification scheme. A community that supports the farm extracts the need of the farmer to be part of consumer-driven markets. Unless the farmer succombs to greed and falls to the bigger is better syndrome, or ego driven values, thereby forcing him to rely on schemes to sell to people he has no connection with (i.e. make more money), and therefore not part of “the community-being”. And hence, not CSA!

    I may seem jaded and negative, but in my everyday gardening practice I’m the most upbeat, happiest and dare I say spiritual person, because I believe farming is celebrating the sacredness of nature. In my world a garden grows the consciousness of a community of people that have chosen to be part of the process. I call this sacred agriculture and it cannot be labeled or fall prey to the corruption of any system or usurped by authorities, because it’s not about making money or having a flashy website telling the world how the farm is certified Organic and part of a CSA.

  4. Hi Allan,
    Thought of your episode and conversation with Steven McFadden about appropriating the direct to farm connection… (See the earlier bd podacst with Steven) I’ve put a link to a video that’s pretty creepy, especially after watching Frontline- the Trouble with Chicken the other night! Gotta love the way this video animation makes the leap from farm direct to warehouse (and the beloved consumer)! No processing! In fact they have such an efficient operation to promote – the farm chicken has no head, feet, or feathers, too cute! I love cartoon farms… ;0)

    https://www.zayconfresh.com/

    Love your shows, keep up the good work, and thank you!

    Stefani Smith
    Producer of Farm to Fork Wyoming

    1. Allan, please fix my bad writing, the second line about ‘creepy’ sounds like i’m saying your podcast is creepy, rather than the video link i am sharing! Good thing you have a moderator feature.

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