Summer 2009
by Elizabeth Henderson

Elizabeth Henderson gave the keynote speech at MOFGA’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Conference on Feb. 21, 2009. Henderson is a CSA pioneer, farmer (at Peacework Organic Farm in Newark, New York) and author of Sharing the Harvest: a Citizen’s Guide to CSA.

I am delighted to be in the People’s Republic of Maine. If there is a piece of liberated territory anywhere in this country, surely it is here at the MOFGA Farm in Unity.

While some organic advocates worry that “local” will supplant organic, I think the rising commitment to buy local gives CSAs an enormous opportunity. As has been noted in recent books on food – Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – joining a CSA is the ultimate in connecting with a local source of food. These popular writers are doing a great promotion job for us.

With the help of organizations like MOFGA, Just Food in New York City, the NOFAs (Northeast Organic Farming Associations), Equiterre in Quebec, and MACSAC (Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition) in Madison, the rapid rise in the number of CSAs that Robyn Van En predicted back in 1990 is starting to take place. The number of CSAs listed by Local Harvest (www.localharvest.org) has risen from 1294 in mid-2007 to 2300 in December 2008. Despite the economic downturn (or maybe because of it), CSAs all over the country are having an easier time finding members, and many have waiting lists. Stressed families are eating out less and turning to local farms for the ingredients essential to their newly recognized recipes for survival and health.

Offering Value – in Food, Climate and More

We are experiencing what we could call a seller’s market. This is not the moment to be cautious. This is a strategic opening for us to think through and begin to realize our maximum program for the transformation that the CSA model offers. There is no longer any excuse for approaching potential members saying I am an underpaid, underappreciated local farmer whose farm is about to go under, please let me serve you for whatever you are willing to pay.

Recent research by the Rodale Institute demonstrates that our small farms can make big contributions to reducing global warming by sequestering carbon. A study by 400 scientists from all over the world concluded in the International Assessment on Agricultural Science and Technology for Development that the past 50 years of investments in industrialized agriculture have not eliminated world hunger or provided for food security. The path to follow, the report declares, is developing local, small-scale, sustainable food systems.

That’s us. We should seize this moment to enlist thoughtful citizens to work with us to make our CSAs the local, organic and fair food systems that these citizens dream of when they buy from a local farm.

Willow Pond and Peacework CSAs Get “More Local”

Okay – how? I would like to take you on a quick tour around the country to peek in on some CSAs that will give us ideas:

Starting right here in Maine, one of the earliest CSAs and the first in Maine is Willow Pond Farm. When Jill Agnew began her CSA 21 years ago, the members came from long distances to get her food. People who lived in the great metropolis of Sabattus were not particularly interested in shares in a local organic farm.

As the years have gone by, Willow Pond’s foodshed has gotten smaller and smaller. True, Jill has lost members as distant customers switched to closer, more convenient farms. But Jill’s neighbors have replaced those customers.

My farm, Peacework, like Jill’s, is in a fairly rural area where incomes are low and many people have their own gardens. We have never worked very hard at attracting Wayne County members because it has been so much easier to find members in the city of Rochester, an hour’s drive away.

In 2008, we had an important breakthrough: For the first time, the Wayne County nutritionists, whose job it is to help low-income people improve their diets, came for a tour of the farm. You can be sure I included as much information as I could about the nutritional benefits of organic foods. Now that there is “science” that proves the nutritional advantages of organic food, these extension educators are free to extend this information to the public. (You can find the reports on the Organic Center Web site – www.organiccenter.org) This new partnership will help us reach our long-term goal of involving more local, low-income families.

Just Food Draws in Low-Income Consumers

Next on our tour, let’s travel down the coast to New York City where Just Food has organized 62 core groups and helped them connect with farms. After getting the first half-dozen or so CSAs off the ground, Just Food announced in 1998 that it intended to focus on finding low-income members for the city CSAs.

Knowing as I did that most of the farmers supplying the CSAs qualified as low-income, too, I wondered how this could work. The farmers could not afford to offer many scholarships for shares of their food.

At first, it was uphill slogging for the Just Food staff trying to convince community organizations in the city that joining CSAs would make sense to the low-income populations they were trying to serve. But Just Food persisted – giving each core group a list of options for diversifying the membership of their CSA: Members could pay on a sliding scale; the core group could accept food stamps (facilitated by Just Food staff success in accessing Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) equipment) and payment schedules could be more flexible to allow members with food stamps to pay as often as every two weeks; core groups could solicit donations for subsidized shares from wealthier members or from others;

and, most innovative, core groups could set up revolving loan funds, using the money to pay the farm up front, and then allowing members to pay into the fund at convenient intervals. Some CSAs have even been able to get money from public health programs for these revolving loan funds.

Just Food supported CSA recruiting by providing cooking demonstrations at pick-up sites and publishing a tool kit of cooking tips and recipes. (You can purchase a copy from its Web site, www.justfood.org.) A member of its staff discovered that if she showed potential members photos of the vegetables they would receive each week, they were more likely to join.

Peacework’s Low-Income Members

My farm has been reaching out to lower income people since we started doing CSA 20 years ago. We solicit contributions to the share subsidy fund on the contract that members sign with us. We also ask members to request contributions from church groups they belong to; several churches have given as much as $1000 for the GVOCSA (The Genesee Valley Organic Community Supported Agriculture group) subsidy fund. Each year, we are able to give up to seven or eight subsidized shares. We ask low-income members to pay at least half the value of the share and allow them to pay in food stamps and on whatever schedule meets their needs.

Peacework Farm has had authorization to accept food stamps for many years from our farmers’ market days, and in 2008 we acquired our own EBT machine for free from JP Morgan.

We also price our shares on a sliding scale. For the same basket of food, members pay $400, $480, $540 or $680 for a 26-week season. We explain that our budget is based on receiving an average of $480 a share. Those who pay $540 or $680 are offsetting those who can only afford to pay $400. Every year, those who pay on the high end serendipitously balance those who pay on the low end.

We do not verify members’ incomes, and I have noticed that a few of the members who pay on the high end are not the wealthiest, but rather the most committed. Our goal is to replace the dollar per pound mentality with the understanding that members are supporting our farm.

Sharing the Farm Budget with CSA Members

The CSAs that have gone the farthest in this direction are Temple-Wilton and Kimberton: These two CSAs have an impressive annual ritual where they gather all the members in one meeting and ask them to pledge what they can afford to cover the farm budget. Members write down their pledges, the farmers add up the total; if that is enough, everyone goes home; if not, members are asked to pledge a bit more. There is no correlation between what members pay and the amount of food they receive. From each according to his ability; to each according to his need. Sounds a bit like Marx’s vision for communism!

When you share your farm budget with the members of your CSA, you need to be able to justify both your expenses and your revenues. You need careful records and accurate bookkeeping.

A critical part of making local farms fair is providing a decent living with health insurance and other benefits to the people who grow food. Ten years ago when Daniel Lash did a three-year study of CSA finances in the Northeast, he was surprised to discover that many farms did not include a salary for the farmer in calculating their prices. Taking their clues from the IRS, which considers as profit anything over the expenses of a self-employed sole proprietor, these farms netted as little as $5,000 to $6000 a year, hardly enough to live on and too depressing to break down into an hourly wage.

Each year, my farm presents our budget to the GVOCSA core group at our January meeting. Over 75 percent of our budget is salaries for us farmers and our interns. Together we agree on how many shares we will provide and what the fee will be. Some years, we offer two different budgets, the higher one introducing a new benefit for the farmers. The core members then vote on which budget to accept.

It is deeply affirming to hear our customers discussing why they should charge themselves more so that we will be treated more fairly. In this way, we have added health insurance and a small retirement fund. Running our CSA as a cooperative with our customers, we are also learning the skills for a truly participatory democracy.

More Ways to Feed Low-Income Populations

There are many other creative ways to diversify CSA membership. Since 1994, NOFA-VT has been coordinating Vermont Farm Share, a fundraising effort to allow low-income families to join CSAs without burdening the farmers. Once a year, NOFA-VT holds a Share Our Harvest event: Over 100 restaurants all over Vermont contribute a percentage of their proceeds from dinners that evening, generating $10,000 to $12,000 a year. Farm Share distributes this money to CSAs as one-quarter of the value of share fees. Each farm is expected to raise one-quarter of the fees, and the low-income members pay one-half.

MACSAC has raised money for subsidized shares using farm-a-thons. Instead of walking or running for money, volunteers get sponsors to pledge money for doing farm work.

For two seasons now, a group of eight CSA farms in the Ithaca, N.Y., area have done on-farm benefit dinners to raise money. The farms contribute the food for well-known local chefs to transform into elegant dinners hosted by the farms.

The Hartford Food System, a not-for-profit in Hartford, Conn., founded by Mark Winne, raises the money to purchase bulk shares for inner city community groups that then distribute the food as part of their mission to serve low-income people. One group uses the food for shares for families that come to their counseling center. Another teaches teen unwed mothers to cook the food and sell some of it to raise money for their program.

Local Fair Trade Practices

To return to our tour, let’s travel to a farm that is focusing on making its labor practices fair and equitable. For three years, Featherstone Farm in Minnesota has been participating in the Agricultural Justice Project’s (AJP) piloting of a local fair trade label.

The goal of this pilot project has been to test how food coop customers would respond, but Featherstone also has a CSA and is keeping its members informed. The Minneapolis-based Local Fair Trade Network put out a call for farms that were willing to study AJP’s social stewardship standards and then be audited for compliance. (You can find the standards on the AJP Web site: www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org. In 2009-10, we are revising the standards based on what we learned from the pilot and would welcome your comments.)

The first trial audit in 2006 found that Featherstone and the other participating farmers agreed to the basic premises of the AJP standards that their workers had the right to organize and to negotiate working conditions with them. With a few minor non-compliances, their labor practices were up to the AJP standards but they lacked written documentation that made the farm’s policies explicit to their employees.

The next winter, AJP produced a draft Tool-kit, a set of templates for labor policies on wages, seniority, discipline, housing, conflict resolution, etc. The farms adapted these templates to their particular situations, and three of them raised the wages they were paying to their workers.

The second AJP audit resulted in certifying four farms as meeting high social standards.

Two years in a row of serious flooding have made the resulting sales difficult to evaluate. Are people buying more from these farms because of the fair trade label or because they want to help them recuperate from the flooding? Featherstone’s CSA members responded to the disaster by sending money and forming core groups to increase their support for the farm.

Interns Are Employees

My farm has never hired workers, but every year we train two interns. As a result of what I have learned through participation in the AJP, we have created a written contract for our interns, making clear our expectations and our teaching commitments to them.

We also ask each intern to write a learning contract. Several times a season, we review together whether they are learning what they hoped to, also giving them the chance to evaluate our teaching.

I further learned from my research for AJP and from the NESFI (New England Small Farmers Institute) On-Farm Mentoring project that whatever we may call our interns (trainees, apprentices), in the eyes of the law they are employees to whom we must pay at least minimum hourly wages and provide workers’ comp and withholding taxes. Until we have a department of labor-recognized new farmer training program, we cannot legally compensate ourselves for teaching by paying interns small stipends. (For all the details on internships and legalities, see the Guide to On-Farm Mentoring from NESFI, www.smallfarm.org. NESFI is also assembling the state regulations for the Northeast).

When CSA Farms Cooperate

Since you have already traveled to New Hampshire to visit the multi-farm Local Harvest CSA, I will not take you there. Let’s go instead to Northeast Iowa, where improved software has allowed the group of farms organized by Michael Nash and Solveig Hanson to offer individually customized shares as well as the choice of additional products.

Initially, Michael and Solveig invited neighboring farms to add their products to their Sunflower Fields Farm CSA. The informal cooperation proved so encouraging that the group of farmers formed a farming coop and decided to combine an online ordering system, home deliveries and a processing facility where they transform extra produce into value-added casseroles and pies, some of which they supply to a local hospital.

Like Local Harvest, inspired by the example of Rolling Prairie CSA in Kansas, groups of farmers and even gardeners in various parts of the country are cooperating in providing CSA shares. In Virginia, Iowa and Pennsylvania, beginning farmers have found that participating in a CSA with more experienced farms is a good way to learn the ropes before launching out on their own. Even in cities – Portland, Oregon; Detroit, Michigan – people are organizing cooperative CSAs, growing food on scattered garden plots or public parkland. A new approach – SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) Farming – offers a formula for creating commercial mini-farm ventures on leased or borrowed city plots.

Once you have a group of customers organized, there is no limit to the bulk purchasing or multiple-share possibilities. The GVOCSA core includes three members who take care of special orders from farms that produce organic maple syrup, grape juice, wine, sheep cheese, blueberries, and other products that Peacework does not have time or energy for. Another core member coordinates winter shares from Blue Heron Farm in Lodi. In the late fall, we sell our members what we call “squirrel bulk,” 5 to 25 pounds of potatoes, carrots, onions, etc., that tides them over until Blue Heron’s shares begin in January. Together, our farms enable Rochesterians to eat local produce year round.

Member Involvement

Let’s travel next to Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, to visit a farm that has found a remarkable way to involve members in its CSA. I will be giving a workshop entirely devoted to involving members and developing core groups, but I want to stress member involvement in this talk because so many farms miss out on this invaluable opportunity to build community and get needed help in making our CSAs function more sustainably.

Barb and Dave Perkins at Vermont Valley Community Farm, who produce and distribute over 950 shares in the Madison, Wisconsin, area, recruit CSA members to serve as their harvest crew. Fifty of their members exchange 20 four-hour work shifts for their shares. Five mornings and two afternoons a week, these working members come to the farm where Barb supervises their work. If you look at the Vermont Valley Web site (www.vermontvalley.com), the appeal for these helpers states very frankly that this will be hard work. In fact, the phrase “hard work” is repeated at least four times, yet every year, 50 or so members volunteer for this hard working experience.

Health Insurance Discounts for CSA Members

While we are in Wisconsin, I would like to highlight another innovation. The MACSAC farms have convinced their regional health insurance providers that CSA memberships qualify for “healthy dollar” discounts. Depending on the insurance policy, several hundred CSA members are getting up to $200 rebates to pay for their CSA shares.

This makes so much sense, since eating our good food provides health care for our members – and fresh air and better exercise than gyms when we invite them to work on our farms.

Member-Supported Land Acquisition

Finally, I would like to take you to California, where Live Power Community Farm pioneered in obtaining access to land in a state where land values have climbed steadily out of the reach of folks with farm incomes.

When the owner of the land they were leasing on very favorable terms decided he had to cash out and sell the property, Gloria and Steve Decater turned to their core group in San Francisco to help them solve their dilemma. The Decaters did not have the resources on their own to buy the land they had farmed for many years.

After exploring many avenues, the Decaters and their core group found a solution: The core group raised the money to purchase the development rights on the farm, allowing the farmers to finance only the farm value of the land. Since a local land trust would not cooperate, Equity Trust agreed to hold the conservation easement written by the Decaters themselves, which requires that the land be farmed using organic methods and that the lease-holders make at least 50 percent of their living from farming.

With their tenure assured, the Decaters have gone on to develop an education program for school children at their farm and constructed a new barn with solar collectors on the roof. Members’ support, relieving the farmers of administrative tasks and financial burdens, frees up farmer creative energy for educational tours, summer camps on farms and projects to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.

The core group at Angelic Organics [in Caledonia, Illinois] expanded into a nonprofit organization with a long list of projects, including training Chicago inner city youngsters to grow and sell organic vegetables.

When the owner of the 18 acres of land my farm was leasing passed away suddenly and his wife offered to sell us the 148-acre farm, my partners and I discussed replicating what Live Power had done. A member of our core group was also on the board of the Genesee Land Trust (GLT). After exploring the possibilities, we agreed that the land trust would buy the land and then lease it back to us long term. Within 14 months, the members of our CSA made enough tax-deductible contributions to GLT to buy the farm. This was a new departure for this land trust, which is a conservation trust; buying the farm and then leasing it meant operating more like a community land trust.

In writing our lease, we took clauses from community land trusts that ensure that the farm remains affordable for future generations of farmers. Equity Trust and the Schumacher Society provided technical assistance to Peacework and three other CSA farms that have gone through similar complex transactions that preserve the farmland together with the farm operation.

Even after the real estate bubble has burst, astronomic land values in metropolitan areas all around the country are pushing people who want to farm to partner with land trusts and other conservation-minded groups to gain access to land. The era of private property for small-scale farming may be coming to an end. High quality farmland is a community resource, part of the commons we must preserve if we hope to have a sustainable way of life.

Breaking Power Holds to Feed the People

Each of our CSAs cannot adopt all of these innovative practices, at least not all at once. Together these examples show that we are on the path to creating local food systems that will look very different from the agriculture we have today.

When your customers become your “co-producers,” to use Carlo Petrini’s term, remarkable possibilities open before us. President Obama has talked a lot about green jobs. What could be greener work than growing organic food for your local community? What if we could persuade our towns or counties to replicate the Japanese practice where the prefecture pays the wages of interns or apprentices for two or three years in exchange for the commitment to farm in that jurisdiction? What if we can convince the microbe-shy public that our practices – growing high quality, nutrient dense foods on organic-matter-rich soils with maximum biodiversity above and below ground and minimal toxic residues – provide the surest way to food safety? What if we are able to organize a grassroots movement that is strong enough to realize the top priorities of the National Organic Action Plan that will be completed this week in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, hopefully with someone from Maine representing you?

At Eco-Farm, Raj Patel gave a talk about the current crisis of hunger and obesity and concluded that the most inspirational solutions are coming from Via Campesina: “Their vision is an idea called food sovereignty. … [which] is about starting where we are, with the environment and social context that we live in, but then addressing and challenging inequalities of power. …we’re going to have to take our democratic engagement very seriously, from the household all the way up to international institutions. But it’s a fight worth winning. Breaking that bottleneck of power is the only way that we’re going to be able to feed the world and have justice at the same time.” (“Food, Finance and Democracy in Crisis,” Jan. 21, 2009)

Changing the World from Our Own Backyards

When you turn on the news in the morning, the violence and negativity on a massive scale are overwhelming. I find it hard to get out of bed when I hear about the bombing of children in Gaza; corporations laying off thousands, hundreds of thousands, while CEOs still take home bonuses of millions; the waste from coal mines burying homes – this list could go on for hours. There is so little we can do about these atrocities.

In our own backyards and local communities, however, there is so much we can do. The CSAs around the country are making these ideals our reality in the day-to-day work of farmers and citizens co-producing our food. Added together, we come out with local food systems that bring us the quality of life we all want for our families, friends and neighbors – a rich and biodiverse environment with food that is clean, organic and fair.

Scroll to Top
Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter of happenings at MOFGA.