History of CSAs

Purchasing food from a local farmer is not a new concept. In fact, it is one of the oldest commercial arrangements in our human history. Whether it was the barter system, or outright purchase, people have always sought to make up their own food shortfall by going to their neighbors. In many places throughout the world, the village market is still alive and well. People shop the market place often, to take advantage of the freshness, and to deal with their own limited storage capacities at home.
What is new is the American supermarket. Our supermarket system is reliant upon three things to make it work: monoculture agriculture; cheap farm labor; cheap fuel/transportation costs. Monoculture agriculture plants the same crop year after year in the same soil. It relies on chemical fertilizer (petroleum-based), and heavy use of herbicides and pesticides to produce a crop year after year. It is also susceptible to diseases because its health is derived from artificial means. Cheap farm labor is necessary to bring the crop to market. American agriculture is dependent on foreign workers paid low wages. These workers place a further strain on our public services since very few if any have access to health care through their employers, and many are undocumented. Cheap fuel has been the backbone of the American economy for years, and the supermarket system is especially reliant on it to transport food from one end of the USA to the other. The tomato you bought in the store, or had on your sandwich almost certainly travelled from the west, or even further. It is now not uncommon to find food and “fresh” vegetables from other countries.
If we take away any one of these three lynchpins from the supermarket model, the whole deck of cards begins to waiver. The observant reader will realize that all three are in danger of giving way, which is the reason food prices have skyrocketed recently. I have often thought of the great oxymoron that is our modern system of feeding the masses – the supermarket sells the food that makes you sick, then sells the pharmaceuticals purported to make you well. I remember being told by one medical receptionist that my being well was not good for business. How well that applies here!
In the meantime, farmers and eaters developed a way to circumvent the now standard system of food delivery, and bring good, wholesome food to the table of thousands without going through the supermarket. First came the organic movement, really a back-to-the-earth phenomena dating to the sixties. It focused on healthy soil growing healthy food, in turn nourishing healthy humans. The major focus of the organic movement then was local. In the late eighties, another movement swept into the USA called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). It originated in Europe and soon found its way into the northeast/ New England area. The concept behind the CSA is to guarantee a farmer availability of funds to start the planting season and bring it to harvest by purchasing shares of the harvest, and paying for them upfront. Also in this financial arrangement is the concept of shared risk, wherein the CSA member assumes the financial risk of a complete crop failure. In exchange, the CSA shareholders received fresh vegetables on a regular basis throughout the growing season. In the original model, the CSA emphasis was on the community which gathered with the farmer to make this happen. A number of these CSA’s organized as non-profit organizations, with a strong social aspect of creating access to good food for people who could not otherwise afford it.
As this model came out of the New England states, it met with some changes to better suit the culture of the adoptive areas. In Maryland, the CSA now looks more like a farm subscription service, keeping the financial arrangements of the CSA in place, but not requiring weekly work hours on the farm. The emphasis here has changed to focus on the farmer. Some local CSA’s do allow volunteers to work, but the vast majority do not, and to my knowledge, none require it. The difference with the New England model is due to our heavy commuter culture.
The most recent innovation has been the “locavoure/localvor” movement. When the US Department of Agriculture decided to regulate and control the organic movement, it did so in such a way as to enable large, multinational companies to get in on the game. Originally, “organic” always meant “local.” Now, your organic produce in the supermarket is just as likely to be grown on another continent. The locavoure movement really came of age in the last several years due to two factors – the enormous success of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable Miracle, and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma; and the continued reaffirmation that anything imported from China is bad news (especially food). Locavoures’ seek to get their food within a “foodshed,” the tighter the radius of farmers to their home, the better.