July 20, 2016
The Birth of Community Supported Agriculture
The first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms began in the U.S in 1986. They existed much earlier in Japan, and then Europe. In the U.S., they are tied to the biodynamic movement and Rudolf Steiner’s non-chemical approach to agriculture production. While CSA’s were not certified organic—the early farms predated the arrival of the organic label—they largely embodied that spirit. Protecting the land, the farmer and the local community were among their core values. The CSA was always more than just a financial contract between buyer and seller.
A CSA is a direct relationship between the farmer and the eater. No intermediaries. It’s a novel way for the eater to help the farmer meet their ongoing production expenses by paying for their membership in advance. In return, the eater is rewarded with fresh grown food at an affordable price and produced in a manner consistent with the values of its members. The relationship is largely transparent and mutually beneficial.
But CSA’s are not for everyone.
The achilles heel of the CSA has always been its inflexible menu of foods and limited selection. After all, we are mainly talking about perishable and seasonally grown products in a given area. Good luck suppling CSA members in Minnesota with those leafy greens in the winter or with locally grown citrus.
Enter the CSA Bastards
In today’s NYT, When Community-Supported Agriculture Is Not What It Seems, a relatively new type of CSA has entered the marketplace. Companies that distribute food from a multitude of sources—some from local farms, but also food from distance sources. Instead of a direct one to one relationship, consumers are buying membership from a single supplier who has aggregated products from many sources, near and far away.
According to the article: “As demand for local and organic produce has ballooned in the last five years, so have other ideas for connecting farmers to customers. Now, online hubs are using sophisticated distribution technology to snap into the food chain, often using “C.S.A.” to describe what they deliver.”
But are these new CSA style companies really CSA’s? What are the defining characteristics of a CSA? For many, it is the direct relationship between the farmer and the eater. No middleman. No retailer. Except for California where they have codified what the term CSA means —along those lines mentioned above—anyone can use the term CSA.
Regardless of the merits of these more expansive fresh food enterprises, they are not true CSA’s. Their lack of transparency is why food labeling laws are so important. Whether the consumer will ultimately care about the central purpose of the CSA in helping the farmer while benefiting the eater—or not—the CSA name deserves its own trademark in order to protect its unique identity.