It was a humid and somewhat rainy night in Great Barrington, MA. We were celebrating Rob’s birthday at Baba Louie’s pizza with some farmer friends. It was my first time meeting these young idealistic farmers from CT, but it was easy to relate immediately to their mindset and strife.
The truth of the matter was that these two interns were experiencing the troubles of farming, not the work, but the financial woes. Debt is so ubiquitous in the U.S., but it is especially insidious in the farming world. The farmers are well aware of their lifestyle slowly obliterating, but it is the consumer (read: non-producer) who takes no notice of this phenomena until CSA sign-ups for next year never come around…because the farm suddenly ceases to exist.
It is not that our fair shareholders are to blame, after all the dominant CSA model has come to be reified by both sides of the coin, the producer and the consumer. Shareholders pay the money, come to the pick up, shoot the shit, and then leave gracefully as they came. Farmer’s use the early sign-ups for up front costs (or to regrettably cover last years losses), buy the seeds, work the land, weed, water, pay for repairs, pay for labor, pay less for unskilled labor, manage fertility schedules, manage CSA pick-up, do wholesale, do farmer’s markets, and perhaps meander ever slowly into debt. But it’s cool, bankruptcy is the new early retirement in America.
The question that this elicits for myself is…where is this community? CSA is meant to be Community Supported Agriculture, in the dominant model today there is agriculture (duh), there is support (money), and there is…well actually that is it. There are farms with 30 shares (ours), 170 shares, 300 shares, and some we at Sun One know of that do 1200 shares. But these shares are not Local, some are being delivered to NYC, Fairfield County, and wealthy suburbs north of NYC.
Now, this is not a critique on the exploited providing quality for the elite. This is a critique on what I believe CSA has become not only to the consumers of the food in the baskets, but the producers. The issue is that while the quality of life is maintained for the consumer, it gets worse for the majority of the producers out there.
FSA is the dominant CSA model.
Enter FSA. Or what I like to call Financially Supported Agriculture. If there is to be any support happening for agriculture, it is overwhelmingly through money. This is an issue. This is a very dire issue if the goal is to be community supported. Tell me what kind of community is being created 50 miles away from the locus of production? It isn’t. Even when there are members that come from surrounding towns and even our own town of Bethlehem, CT…I cannot say I know anything about them or vice versa.
After putting out surveys this season I was pleased with the results, many of our members were happy with their baskets and vegetable selections. Spoiler, cabbage isn’t a favorite. Though there was one member who felt that the baskets were just not covering the expectations and needs of his family, and that the local supermarket would be a better option. It was a valid opinion piece. But, of course, I felt melancholy about the whole notion. On one hand I felt a little closer to this member, I actually learned something about him…he had a family and wanted to provide for them. On the other hand I couldn’t shake off the idea he had no clue about what he had signed up for. I suppose this time ignorance was not bliss.
Transactions as the Fundament of CSA
The dominant CSA model (or FSA) has come to regard transactional relationships as fundamental. I give you the money, you give me the food. Plenty of authors have dedicated time to this phenomena so I will leave it to you, the reader, to self educate on self-interested rational actors, neoliberal economics, late capitalism, commons, gifting, debt, and money. Read broad and varied though, for with different perspectives emerges a more well rounded opinion.
The point is that community is not developed via this fundament. Community is perpetuated through continuing relationships. Interestingly enough, continuing relationships are not created through transactions. FSA is transactional, and the relationships continue inasmuch the transactions do too. So our most unsatisfied customer will terminate our relationship by refusing a CSA sign up for 2015 and quite possibly strengthen his existing relationship with the store via increased patronage or begin a new relationship via alternative CSA. I doubt I’ll care.
The real CSA
Ideally, if community is a goal, then models that do not rely predominately on transaction must be experimented with. An example of this is incentive-based labor CSA. Let’s say hypothetically it costs $500 for a full season share, and this cost covers operations and perhaps a sliver goes towards the owner as income (Hah!). In a community oriented model, the cost of the CSA has to be high but reducible through participation of the member. Let’s say we hike the cost to $800 per share and $5/hr reduction on the cost. But wait…hold the phone, $5/hr is all for farm work? Yes…I am suggesting a low reduction in the share price. If you have interned at a farm (or if you’re a millenial doing…any internship) chances are you’re getting that or worse. The point is empathy, and one would never experience that when transactions are paramount. Working 60 hours to reduce your CSA bill $300 is a pain, but working 60 hours to increase your savings account $300 is poverty.
This is just one option and I would never suggest a farm relies solely on this model. FSA is necessary because CSA needs a culture of support and we need to wait on that to come into vogue.
A Radical Model
One other model may include higher transparency on both sides of the transactional relationships. Farmer’s should ask for more if members stand in good financial graces. In other words, progressive payment plans. Already in existence are sliding scale CSA payments (say $500-$800 pay what you can), but there is no real guarantee that those who can afford $800 will pay $800. What I am suggesting is that members and farmers be up front about their financial standing and work out a consensus-based dollar amount for the CSA share.
Consensus is important because it would be absurd to attach a % of income onto a CSA share. $50,000 net income and $100,000 net income families of four shouldn’t pay $500 and $1,000(1%) respectively for equal sized baskets, but I imagine a frugal and community oriented family may be willing to donate more. However, with the prevalence of the FSA model, it is unlikely that we ever even deliberate on what could be appropriate for real support of farmers, communal or financial.
Don’t be fooled, there are little real communities being cultivated through the dominant CSA model of FSA. It is no different than any other transaction done in life. Whether it is at the farm, a department store, bar, hotel, local market, or strip club, each person can walk away when the transaction is done. The community that does emerge comes from talking, spending time with one another, empathy, and gifts. So while I find it somewhat tragic that a ‘CSA’ member will be leaving us after this year, it is also somewhat tragic that I maintain a Fuck Shit All attitude through it all.