Whether you're a member of our CSA already or whether you don't even know what a CSA is -- you can find the answer to that question here -- we'd like you to consider today some of the most important reasons we value the CSA model. We hope to increase the value you place on partnering with a particular farm that you can get to know and trust such that the way you eat is defined primarily by what comes from that kind of farming. Getting to know people that you can trust that work the land to produce the things you need is at the heart of what we think a CSA ought to be all about.
The opposite of getting food produced by people you know and trust would normally be the kind of food sold in supermarkets. Whether you actually buy it at the supermarket or elsewhere, this is pretty much complete mystery agriculture. You might sometimes have some information about the country of origin, and in those instances you could find out what laws and regulations farmers were supposed to comply with in that country, but even then you're only dealing with extremely limited minimum standards. And since there are so many details you don't know about, and since the farmers really have no means of communicating any of those differentiating details to you, the law of competition pretty much guarantees that all those details will be decided on cost, i.e. the cheapest way to produce that item will prevail. Of course, cheap is a good thing, but there are lots of things that get sacrificed for cheapness, and the supermarket model is pretty helpless to let farmers or consumers make choices about what's worth sacrificing and what isn't. For the sake of cheapness chemical fertilizers are produced from non-renewable sources (mining, fracking, etc.), displacing organic wastes that are now concentrated to the point of pollution in waterways and elsewhere. For the sake of cheapness most of the farm work in our country is structured into jobs that we would never consider fit for any of our own children but only for an immigrant underclass. (Only 18% of farm workers speak English as their first language.) For the sake of cheapness highly erodible soils that ought to be protected by permanent stands of trees and grass are bulldozed and plowed to produce cheap (in the very short term) annual crops. For the sake of cheapness, fruits are picked under-ripe thousand of miles away. For the sake of cheapness pesticides are sprayed on crops that correlate with behavioral and mental disorders in children, contaminate drinking water sources, correlate with higher incidents of cancer, etc. And on top of that, those same pesticides sprayed on one crop destroy honeybee and native pollinator populations, increasing the cost of producing many other crops. (Cheapness often isn't really cheap even in the short run.)
Whole books could be filled and many have detailing these sorts of agricultural issues, but our point here isn't that any of these issues ought to be decided one way or another. Our point is merely that there are questions worth considering, and the cheapest answer certainly isn't automatically and always the best. Any good system of food/farming/land use (i.e. agriculture) inevitably entails lots of important and complex questions, and the supermarket system basically decides all these questions strictly on cheapness. Even if a farmer fully recognizes a better way to farm and even if consumers have sufficient agricultural knowledge to be aware of and understand the issues and want to pay for something that would cost even just a penny more per pound, the supermarket model leaves both farmers and consumers pretty much powerless to unite and make those choices. When farmers' profit margins are only pennies or fractions of a penny per pound -- we've read that only about 10% of the average food dollar goes to farmers -- farmers selling to the kind of markets that serve supermarkets can't stay in business doing things that add even a penny to the cost of their product. And most farmers have gotten used to and now take for granted that cheapness is the name of the game. At the other end, consumers are generally far too far removed from agriculture to understand or even hear about most of the decisions that define our agriculture, so, of course, they're powerless to support things they're not aware of or don't really understand. And even if they had the awareness and understanding, there's no way to support a farmer doing something one way when his product is pooled together with all the farmers doing it the other way. And the systems of transporting and processing and packaging and distributing are so extensive and complex that keeping any kind of differentiated product separate is almost always cost prohibitive. In other words, even if it would cost very little for a farmer to make a change on the farm, the cost of keeping that product separate all the way from the farmer through all the middlemen to the consumer is almost always enormous, so any product differentiation (i.e. real consumer choice in farming decisions) is mostly just superficial fluff added on the retail end to mislead consumers (for example, different brand names added to products that are all coming off the same processing line.)
And these decisions compound over time. Traditional foods are forgotten over time. Industrial substitutes become the new normal. Our tastes and preferences are shaped by supermarket shopping habits together with corporate advertizing. And the real richness and quality and integrity of our food supply declines all the while. While we pretend that we're in control as the consumers, buying what we want when we want it, in reality our tastes and preferences grow out of that system, being shaped by that system: we learn to want what the supermarket system wants to feed us.
We hope you can see how everything we've just described operates as a system. And if it's all not a path you're too sure you want to follow, then the question is if and how you can get out of the conundrum. One idea might be to turn to the organic label. We've written more about the organic label before, but we'll just make some brief points here. We definitely think the organic label is preferable to the conventional supermarket system, but we see some severe limitations. First of all, there wouldn't be an organic label at all if it hadn't been for homegrown resistance to the supermarket model, which is how organic agriculture as a distinct alternative came about. Having begun as a defense of homegrown ways and a revolt against the industrial model, can the organic movement now abandon its homegrown ways and trust the supermarket model to be properly constrained by a set of rules? And will the supermarket model of organic not modify and adapt those rules over time to conform (further and worse) to the logic of industrial style agriculture? If homegrown ways of agriculture exposed the need for a distinct alternative to the supermarket model in the first place, will homegrown ways not also be essential to keeping the organic movement honest? And even if the organic rules system operated perfectly, it would still only be a narrowly limited, legalistic system. Organic rules say little or nothing about a majority of the things we question sacrificing for the sake of cheapness (as in the paragraph above.)
So if the organic label isn't worth much apart from the homegrown style of agriculture from which it came, what about farmers at local farmers' markets? If those farmers are also committed to providing a real alternative to the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and genetic engineering and pharmaceuticals of the supermarket model (which is to say they're practicing the basics of what organic ought to mean), then we think we're starting to talk about significant progress. But we see major limitations in the farmers' market model, too.
On the one side, bureaucrats and lawyers and insurance companies and tax officials, etc., etc. are poised to make selling at farmers' markets too complicated, burdensome, obnoxious, and costly (particularly in terms of both civil and criminal liabilities) for most of the farmers selling at local markets now. The changes that are happening don't bode well for the farmers' market model. Where these pressures aren't squeezing farmers out of the market altogether, they're effectively squeezing them out of local, organic practice, because the farmers are forced to specialize and scale up in ways that practically necessitate non-organic inputs. For example, of all the animal products sold at all the farmers' markets in the whole state, except for all-grass-fed beef -- that leaves all the cheese and dairy, all the eggs, all the poultry, and all the other meats sold at farmers' markets -- we're not aware of any that aren't fed commodity (supermarket style) grain. Many of these same farmers believe in organic principles enough not to use any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, GMO seed, etc. on their own farms, but their markets force them to specialize and scale up such that they have to depend on outsourcing the growing of feed to farms that represent very different styles of farming from their own. The result, as with other types of food, is that markets fall well short of local, organic potential.
On the other side, relationships between farmers' market customers and farmers aren't deep enough for customers to recognize, value, and support the practices they would choose if they were producing their own food for themselves. Customers lives are busy and full of enough distractions that it takes a concerted effort just to connect with one farm deeply enough to let it begin to affect their supermarket-bred food ways. Spreading those relationships thin by dealing a little bit with one vendor and a little bit with another is a recipe for defaulting to supermarket habits and expectations, largely forcing farmers at farmers' markets to follow them into supermarket style farming. Significant change from the supermarket model will depend on both customers and farmers together changing their food and farming ways.
And that brings us back to the CSA model. The basic idea of our CSA is that it would enable us to farm more like we would if we were growing simply for ourselves instead of conforming our farm to broader market demand (together with all the chemicals and other industrial inputs and shortcuts that make it possible to compete in that market), and on the customer side, our CSA enables our CSA members to be able to eat food more like they would if they were growing for themselves instead of limiting their diets to the kind of food and farming that can compete in the global marketplace. The CSA concept means we try to grow as many different things as we can for our CSA members and they try to eat as many different things from our farm as they can. The idea is that we sell first to them, and they buy first from us. That frees us from catering to less informed customers and allows us to farm in the way we believe best, and it enables those that share our beliefs to obtain and to eat food grown in ways that largely wouldn't be available otherwise.