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CSA – the right model for the future of agriculture?

Is CSA the Right Model for the Future of Agriculture?

Phillip Padden writes:

When setting up a new agricultural enterprise or adapting an existing one for the future, what form of business structure is the best for providing a secure and sustainable future? There are many both legal and business structures available for farmers and growers, from sole traders and partnerships to limited companies and plcs. Each will depend upon whatever circumstances suit each situation the best. Whatever legal structure is adopted I believe Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a form of co-operative farming, is the most sound and positive business structurefor food production for economic, social and philosophical reasons and I will briefly explain why.

CSA is a form of community investment which allows people within a community to put their money and/or time into something which they care about and in which they can have some degree of ownership, sharing a common wealth. By investing in and supporting a local farm the consumers (the community) build a direct link to the supplier of the food in a way that is mutually beneficial. This means the responsibilities and risks, as well as the harvest and profits are shared by the farmers or growers and the consumers. The farmer gains financial stability and a secure future and the community gains a reliable and sustainable source of food with a clear provenance. This close link creates a strong sense of community as well as ensuring an economically and environmentally beneficial way to produce healthy food. In some models the community can contribute not only in terms of financial investment, but also in labour, committing to several hours/days per month on the farm. However, there are many ways of arranging a CSA; financial investment is only one of them.

Two very good, and quite different, examples of successful CSAs are Community Farm Bristol and Stroud Community Agriculture. The Community Farm Bristol has sold a viable farm and box scheme business to the community as a co-op in order to raise investment capital and increase democracy. Stroud Community Agriculture farms 50 acres with a turnover of £100,000 pa and is owned and controlled by 200 local consumer members who employ farmers to grow for them. Some CSAs also require a commitment in terms of labour from its members, encouraging consumers to spend time at the farm, welcoming children and strengthening community.

In April this year I attended a “Finance for CSA” workshop in Bristol hosted jointly by The Soil Association and Co-operatives UK, where it was interesting to hear presentations given by people who have had different experiences with CSAs and other community investment projects. Jim Brown of Baker Brown Associates and Paul Sander- Jackson of Wessex Community Assets gave inspiring talks from their perspective about how CSA can be set up and organized and at the other end of the scale grower Phil Haughton of Community Farm Bristol gave a great summary of his own experiences with setting up a CSA business. Guy Watson of Riverford Organics talked about the logistics and effort required setting up his highly successful farming and distribution business, and although Riverford is not a CSA, many of the challenges of running this type of farming business are the same.

Funding for CSAs can come from a number of different sources ranging from philanthropic sympathisers and community share issues to plain old bank loans and the way this funding was raised was many and varied. However, the thing that struck me at the time and continues to reverberate is that the success of a CSA depends very much on how aware and engaged the community is and how the message is put across. As a species most humans are asleep and reluctant to wake up to change until a crisis arises and we feel a compelling reason to do so. The current situation of aging farmers, the cost of land, the increasing demand for high quality organic food and the disproportionate power of the short term agro-chemical business has brought about such a crisis.

It could be argued that capitalism based on high volume consumerism has failed as has been demonstrated in one way by the banking crisis (another expression of an unsustainable system). We will no doubt see more examples of this as the current systems break down over the next few years, particularly in regard to agriculture where unsustainable, high-energy consuming systems are less viable year on year. That system of economics depends on ever increasing volumes of produce (minerals, chemicals, energy, land, forests, fish etc) being consumed, feeding the profits and control to a diminishing number of those people or corporations with capital. The overall effect of this unsustainable system is wide-scale poverty, localised wealth and a disconnection of the people from the land that sustains us. In terms of consciousness development we, as a culture, could still be considered to be children and at best adolescent. We have developed a cultural system in which most of those with capital (with a few exceptions) tend to be ridden by their survival instincts and sense of entitlement and do not think wider than their own family, tribe, nation, corporation etc. This is very much an adolescent perspective. To progress we need to find a more inclusive way to operate which involves a more collective consciousness that benefits everyone in a truly holistic way, an adult way of doing business. In terms of business, social enrichment and health and especially in terms of agricultural affairs I believe CSAs offer a more mature, inclusive and sustainable way.

If you would like to find out more about CSAs please click on this link. www.soilassociation.org/CSA.aspx

Thanks to Jade Bashford of the Soil Association and Stroud Community Agriculture for her contribution to the above.

PS

On 4 May 2011 Prince Charles told a Future of Food conference at Georgetown University that in 2008 the UN had commissioned a report into farm efficiency and sustainable agriculture. http://www.georgetown.edu/story/princecharlessustainability.html. The report compiled by over 400 agronomist and scientists concluded that small, family scale farms were not only more efficient than industrial monocultures, but also gave greater support to biodiversity and benefitted the environment and community. The conclusion to this report has not been published.

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