Community Supported Agriculture

The Cost of Food Straight from the Farm

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is changing the American agriculture scene, but that change doesn’t come easily.

Farming has been a backbone of American economy for much of this country’s history. But the duty of feeding the nation is changing, and farming practices are changing along with it.

Industrial agriculture — massive, single crop farms and animal production facilities — was a concept developed and implemented in the years following World War II as an answer to a rapidly growing and hungry population. But the effects of industrial farming on the environment, public health and the business of farming itself have been harmful to say the least. Farmers and scientists alike have called for a reformation of the way food is produced and distributed, in a way that supports rural farming and local economies, access to healthy food, and growing practices that sustain the future of the earth.

What is a CSA?

organic food straight from the CSA farmCommunity Supported Agriculture (CSA) has risen up to meet this challenge. First documented in the United States in 1986, CSA farming was developed to directly connect the farmer and the consumer. Consumers, called CSA members, pay farmers before the season begins, providing the farmer with working capital, then farmers in turn provide members with weekly produce during the farming season.

“The reason that CSA was started was to create this commitment between the consumer and the farmer to provide a source of income at the beginning of the year when most farmers don’t have any money,” said Liz Graznak, a CSA farmer in Jamestown, Missouri. “Supplies need to be purchased, seeds need to be purchased, equipment needs to be repaired, in order to get ready for the season. There’s this huge requirement of income at the beginning of the year… So that’s where the customers come in, by paying up front.”

At the beginning of the farming year, most farmers don’t have the money they need to complete important and necessary tasks on the farm, because they haven’t made money off their harvest yet. As a result, farmers often take out loans for this money. The CSA farming model instead provides farmers with this working capital up front, decreasing reliance on loans and increasing monetary stability.

Graznak owns and runs Happy Hollow Farm, a CSA and certified organic farm in northern Moniteau County in mid-Missouri. She saved up money for four years at what she called her “real” job at Superior Garden Center in Columbia, Missouri. She then purchased land and starting farming full time in 2010. Her journey, said Graznak, is similar to that of most young farmers.

“Land is very expensive. Most young people would be in the same position that I was in,” said Graznak. “It’s not unusual that a young person doesn’t have a lot of money, and they don’t have any equity because a bank isn’t going to give them a loan. What would they use as collateral? I think with all young people, you have to do something to either earn money or equity in order to be able to borrow money to buy land.”

Barriers to entry are some of the most difficult problems young farmers face today. Access to land and money to buy that land are increasingly difficult to come by. This is where CSA steps in once again.

Mark Paul, a PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, conducted a case study in 2014 in partnership with Ecotrust and Economics for Equity and Environment. In the study, Paul interviewed 16 CSA farmers from Massachusetts about their farming practices, the influence of CSA on their communities and businesses, as well as the challenges CSA presents. Among the many findings throughout the study, Paul found that CSA helps new farmers gain entry to the business by “improving access to land, and improving farm viability on limited acreage.”

CSA members support the farm startup


Challenges of CSA farming

CSA is not without costs and challenges. Farming in general is a risky business, but CSA farmers and consumers both accept unique risks.

“A CSA member [consumer] accepts a little bit of that risk associated with farming by paying up front,” said Graznak. “It’s a commitment that they’re making between themselves and the farmer. But the farmer has a huge responsibility on their shoulders to not take advantage of the fact that they’ve received this money upfront.”

Graznak says she does her best to plan for risk.

“A good farmer will have a huge variety of things planted and will know how to make sure to alleviate some of the risk,” she said. “There’s a lot I can do to prepare for too much rain, or drought, or potential bug infestations, or fungus, or blight. Those types of things come with experience and having the right infrastructure and knowledge of how to deal with those types of issues.”

Another challenge facing CSA farmers and farmers in general, is the struggle to make an actual living wage. In research conducted by Paul in the CSA case study, Paul details that the price of a CSA share is determined by “cost of production on the farm, including a living wage for the farmer[s], which takes into account the average wage of members.” Yet, of the 16 farmers that Paul interviewed, 81 percent responded that their full-time farming was not producing a living wage.

However, CSA farms do provide higher average farm incomes than USDA averages. The median farm income of CSA farmers interviewed was $1,280 above the nationwide average reported by the USDA, but this still doesn’t amount to a living wage.

Graznak pays her six part-time and full-time employees and does not pay herself, and her farm broke even for the first time last year — the farm’s fifth year in business.

“Anybody that wants to get into doing what I do should not do it if they want to make money, because they won’t,” said Graznak. “They need to do it because they love it, and they love the life that you can have farming, but not if you think that you’re going to make a lot of money.”

Graznak also makes money from selling produce at the local farmer’s market, as well as selling wholesale to local grocers and restaurants. She says about 60 percent of her income comes from the CSA shares and about 40 percent comes from off-farm sales. CSA farmers and non-CSA farmers alike often rely on off-farm income, like sales from farmer’s markets and wholesale, to supplement on-farm income, money directly made through farming.

As far as labor, the CSA model varies from farm to farm. Some farms, like Graznak’s, require members to contribute work shifts on the farm as payment in addition to their up-front fee.

“My goal in having members fill work shifts is to get them to the farm and to get them, briefly, to experience a little bit of what it takes to grow the food that they’re eating and that they receive packed in their boxes every week,” said Graznak.

Most other CSA farms don’t require members to contribute work shifts. Internships and apprenticeships also contribute to the labor that needs to be done. Farms do hire paid employees, but with every hired employee, they face the problem of paying them a fair wage and keeping the cost of farm shares reasonable and accessible.

Ensuring community access to healthy food is another struggle that CSA farmers face; it’s a catch-22 of needing to pay workers and themselves a fair wage, but wanting shares to be affordable and accessible for lower income families.

Graznak offers a reduced rate share on her farm, and says one CSA member came up with the idea of creating a fund for lower income families. Other CSA members donated, creating a pool of money set aside for anybody who wanted to join but couldn’t afford it.

Other CSA farms have adopted similar low-rate payment plans. In the CSA case study, Paul cited previous research that found 56 percent of CSAs offer some form of low-payment program.

The future of farming

From two CSA farms in 1986 to 6,200 farms in 2014 — with at least one in each state — CSA farming has grown rapidly and continues to do so. As part of the local food movement, CSA is attempting to change the culture of cheap food in the United States.

“Our business is an exceptional one; it’s a challenging one,” said Graznak. “In the general populace, the notion that food is cheap and that food should be cheap exists. And that’s a very hard way to make a living.”

The USDA recommends that our diet be comprised of 50 percent fruits and vegetables, but fresh fruit and vegetable farmers receive only one percent of total government subsidies. The rest goes to commodity crops like soybeans and corn.

Graznak has received government assistance from the National Resource Conservation Service.

“I’m beyond grateful,” said Graznak. “I’ve been able to do things that I would not have ever been able to do because I would not have had the capital to do them. But the amount that I receive is pennies compared to the big growers.”

Going forward, Graznak says consumers must make different choices about their food in order for farming to truly change.

“The future of farming depends on the consumer,” said Graznak. “It doesn’t depend on people like me. It depends on what consumers start to realize is important, and start to put money where their mouth is. Without consumers to support me, and other farmers that are doing what I’m doing, then people aren’t going to do what I do. We could have all the farmers in the world, and without consumers, it doesn’t matter.”

Community supported agriculture, by definition, requires the help and input of the community to survive. As consumers, we have the power to choose where we get our food. We have the ability to change food policy and change the way we impact the earth. Buying food from farmers like Graznak and spending Saturday mornings at the farmer’s market are small steps toward changing the way our nation eats.

If you change what you bring to your table, you play a role in changing how it gets there.

Source: The Riviter Magazine

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