As the virus has small, local farms scrambling for income streams, community-supported agriculture (CSA) is one way to support them.
By April M. Short
The global outbreak of COVID-19, and the collective effort to slow down the spread of the virus, has many people reassessing how they should get their food. The crowds passing through grocery stores lead to the stores becoming potential germ-spreading zones, and ordering food is less cost-efficient and comes with the environmental impacts of delivery drivers and packaging.
Meanwhile, as farmers markets and many restaurants have closed their doors, many farms across the U.S. are struggling to stay afloat. In order to fill in the gaps in sales in light of the coronavirus, farms across the country are getting innovative with efforts like drive-through farmers markets and farm-to-car pickup programs. And, many community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs—in which customers pre-purchase shares in local farmers’ crops—are piquing interest.
The CSA model directly connects food producers (farms) with consumers. Typical shares often include a variety of fruits and veggies, and sometimes meats, eggs, and dairy products. CSA members can pick up their shares at a farm or other given locations throughout a season as local farmers harvest and prepare their offerings. CSAs cut out the middle man, in a sense, and connect the public directly with the farmers growing their food.
CSAs in the U.S. took off in part due to the boom of industrialized agriculture following the Great Depression, explains Holly Hutchason, executive director of the Portland Area CSA Coalition in Oregon. While the agriculture boom was effective in feeding the masses, concerns began to grow over some of the harmful techniques employed in the name of quick production in these large, industrial farms—like the use of toxic chemical sprays, seeds bred to resist herbicides and pesticides and monocropping techniques draining the soil of nutrients. As spotlighted by the March Against Monsanto movement, which began in May 2013, many of the same problems of sustainability and health remain rampant in the mainstream agriculture world today. And, the treatment and working conditions of farm laborers, many of whom are immigrants, on large-scale farms are often deplorable, as highlighted by the current international crisis of COVID-19, as farmworkers, essential workers, lack basic protections.
Around the time that many were beginning to question these mass industrialized farming practices in the 1950s, Booker T. Whatley, a black agriculture professor at Tuskegee University in Alabama and early pioneer of sustainable agriculture and regenerative farming, became concerned with an emerging trend of industrialized agriculture forcing black farm owners and laborers off of their land. Several CSA-style cooperative farming programs emerged throughout the ’40s and ’50s, and a simultaneous CSA-like program, Teikei, was born in Japan around the same time. However, Whatley is largely credited with founding the modern CSA model in the U.S., offering this entrepreneurial option to small farm operators who would otherwise be trampled by the emergence of Big Ag.
Hutchason says since the pandemic began, there has been a significant boost in sales of CSA shares throughout the Portland area among the 60 farms that make up the Portland Area CSA Coalition, adding that another local farm joined the very week of our interview. She says colleagues from around the country are reporting similar trends. While she has not done any exit interviews, she says she assumes the spike has to do with the novel coronavirus.
“People are thinking about shorter supply chains, and who is handling their food, what safety precautions are they taking, right?” she says. “I think a big part of it, too, is that in a time of crisis like this… when you know the people that are growing your food, it gives you a lot more confidence. In a grocery store, there’s a lot of anonymity over where the food came from and how it got to you. But with CSA, that’s gone. You know, there’s just no question.”
She says the benefits of supporting local CSA programs are many.
Wen-Jay Ying, who founded Local Roots, a CSA program in New York City, says due to the pandemic, people have been standing outside in lines in the cold for hours at a time to buy groceries since the lockdown due to coronavirus began. She says CSA share purchases have increased noticeably, but her business is scrambling to reshape its model to one based in delivery. Before the pandemic, they’ve traditionally encouraged the community-building aspects of in-person pick-ups. They’ve hired additional staff to pack and deliver their goods and continue to work out the logistics and safety of the new model.
Ying says many of the farms that contribute goods to the Local Roots CSA have lost large portions of their usual revenue streams after restaurants closed down indefinitely.
“A lot of farmers are feeling intimidated because it’s like they’re grounded. It’s like they’re in day one of their business again, and there’s obviously financial loss,” Ying says. “Everyone who’s still operating is really just trying to reinvent themselves quickly, and being optimistic and resilient.”
Ying says Local Roots has begun donating some vegetables to restaurant owners who have been laid off, and customers with the means to do so have offered to donate their CSA shares to people in need, and others have offered to donate packing boxes to her business.
“In a crisis, it feels good to know that there… [is] this close-knit feeling of support we have for each other,” Ying says, adding that supporting local food grown on small farms in nutrient-rich soil is beneficial not just to local economies, but to personal health.
“If we’re talking about staying healthy, keeping our immune system up, we have to also be talking about how food is medicine, how you should be eating really fresh, nutrient-dense produce right now,” she says. “I love New York. I’ve lived here for 14 years, and [Local Roots] is my love letter to the city. I can see that the city that has so much, but the one thing centrally missing is really good food and access to, even, the awareness and knowledge that there is a different kind, the real kind of food that we need to be eating. The more we support local farmers, the healthier our bodies are and the healthier the land is and the healthier our communities.”
Looking to the future, the inevitability of climate change will necessitate more sustainable food models. Rather than shipping mass-produced food thousands of miles, our food systems will likely benefit from more localized and community-supported food sources.
Thea Maria Carlson, executive director of the Biodynamic Association, says the CSA model is naturally self-sustaining and says the first CSAs in the U.S. were biodynamic farms. The term biodynamic refers to a model of farming that incorporates holistic, ecological and ethically-rooted practices, founded on the work of philosopher and scientist Dr. Rudolf Steiner.
“Biodynamics is really the idea of the farm as a living organism and having a co-creative relationship with the Earth and the land, and creating something that is self-sustaining and regenerative,” Carlson says. “The original impulse on the biodynamic farms that were doing CSA, was in the idea that you were making an investment so that the farm could exist, and then the farm was sharing its abundance with you.”
She notes that Temple Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire is an example of this kind of supportive, community-interested CSA model.
Carlson notes that many CSA programs seek to support community members who might struggle financially with concepts like “solidarity shares” in which people with more resources purchase shares not just for their own families but for other families’ shares.
Many CSA programs, as well as farmers markets, accept Food Stamp benefits. In Portland, for example, Hutchason says the CSA Coalition handles the SNAP benefits program (Oregon’s food stamp program) on behalf of all of its farms so that farmers don’t have to deal with the added paperwork and can more easily support low-income community members. They also participate in a state-funded program called Double Up Food Bucks, which allows farmers to offer their shares to SNAP participants at an even more discounted rate.
In light of the current pandemic and increased attention on how and where people get their food, many with the means to do so are planting their own food, and the internet is abuzz with a resurgence of victory gardens.
Carlson says more people planting food is one way to promote long-term local food community resilience.
“In the Biodynamics Membership Association, about 40 percent of our members identify as farmers, about 40 percent identify as gardeners, so we have a lot of people in the organization who are growing their own foods. … I think that’s a really important piece of building that resilience for people, growing their own food,” Carlson says. “Of course there is a place for national distribution of certain things, but we think there’s a lot that could really build resilience, ecologically and socially and economically, by focusing on the localization and relationship building,” Carlson says. “I think CSAs certainly are a piece of that. I think [there are] other interesting models people are developing for larger-scale regional food systems.”
April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.