How did CSA start?
Community Supported Agriculture emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s in several places around the world. It’s impossible to credit one country or person with the invention of CSA. In each case, the emphasis on a local food economy was a response to the increasingly-understood negative effects of industrialized agriculture.
In the early 1970s, Japanese citizens were becoming increasingly frustrated with contamination in their food supply. Mercury contamination in Minimata Bay, fraud in organic labeling, and nuclear power plant explosions drove people to search for a safer way to obtain food that circumvented the commercial food system, and provided food that was not chemically tainted. Some 200 Tokyo housewives sat down with local dairy farmers to discuss risk vs. reward: if the farmers promised to deliver “clean” food, the housewives’ families, in return, would pay the farmers directly and at the beginning of the season. Being intentionally designed, the new enterprise also included concepts such as self-distribution and assistance with farm labor. “Teikei” can be translated as “contract” or “food with a face”, illustrating a direct relationship between the farmer and the consumer.
At the same time, in Germany, Trauger Groh, a biodynamic farmer and agrarian, had been studying the work of Rudolph Steiner, an early 20th century philosopher that advanced the ideas of “associative economics”. Parallel to Teikei, associative economics emphasizes development of a marketplace that consciously coordinates consumers, producers, and distributors. It suggests the guiding principle in developing business enterprises should be how human beings’ needs are met, rather than how to drive profit.
Buschberghof farm, near Hamburg, was converted from a private farm to a Community Land Trust in reflection of these principles; with the land held in trust it was guaranteed to be farmed biodynamically in perpetuity, and decisions about the farm would be made by a committee of farmers and citizens. Wanting to establish an economy in solidarity between the farmers and the community, Groh and his colleagues started a CSA program at the farm in 1988. Many CSA programs in Europe and the United States have used Groh’s system as a model for their own.
NEW ENGLAND, USA
Simultaneously, farmers in the United States were conceptualizing how to produce organic food for their communities in a way that wouldn’t put the farmers out of business; the “efficiencies” of industrial agriculture had undercut food prices so much that organic farming was a near-impossible venture. In 1986, Robyn Van En, incorporating Teikei, Steiner’s principles, and the small-scale economic theories of E. F. Schumacher, developed a CSA program at Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts to provide organic food to the local community while balancing the financial burden between the farmer and the consumers. Temple-Wilton Community Farm also established their CSA program that year in New Hampshire.
The industrialization of agriculture also served to move farmland out of the hands of family farmers into consolidated, corporate-owned mega-farms. Mechanizing farm labor eliminated a major source of employment, particularly in the American South, and was a primary driver for the Great Migration of Black Americans from the farmland (that had been “promised" to them after emancipation) into large cities. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the number of farms owned by Black families plummeted.
Booker T. Whatley was a professor, horticulturalist, and lawyer. He also served in the Army in the Korean War, where he was assigned to run a hydroponic farm in Japan to serve safe food to US troops. Dr. Whatley developed a Diversified Plan for Small Farms, which outlined his “10 Commandments” on how to run a farm that could be profitable business. An underpinning of his philosophy was that the farmers should utilize the farm’s own internal resources — sun, soil, rain, air, plants, animals, people — to maximize output in a regenerative manner. He advocated for Clientele Membership Clubs (analogous to CSA), and other ideas like Pick-Your-Own produce, growing high-value crops that members want (rather than grain), insuring your farm, and having farm members assist with the farm maintenance and harvest.
The CSA movement around the world grew from the deep concern people have for growing and consuming healthy, safely-grown food, in a way that allows farmers to stay in business. As more people learn about the food system, interest in CSA continues to grow, and the number of farms offering memberships increases. CSA farms have continued to drive creative innovation to meet the evolving challenges of our world: from testing weather-resistant vegetable varieties, to offering different sized shares for different sized families, to figuring out how to get organic vegetables to low-income people. Given the current climate of challenges that tear at our moral fiber, being part of a community built around a healthy, sustainable food supply is nourishing for both the mind and the body.