Thoughts on the

July 7, 2013

The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) idea originated in Japan when a group of women decided to try and figure out some way of supporting small, local farmers. I’m a little fuzzy on the details here this morning and I’m in no mood to go down to the library in order to get my facts straight. So both of my regular readers will just have to cut me some slack. What has come down to us is that risk sharing is the “core idea” behind the CSA movement. That is, food consumers assume some of the risk that has traditionally been borne by farmers. Farmer risk is complex, but since I’m not so complex myself, I like to focus on just two elements: 1) Weather: on the day that you plant your crop, you never know how things are going to turn out; 2) Prices: Farm commodity prices are volatile because when you have a great year in terms of weather, it’s likely that everyone else did, too. So there’s more out there than people want to eat, and tasty farm commodities—especially the fruits and vegetables—are just going to rot if they don’t get sold right away. There’s a strong tendency for farmers to drop their price to ensure that they are not stuck with rotting fruits and vegetables at the end of market day. And first thing you know, even in a bumper crop year, you’re selling stuff for less than it cost you to produce it.

Recognizing these facts, the CSA idea is to basically take risk Number 2 off the table for farmers by negotiating a price even before the crop goes in the ground. Members of the CSA make an up-front payment to the farmer that covers seed and supplies, as well as a stipend (I hesitate to call this “profit”) that will compensate the farmer for all the hard work that is required to get tasty fruits and vegetables to you throughout the growing season. My economist friends would insist that this just rearranges the risk, rather than taking it off the table, because the farmer has now forgone the opportunity to make profits above and beyond the stipend that he or she has negotiated with members of the CSA, so there will be years with the CSA farmer will “lose” relative to the farmer who is spending two or three days a week hawking their wares in a farmers’ market. But this is an excessively pecuniary way to look at the situation, and so I move on.

But we are still waiting for the other shoe to drop, which is, of course, the weather. When we have a year like last year, things don’t go so well for farmers, and if you are in a CSA, you are not very likely to have gotten more for your up-front investment than if you had held onto it until July and August, then gone to Kroger or Meijer and paid a small premium for fruits and vegetables that were being trucked in from less drought-stricken climes. Hence, there really is some “risk-sharing” at the core of the CSA idea. And here we come to the nub of today’s blog.

Some people who sign up for CSAs are down with the CSA way. They dig that risk-sharing thing, and they can accept a year like last year when the broccoli is bitter and the pickings are slim (at least until the tomatoes roll in). You chalk it up to bad luck and you feel good about the way that you are supporting a farmer. In fact, one problem for the Thornapple CSA has been that some of our members may be a little bit too “down” with that idea, by which I mean that their loyalty is to a particular farmer. And since circumstances mean that we’ve tended to change farmers every year, there have always been a bunch of people who sign up to support farmer X, and then drop out the next year when farmer X heads off to California, takes another job or some such thing and then farmer Y has to step in and take over. Need I say that this is not a particularly sustainable model from the fiscal perspective?

So one response has been to offer some “extras” (like organic strawberries) that we buy in bulk from other farmers. This is supposed to get extra income into the treasury, but when there’s a “miscommunication” (like when the grower initially says they will be $31 and then after you’ve driven a couple hundred miles to pick them up, they turn out to be $34), you may not even recover the gasoline costs when you sell them to members for $35. Another idea is to initiate mid-season half shares as a way to channel enough revenue into the coffers so that the CSA can pay the stipend agreed to back in February. It’s a great year this year, so a half share starting now is an enormously good deal for consumers. But these responses mean two things: 1) the price risk is back with a vengeance only now the farmer may not get paid at all when the CSA goes bust; and 2) the whole “risk-sharing” idea has kind of gone kaput for people who buy a mid-season share.

Now this is NOT meant to make Thornapple members feel guilty. I’m not sure that either of my regular readers is a member, in any case. But it is intended to spark some reflection (rather than reflexion) on the CSA way. More than usually, I’d love some postings in the comment box.

Paul B. Thompson is the W. K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the

  1. Paul,

    That really helped clarify the situation.

    I had assumed that one could always assume that even if the cost for members turned out to be more than shopping at the grocery store, a major benefit of CSA membership was that the products would always be superior than those available in commercial grocery stores. Maybe not.

    Ever since my days as an impressionable 9-11 year old spending summers “helping Grandpa Brown” on the farm in Cassville, I have not been able to envision any tougher, riskier enterprise than farming.. well, that’s small farming I’m talking about..

    Of course I thought that farm was vast. However.. well, when I made my nostalgic trip to Roaring River, near Cassville (that was our anniversary right after mom died…we drove to Roaring River after our wedding and reception 54 years earlier), I took a side trip out south of town and found grandpa and grandma’ old farm which of course was vastly changed.
    My gosh, 40 acres is small, compared to the size I thought it was when I was a kid. And it was only years later that I was able to envision their year round hardships, since the farm was just a summertime lark for me.

    Anyway, if cooperatives are getting like everything else… the deciding factor in joining or not is cost accounting, having little or nothing to do with appreciating the social concept and the products, I can see why cooperative farming is in trouble.. or is it just Thornapple?

    What a lesson, too and perhaps sign of the times.. the idea is “cooperation” among many. Therefore, taking sides.. support of just one farmer.. also seems another sign of the times… a distortion… how many great ideas can you name that have been ruined by distortion in the last few decades?

    And I want to comment on this statement you make:

    “I’m a little fuzzy on the details here this morning and I’m in no mood to go down to the library in order to get my facts straight. ”

    I feel so much better! I have always followed one motto: “The truth is more important than the facts.” Indeed, I don’t ever go anywhere near a library. I could not ever get close enough to the facts to get my columns published without Google.
    That is enough facts to satisfy myself (myself… a reflexive pronoun, not a reflective pronoun).

    See you soon for the big wedding and family weekend!



  2. I might not be the right person to comment; I’m not a CSA member, and whatever I don’t grow, harvest or run down with the pickup I buy from Whole Foods Market. When I think ‘CSA’, though, I don’t think of financial risk-sharing — what immediately comes to mind is the ‘who’s your farmer?’ slogan. Seems to me that the CSA culture is one in which some people (the members) are trying to get more ‘real’ regarding food: eating food grown by a familiar-ish group of people rather than that uniform and forgettable stuff manufactured by a faceless corporation. Other people involved in the CSA (the farmers and others involved in the growing and distribution and promotion and blogging and I won’t even guess what else is involved) are also trying to get more ‘real’ regarding food: growing authentic food (bitter though it sometimes may be) on a piece of land that might have a history with or at least an attachment to the group who farms it, and growing that food for people (the members) to whom they feel a responsibility over and above simply giving those members the minimum product that will keep the money coming in, and getting their satisfaction from doing something good rather than doing something profitable.

    I think that cashing out the CSA idea in terms of financial self-interest looks good on paper (or on the monitor, such as it is), but doesn’t jibe with, well, the typical behavior of real people. Most folks I bump into (and myself) seem to have two basic sets of financial behavior: usually they buy that which appears to them to be the cheapest (if you throw ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ into a crowded room, chances are good it will stick to someone appropriate), or — regarding something about which a person ‘geeks out’ to a greater or lesser degree — they damn the pecuniary torpedoes and steam full speed ahead, spending like a drunken sailor. CSAs need folks who geek out over CSAs, and if those who so geek out feel good about risk-sharing, then all that much better.


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