By Evelyn Kalka
“What is a CSA, and why should I care?” Fair question! Community Supported Agriculture, in its true form, is a way to produce nourishing and flavorful food that is financially feasible for farmers. Diverse, small to mid-scale, organic and regenerative farms have an uphill battle competing in today’s industrialized food system. You might call them the Don Quixotes of food production. To create a CSA, you need a community of individuals to partner with a farm, signing up for a season of mutual support. The core of the CSA concept is the direct connection between the farm and its members. No middlemen. Members purchase a share of the farm’s produce in advance of the season. This allows the farmer to pay wages and purchase seeds and equipment without costly loans. Members share in the success as well as the risks of the farm and receive food of a quality unmatched by today’s conventional food systems, even “organic.” The direct bond between the community and the farm, and the commitment that comes with it, allows CSA farmers to be the rebels of the food system and focus on flavor and nutrition, re-building the soil as they go along.
But removing the middlemen from the equation does not benefit the middlemen. Thus, the term “CSA” is often mis-used by buying clubs or other entities that resell products sourced from various farms in various places and of various integrity. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a transparent buying club or with other alternative food distribution systems. But we should try to stay true to labels and use “CSA” only for systems without middlemen, since they maintain the direct connection between community and farm. This bond defines a real CSA.
CSAs first sprang up in New England in the 1980s in reaction to the conventional food system that, to maximize profits, depleted the soil and excluded farmers from fair access to the consumer market. The first CSAs leaned heavily on ideas like the concept of Teikei from Japan and communal agriculture concepts developed in Switzerland and Germany, but maybe more directly on ideas of African-American agriculturalist Booker T. Whatley from Alabama, whose work in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s led to various alternative farming models that side-step modern corporate food production and distribution systems. Whatley, who received his doctorate in horticulture from Rutgers University, described “Clientele Membership Clubs,” as “the lifeblood of the [farm]. It enables the farmer to plan production, anticipate demand, and, of course, have a guaranteed market. The farmer has to seek out people—city folks, mostly—to be members of the club.”
A city is always larger than its official boundaries. Urban centers traditionally connected to and drew on the resources of the nearby countryside. In 1899, for example, the City of Newark acquired land about an hour northwest of its borders to secure watersheds in the Jersey Highlands, supplying the city with incredible water that once made Newark nationally famous as a brewing city. In return, that land 50 miles out is still protected and pristine. Cities are never islands. The land sustains the city and, in turn, the city supports the land.
Whatley also advocated for regenerative farming, which is a sustainable farming method beyond organic. Regenerative farming focuses on nourishment of the soil, which in turn nourishes the produce grown in it. Until about 150 years ago, this quality of food was available to everyone, but today it is nearly impossible to find. ‘But you can buy organic at most supermarkets!’ you say? Yes, but most organic foods come from large, monoculture fields, often in California. Swapping out chemical fertilizer with a natural source of fertility and switching to naturally derived insecticides are steps in the right direction, but unless you are focusing on rebuilding the soil and biodiversity that makes truly living soil, the food will not be nourishing the way it was prior to the advent of corporate industrial farming.
The author organizes CSA Newark, which runs weekly pickups in the Ironbound, starting in June. For more information, visit csanewark.com.
Featured image by CSA Newark