Community Supported Agriculture and the Future of Farm Livelihoods

By Mark Paul

Mark Paul Food

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms are expanding at a rapid pace, with operations in every state and a six-fold increase in farms since 2001, but it is questionable whether this innovative farming model is delivering the goods. Proponents claim CSAs are an active process of re-embedding market exchanges in social relations, with benefits to the local food economy that include the availability of healthy fresh local produce, sustainable agriculture production, increase in biodiversity, regional economic development through sustainable supply chains, and a vibrant community space that promotes the sharing of knowledge, ideas, and leisure. But is the CSA delivering on these promises?

First, let’s briefly discuss what the CSA model theoretically entails. Originally the CSA model set out to align the interest of members seeking fresh, sustainable, local food, with farmers seeking to sustain themselves on a relatively small plot of land by engaging in high diversity land intensive production destined for their neighbors. In theory, a farmer decides they can provide sustenance for perhaps 100 families a year. They determine the cost of production, including a living wage for farmer and workers, and then divide total farm costs by the 100 families that become ‘shareholders’ of the farm. Members pay up front for their share, providing working capital for the farm. Through purchasing a share, members don’t receive a fixed amount of produce; rather they receive a share of the harvest. By purchasing a share, “[members] are taking a risk with us on the farm,” (CSA Farmer) representing an important risk hedging strategy for many CSA farms since they don’t qualify for federal crop insurance or subsidy programs. Thus, the CSA provides farmers with working capital, secure markets, and a way to hedge their risk, while members receive their fresh, local, sustainable produce while receiving additional non-market value from supporting their local farmer.

The theory sounds good, but how is this playing out in the field? Although previous research is scarce, a national study in 2001 by Lass et al. found nationally 96% of CSA farms operate organically, or as many of them like to put it “beyond organic”, engaging in growing practices that are far more stringent than the USDA regulation. Promote environmental stewardship? Check. Furthermore, the local food economy topped $4.8 billion in sales in 2008 and farms engaging in the local food economy produced 50% more jobs per dollar than farms not engaged in local markets. Promote economic development? I’d say so.

But how about providing livelihoods for farmers and workers? A recent NYT article emphasized the failure of most farmers in garnering a living wage. As a member of E3 Network’s Future Economy Team I’ve been conducting interviews with CSA farmers across three counties in Massachusetts, a hotbed for CSA activity, to explore the effects of operating a CSA on farm livelihoods. Thus far one thing is clear, farmers are not bringing home the bacon. As one CSA farmer put it, after he had “figured everything out, I made $2.24 an hour.” While discussing wages, another farmer told me, “what was that saying from the depression? ‘We had everything but money.’ That’s farming.” Not only could farmers not provide themselves with living wages, but also they expressed concerns regarding fair compensation for interns, a crucial source of farm labor.

Regarding their labor force, CSAs rely frequently on intern labor to perform the farms daily activities. Many farmers take a profound interest in their interns, providing them with a unique learning experience. Traditionally, a patriarchal intergenerational transfer of knowledge and goods dominated the United States agricultural sector, though this system has clearly deteriorated. As young farmers lack the knowledge and land to enter farming, internships provide many eager young farm entrants with an invaluable education, setting them on their path to become a successful farmer. Other farmers view these interns as a cheap source of labor that provides the CSA, a labor-intensive farming model, the necessary hands to cultivate. Thus, the jury is still out, are internships on CSA farms a worthy educational experience, or an exploitative feudal system?

If this is the case, why don’t farmers just raise the price of their shares to reflect a living wage? After all, a previous study found CSA shares where cheaper than procuring the same produce at local, regional, and national conventional chains and regional organic chains. Farmers explained they couldn’t raise prices anymore, as many of them were still trying to grow their CSA customer base. Additionally, no farmers interviewed thus far believed their CSA is accessible to low income consumers, providing a significant moral dilemma for the farmers and local food movement as a whole.

CSAs are an exciting part of the future economy. As consumer demand increasingly changes the agricultural landscape, it’s imperative that we evaluate these new models to ensure the future economy is taking us where we want to go. The analytic framework developed by E3 economists provides an opportunity to systematically evaluate these future economy initiatives, and observe the inevitable challenges that will arise. For CSAs the major challenge appears to be fair compensation for farmer and laborer alike, while ensuring accessibility to all. Let us not stop short in shaping the future economy, we can ensure good food includes fair labor practices.

This also appeared on the E3 Network’s blog.