What Is Community Supported Agriculture ?

Written By: Bronagh Ni Dhuill. Member of the Community Harvest Group Core Committee.

Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, is a concept that first began to take root in the 1960’s. One of the most well-known stories about the origins of CSAs is that of the Japanese experience. Local women were so concerned about the amount of chemicals being used to grow their vegetables that they created their own alternative. They approached a local farmer with the idea of him growing just for them in the way they wanted. A win-win situation was created that allowed the women to have confidence that their food was being produced in a healthy, chemical-free manner while the farmer knew that he had a solid consumer base for his crops and the security of knowing that they were committed to him for the entire season.

Since then CSA’s have spread all over the world, being very successful in Canada and the US. While each CSA might have their own various arrangements and set-ups, each one has certain core values that make them distinct from other vegetable box schemes.

The main driver for most people involved in the setting up of CSA’s was that they wanted to have faith in where their food came from. The 1960’s brought a huge increase in the use of pesticides and other chemicals in agriculture and many people had serious concerns about this. They wanted access to food that they knew had been grown in a chemical-free way, but as farm sizes increased and the consumers were pushed into buying veg from supermarkets, their choices were very limited.

Another problem that was becoming more noticeable around this time was the development of supersized farms that were growing one or two crops for direct sale to supermarkets. The farmers saw that this was the most viable option for them and to keep their farms in business they had to change with the times. And so farms began to grow only two or three crops to supply a specific supermarket demand. Of course this brought its own problems with it. The farmers became more reliant on the conglomerates they supplied, which in turn allowed the supermarkets to set the prices for the veg. If the farmer was unhappy with the price they had very few alternatives while the supermarkets could easily approach an-other grower.

The choice was simple, either sell your produce for our lower price or keep it. Not much of a choice at all. Over the years, generations of farmers have been growing a very small selection of veg on a very large scale, becoming more heavily dependent on both the conglomerates and chemicals. This has led to a loss of skills and knowledge. According to Bord Bia list of Horticultural-al Members there are 53 listed growers in Fingal producing their own fruit or veg. Of these growers, 21 are growing a single crop. There are only 8 farmers growing between five and eight crops. There is no-one listed that is growing a higher number of products. During our first year of the Community Harvest Group, over forty different varieties and products were grown by Paddy. He said himself that there had never been such a wide variety of food grown on the farm.

The loss of bio-diversity is yet another side-effect of growing such a small selection of veg. Where previous generations would have been used to choosing from a selection of different turnips, we have become the generation that recognises the Swede as the only turnip. At one stage the variety of each type of veg being grown was staggering, now it has been narrowed down to just one or two. Farmers in the 40’s knew that value of planting multiple species of each veg. By planting ten different varieties of peas, the grower was increasing the success of his yield. Some types thrived on rainy summers while others were resistant to different diseases. This lack of diversity now has led to some unforeseen problems. As the varieties are no longer being grown the seeds are difficult to source and therefore save, leading to the extinction of certain types of veg. Also, as exposure to chemicals has increased, both pests and diseases have begun to become immune to them, leading growers into a continuous cycle of spraying to save crops from destruction.

The change in farming over the last fifty years has been staggering, but with the many advances that have come about it has also made it more difficult for farmers to make a living from their land. For many, this meant changing into specialist areas where they focused on single crops or livestock. For others it meant leaving farming altogether. For some, it became a chance to change direction and focus on smaller production, organic growing. But making an organic farm financially viable is a challenge in itself.

Community Supported Agriculture became the peoples’ response to these situations. By committing themselves to a farmer for the entire growing season a wonderful, mutually beneficial arrangement is born. The members are confident in the source of their food, that it is grown without chemicals and has very low carbon miles because of it local nature. They develop a relationship with the very person who is producing the food for their table. The improved quality of produce, freshness and nutritional benefits are noticeable immediately. Nutritionists firmly advocate the benefits of eating seasonal food. For the farmer, having a committed consumer base adds a level of security to their business, that they know who they are growing for and that the product has a definite market. By committing to the farmer for the entire year, people are reaffirming the value we place on our growers. Also, the option of volunteering on the farm, whether during sowing, weeding or harvesting time provides a level of very personal support to the farmer and also a wonderful chance for the members to really get involved in the production of their own food.

As Community Supported Agriculture has spread around the world, the very holistic nature of the movement became clear. The Community, or members, Support both financially and physically, the agriculture, and growers in our area. By valuing the skills and knowledge of our growers we can support their businesses and ensure that we also have continued access to high quality, local, organic, seasonal food.

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