Community Sponsored Agriculture: Game Changer or Afterthought?

Image courtesy Sweet Miriam’s Farm

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to it’s liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.” — Thomas Jefferson, to John Jay, 1785.

The prosperity of commerce is now perceived and acknowledged by all enlightened statesmen to be the most useful as well as the most productive source of national wealth . . .”  — Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 12, 1787.

The tension between the industry- and agriculture-focused systems for which Hamilton and Jefferson respectively advocated resolved itself fairly early in Hamilton’s favor.  Following the Civil War, America’s future as an industrial and financial powerhouse seemed assured, and the Great Depression appeared to put the last nails in the coffin of the small family farms of America.  In recent years, however, the dissatisfaction of a small-but-growing minority with globalized urban life has bloomed into a very energetic Community Supported Agriculture (“CSA”) movement in America.  The CSA movement is driven by the desire to provide local, sustainably grown food to those seeking an alternative to the environmentally-unfriendly and often inhumane practices of corporate agriculture.  The phenomenon is described in some depth in Michael Pollan’s book, Omnivore’s Dilemma; and in the recently released documentary Greenhorns, about the eponymous network of new small farmers.  The growing movement depends particularly heavily on this latter demographic of novice farmers.

Despite the movement’s focus on — and success in maintaining — ecological sustainability, CSA has demonstrated worrying evidence that it may not be economically sustainable.  The inefficiencies of many of these new farms, the sheer volume of unpaid labor required to make harvests workable, and the need for small farmers to take off-farm work to make ends meet seems to indicate that CSA moves forward on the most tenuous of footing, driven primarily by the sheer energy of its sellers and relative financial stability of its buyers.  Reasons for this include barriers to entry, educational deficiencies, market limitations, and the near-fundamentalist environmental focus of the movement.  Thankfully, however, most of these problems can be easily fixed with an increased focus on nurturing farmers at the early stages of their careers.

I.  The Signs

One of the clearest signs that the CSA movement has taken root in shaky ground is the inefficiency of small-farm business models, particularly among the self-styled “greenhorns.”  Despite a wealth of CSA-sponsored materials claiming the contrary, small-farming is, as one farmer put it, “a fundamentally inefficient thing to do.”[1]  For example, there is substantially higher overhead for ten live-on farms that are 40 acres apiece than for one 400 acre property; clearly small farms don’t benefit from economies of scale the same way larger operations do, typically leading to substantially higher prices for CSA-grown produce.  Large-scale farming also paradoxically allows a degree of specialization that local, CSA farming does not.  As the Freakonomics blog suggests, if State A can grow 400 units of potatoes to State B’s 100, and State B can grow 400 units of okra to State A’s 100, it would be a massively inefficient use of land for each state to divide its own crop evenly between potatoes and okra just to guarantee “local production.” At least half of each state’s arable land would be operating at only 25% of its potential.  Ethical concerns and the disparity in ecological impact between small and large farms may suggest intangible benefits to the CSA model, but without a reconceptualization of value in the world of farming the economic contrast appears starkly to favor large farms.

The typical CSA labor model is also a source of inefficiency.  Just under half of CSAs hire between zero and three paid laborers.  No data is kept on unpaid interns, but extensive anecdotal evidence suggests that many, if not most new farmers start through unpaid internships, and a large portion of farmers rely heavily on unpaid labor in the form of interns, volunteers, and shareholders to sustain operations that could not otherwise cover the cost of labor.  In many cases, these internships are illegal; regardless, they suggest serious underlying problems with the industry.  While unpaid internships may be a mutually beneficial arrangement — and indeed, may be the best or only way for interested young people to get involved in farming in the absence of well-designed small farm management programs — the fact that CSA is so dependent on unpaid labor indicates an unsustainable income model.

Many farms do not generate enough income to support themselves on farming alone, highlighting weaknesses in income production.  One survey by the University of Wisconsin reports a median income of $15,000 a year for CSA farms; sixty-four percent reported income less than $40,000 a year.  Thirty-eight percent of respondents reported off-farm income of more than $10,000 a year.  Reliance on non-farm income is a point of some concern; for a farm to be truly sustainable economically, the operation needs to be self-sufficient, covering its own costs with its own revenues.  Otherwise, CSA becomes entirely dependent on the non-agricultural job market, which is often weak or unpredictable in the rural areas where small agricultural is focused.

II. The Problems

The inefficiencies described above are symptoms of deep problems underlying the industry.  The first obstacle that most new small farmers will encounter is educational.  The agricultural education system in America is driven by industrial-scale farming operations.  Monsanto, for example, donates heavily to 4-H programs for educational programs for young farmers, and recently donated an endowed chair for the Agricultural Communications program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.  However, the concerns and educational requirements of large operations are completely different from the concerns of small farms.  CSA farms are minimally mechanized, grow diverse crops, focus heavily on crop rotation to maximize the utility of small land parcels, and operate a completely different marketing network and sales model.  Small business owners in this country frequently attend business programs at either community colleges or four-year institutions, but the opportunities for small farmers are very limited; most education for new farmers comes from the unpaid internship programs mentioned above, rather than formal training programs.

Beyond the educational hurdle, financial barriers to entry create significant problems for most, if not all, small farmers.  Loans provided by the US Department of Agriculture are typically only available to start-up farms in the 300-400+ acre range, and small business loans — issued either by the government or by private lenders — are not open to farmers.  Private lenders typically do not issue loans to small farms because they are unwilling to make farm loans on terms they see as functionally equivalent to mortgages; conversely, mortgages are not available because new farmers need larger loans to buy land and a home than they would just to purchase a home, and with unproven incomes they do not qualify under mortgage criteria.  In short, both public and private lenders have established a system that locks out small farmers.

Cultural prejudices, held by foodies and farmers alike, are a deeply entrenched obstacle to the success of sustainable agriculture.  For some CSA farmers, to prioritize economic efficiency over environmental sustainability would miss the point of the entire enterprise.   These farmers will not put the sustainability of their enterprise ahead of even the most incremental of environmental compromises.  This fundamentalist approach is understandable to an extent; opening the door to money-over-Mother Nature looks a lot like giving over and becoming a mini-Monsanto.  The geographic distribution of the buy-local consumer culture creates its own problems; many CSA shareholders are in cities, while farms are by necessity located in rural areas.  The rich farmland of southern Idaho, for example, is home to many CSAs, but towns like Boise are home to only a small minority of buy-local consumers.  Without a Big Ag-like distribution network — seen as a compromise of Earth-First values — the lack of established farm-to-market distribution is a significant obstacle.

III.  The Solutions

Guaranteeing the future of community-supported agriculture in the United States is a goal that should find support among Americans of all political stripes.  Republicans should embrace small agriculture the same way they have touted small business; most agricultural activity is centered in states that consistently vote Republican, so this would also be politically advantageous.  Liberals already support CSA; the politics and aesthetics of the movement match well with the culture of the left.  The Obama administration has pledged to further enhance the productivity of the rural economy, protect farmers from the volatility of the market, and to promote local and regional food markets, a goal the White House has specifically oriented toward community-supported agriculture.  These goals require multiple mutually-reinforcing steps to achieve.

Education initiatives are the first step in developing a more solid foundation for CSA.  More and better education programs focused specifically on small-farm management and agricultural techniques would boost efficiency even more than new technology regardless of farmer experience. This would serve multiple benefits: reassuring financiers of investment value, improving yields and profitability, enhancing stability, and decreasing operating costs for example — all without the need for new equipment or technology. Increased efficiency directly correlates with improved profit margins, and could spur innovation that could potentially overcome some of the previously-mentioned cultural hurdles by providing avenues to protect profit margins without compromising the environment.

Federally- and privately-sponsored funding initiatives, as well as new market innovations, are key in supporting the CSA movement.  Federal loans, even for small operations, are currently focused at farms larger than the average CSA.  A USDA report remarks that beginning, “family-size” farmers are a very small segment of agricultural loan recipients; inadequate data exists to establish a sample size, but fewer than a quarter of novice small farmers participate in other government-sponsored commodity programs.  This should change, whether by decreasing the size threshold for USDA loans or by expanding Small Business Administration loan programs to provide funding for small farms.  American agriculture and business policies currently treat industrial-scale and CSA farming as entirely separate; the time may have arrived for a more integrated approach.  The same applies to small banks.  New loans categories should be created for small farms that recognize and address the fundamentally different nature of live-on agricultural operations.  Tax deductions for CSA investors could provide incentives for sustainable food consumption; the government already encourages citizens to buy green cars and invest in renewable energy, so why not take a more active role in encouraging people to buy shares in their local CSA?

Caring for CSA is important, and will require a lot from farmers, buyers, financiers, and the government. Despite serious problems with their business model, the fact remains that Community Supported Agriculture is more ecologically sustainable than traditional Big-Agriculture.  It serves a valuable purpose by bringing sustainable living to the kitchen table, where it has the potential to become an integral part of family life.  Improving and maintaining a sustainable food chain will go a long way toward developing environmentally friendly values in this country, and is a goal everyone should be able to agree with.

[1] Ben James, Worth, in Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers, p. 60.