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Minnesota 2020 Journal: The CSA Path to Greatness

April 05, 2013 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

I renewed my CSA subscription. It’s my modest step toward eating better, living more responsibly, moving Minnesota forward and saving the planet. That’s a lot to pack into a weekly produce box but between the two of us, Norm-the-Grower and me, we’re up to the challenge.

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It’s a small produce grower financing and marketing model emphasizing the small. CSAs offer an alternative to commodity-growing agriculture and traditional truck farming. The CSA model is intriguingly different. It also has its problems.

I grew up on a southwestern Minnesota farm. My folks raised cattle and hogs and grew corn and soybeans with just enough alfalfa and oats to keep three horses happy. Grains and livestock are commodities because they’re fungible. Corn is corn. Beans are beans. The market pays by the bushel with no regard or premium for the individual grower.

Growing commodities requires mastering economies of scale, maximizing yield, minimizing costs and leveraging investments. Our point-of-grain-sale was the Walnut Grove Farmers’ Elevator. Our thousands of bushels joined indistinguishable millions sluicing into industrial processing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for large-scale food manufacturing. This industry, dominated by big names like General Mills and Cargill, efficiently transforms agricultural commodities into attractive, tasty, shelf-stabilized, smartly packaged, extraordinarily cheap calories not to mention non-food applications. Corn, through corn sweetener, may be inflating waistlines but it’s also an efficient renewable resource.

The CSA model is also not the truck farmer’s life although it bears similarity. Truck farmers, also called market gardeners, produce vegetables for prompt consumption. Corn and soybeans, although they store well, require additional processing before they become dinner. Lettuce, after washing, is immediately ready for the salad bowl although lettuce has a limited storage life. Lettuce, at least locally-grown Minnesota lettuce, is available less than half the year. Much of what you see in the supermarket’s produce section comes from southern states and Mexico. Trucking, the interstate highway system and market demand make produce available to us year-round. Even farmers market growers can’t overcome winter.

Market garden growers don’t pre-sell produce shares; CSA growers do. The CSA model is designed to help small growers overcome limited access to capital, reducing barriers to business entry. The whole idea is a grower-consumer relationship that directly links farm to the table.

CSA growers deliver a weekly box of fresh produce during the growing season. Growers calculate a planting schedule to meet the weekly harvest plan. Subscribers, in turn, typically receive a ¾ bushel box of veggies. At peak season, five of us just barely consume the box’s contents. Personal and social good, not just profit and cost containment, are realized.

I pay about $35 a week for an 18 week season. It’s worth every penny. I feed five of us. My kids are not always as enthusiastic as I but they’re game. We really enjoy the bounty and impact on our diet. But, this isn’t just about me.

The other half of this equation is Norm-the-Grower. Norm farms in southeastern Minnesota. He used to paint houses in St Paul. Having grown up on an Iowa dairy farm, he felt farming’s tug. The CSA model offered him an entry point.

After establishing my selection criteria, I started researching CSA growers using the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s CSA list and the Land Stewardship Project’s grower registry. Basically, I narrowed choices to farmers delivering to my neighborhood. Looking at websites, I liked everything that I read about Norm. His neat, orderly and clean produce box packing operation won me over.

CSAs aren’t the end-all of being. The longer I spend around the CSA movement, the more problems I identify. Most growers, like most small farmers, require an off-farm income stream. A sustainable business must be profitable, delivering a livelihood and a return on investment. Farmers traditionally struggle with this equation but embracing the CSA model doesn’t change the calculation.

I pay a premium for my weekly box of seasonal produce. I value the farmer-consumer relationship, the high quality product, and the family and community stabilizing elements, but there’s a growing price resistance that can lead to price intolerance. I may eventually decide that my return isn’t worth my investment, sourcing instead from grocery stores and farmers markets.

Lastly, CSA growers need to do a better job of working together to expand markets and increase income. Every CSA farmer follows the same strategy. Once a week, they load their boxes into a van and drive them to customers. A hundred years ago, dairy farmers formed coops to save themselves the headache, risk and burden of farm isolation. Through their coops, they bought bulk milk trucks and hired drivers to pick up and deliver raw milk to a central storage and processing facility. CSA growers need to take that step, figuring out how create a better, shared distribution system.

Besides great produce and grower-consumer connection, CSAs deliver diversity. Commodity growing reinforces centralization and monoculture. The smallest growers hear different market demands, delivering heirloom varieties and tasty, fascinating alternatives, enriching and expanding Minnesota’s ag tradition. We’re better for it. Consider making a CSA share investment. You’ll get much more than a weekly box of produce.

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