More Thoughts on the End in Sight

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source: Thornapple CSA

The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) idea originated in Japan when a group of women decided to try and figure out some way of supporting small, local farmers. I’m a little fuzzy on the details here this morning and I’m in no mood to go down to the library in order to get my facts straight. So both of my regular readers will just have to cut me some slack. What has come down to us is that risk sharing is the “core idea” behind the CSA movement. That is, food consumers assume some of the risk that has traditionally been borne by farmers. Farmer risk is complex, but since I’m not so complex myself, I like to focus on just two elements: 1) Weather: on the day that you plant your crop, you never know how things are going to turn out; 2) Prices: Farm commodity prices are volatile because when you have a great year in terms of weather, it’s likely that everyone else did, too. So there’s more out there than people want to eat, and tasty farm commodities—especially the fruits and vegetables—are just going to rot if they don’t get sold right away. There’s a strong tendency for farmers to drop their price to ensure that they are not stuck with rotting fruits and vegetables at the end of market day. And first thing you know, even in a bumper crop year, you’re selling stuff for less than it cost you to produce it.

Recognizing these facts, the CSA idea is to basically take risk Number 2 off the table for farmers by negotiating a price even before the crop goes in the ground. Members of the CSA make an up-front payment to the farmer that covers seed and supplies, as well as a stipend (I hesitate to call this “profit”) that will compensate the farmer for all the hard work that is required to get tasty fruits and vegetables to you throughout the growing season. My economist friends would insist that this just rearranges the risk, rather than taking it off the table, because the farmer has now forgone the opportunity to make profits above and beyond the stipend that he or she has negotiated with members of the CSA, so there will be years with the CSA farmer will “lose” relative to the farmer who is spending two or three days a week hawking their wares in a farmers’ market. But this is an excessively pecuniary way to look at the situation, and so I move on.

But we are still waiting for the other shoe to drop, which is, of course, the weather. When we have a year like last year, things don’t go so well for farmers, and if you are in a CSA, you are not very likely to have gotten more for your up-front investment than if you had held onto it until July and August, then gone to Kroger or Meijer and paid a small premium for fruits and vegetables that were being trucked in from less drought-stricken climes. Hence, there really is some “risk-sharing” at the core of the CSA idea. And here we come to the nub of today’s blog.

Some people who sign up for CSAs are down with the CSA way. They dig that risk-sharing thing, and they can accept a year like last year when the broccoli is bitter and the pickings are slim (at least until the tomatoes roll in). You chalk it up to bad luck and you feel good about the way that you are supporting a farmer. In fact, one problem for the Thornapple CSA has been that some of our members may be a little bit too “down” with that idea, by which I mean that their loyalty is to a particular farmer. And since circumstances mean that we’ve tended to change farmers every year, there have always been a bunch of people who sign up to support farmer X, and then drop out the next year when farmer X heads off to California, takes another job or some such thing and then farmer Y has to step in and take over. Need I say that this is not a particularly sustainable model from the fiscal perspective?

So one response has been to offer some “extras” (like organic strawberries) that we buy in bulk from other farmers. This is supposed to get extra income into the treasury, but when there’s a “miscommunication” (like when the grower initially says they will be $31 and then after you’ve driven a couple hundred miles to pick them up, they turn out to be $34), you may not even recover the gasoline costs when you sell them to members for $35. Another idea is to initiate mid-season half shares as a way to channel enough revenue into the coffers so that the CSA can pay the stipend agreed to back in February. It’s a great year this year, so a half share starting now is an enormously good deal for consumers. But these responses mean two things: 1) the price risk is back with a vengeance only now the farmer may not get paid at all when the CSA goes bust; and 2) the whole “risk-sharing” idea has kind of gone kaput for people who buy a mid-season share.

Now this is NOT meant to make Thornapple members feel guilty. I’m not sure that either of my regular readers is a member, in any case. But it is intended to spark some reflection (rather than reflexion) on the CSA way. More than usually, I’d love some postings in the comment box.

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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