by Jeanette Sivilay
Why local food? Why should a nation, or a community, produce its own food when the economics of comparative advantage allow you to purchase food from other places more cheaply and with greater variety?
Michael Pollan is a New York Times contributing writer and well-known author of several best selling books on the topic of food culture, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He begins his defense of local food with several intangible benefits – the security of knowing your community can feed itself, the beauty of an agricultural landscape, the outlook and type of knowledge that farmers bring to a community, the satisfaction of buying from a farmer you know instead of the grocery store, the locally inflected flavour of raw-milk cheese or honey (2006). Besides this, in an economy that is working to transform the counterculture organic movement into an industrial machine, local food is able to create a whole new economy as well as a new agriculture. Local food can create new social and economic relationships, as well as new ecological ones (Pollan, 2006).
But just because food is local doesn’t mean it will be organic or sustainable (Pollan, 2006). Indeed, the CMU Farm is not certified organic and has not yet considered engaging the certification process. However, we do grow with organic and sustainable practices as indicated in our identity statement, and for the majority of the season we are on the land and our eaters pay us a visit twice a week. Our members don’t have to depend on food labeling to know how their vegetables are grown, they can simply walk on to the farm and find out. The accountability of local food, in contrast to the regulation of organic food, ensures farmers are held responsible wherever they go.
Local agriculture is also sustainable because it is much less likely to rely on monocultures. To meet the demands of the local market, farmers often grow a wide variety of crops instead of specializing to meet demands of the global market. This alone will create a more sustainable agriculture, for a diversified farm will produce much of its own fertility and pest control (Pollan, 2006).
Much of the appeal of the industrial food system is in its convenience. In a world where people seem to be busier and more connected than ever, this food system allows us to delegate our food preparation and preservation to others in exchange for money. A successful local food economy will create not only a new type of food producer, but a new type of eater as well (Pollan, 2006). This local food eater sees finding, preparing, and preserving food as a pleasure in life rather than a chore. This eater has chosen to remember the stories of their food and the places from which it comes instead of giving in to an industrial food chain and promoting a kind of ecological amnesia. The local food eater puts a significant effort into sourcing food from favourite local producers, and is well acquainted with their kitchen. The effort required is not to be diminished – you won’t find anything microwaveable at the farmers market, and there will be nothing in your CSA box besides what can be grown in your area in each respective season (Pollan, 2006)
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) provides a unique way of engaging in the local food system. Elizabeth Henderson and Robyn Van En were CSA Farmers themselves, and for over a decade were involved in spreading the word about CSA throughout the United States and Canada. In their book, Sharing the Harvest, they note that CSA is the only model of farming in which this risk-sharing is explicit, an important component in an economy where farmers are alone in shouldering the risks of an increasingly ruthless global market (2007). Behind CSA is the acknowledgement that true agriculture cannot survive in an economy dominated by the market where prices radically fluctuate, the cost of land increases exponentially, and natural resources are exploited (Cone & Myhre, 2000). In CSA risk sharing when there is a poor harvest everyone receives less, not only the farmers. Alternatively, when there is a good harvest, the bounty is shared among farmers and members alike (Cone & Myhre, 2000).
In the CSA model, members purchase shares before the growing season and receive a basket of vegetables each week for as long as the season allows, providing the farmer with financial resources necessary to purchase what is needed (Brehm & Eisenhauer, 2008). Vegetables are generally the core, but other items are sometimes included in weekly baskets, such as eggs, honey, preserves, and sometimes items provided by other producers. All CSAs work a bit differently. Some have different goals or values; and level of member participation in daily labour also varies (Cone & Myhre, 2000). At the CMU Farm CSA we have placed emphasis on following ecological cycles, education, seed saving, planting only open pollinated heirloom varieties of vegetables, low fossil fuel consumption, and using green manures to enrich and amend our soils.
The history of the CSA movement began in Japan in the 1960 when women were concerned about the loss of farmland and rising levels of imported food (Brehm & Eisenhauer, 2008). A study published by the Society for Applied Anthropology showed that women have remained the driving force behind this movement ever since (Cone & Myhre, 2000). CSA’s have the potential to “re-embed” people in a time and place through linking them to a specific piece of land and giving them an awareness of the seasons. Households where the female was a part- or full- time householder were significantly more involved in farm events. It seemed that when women have more time, they are often inclined to combat the dilemmas of modernity by re-embedding themselves and their families within local communities (Cone & Myhre, 2000).
The world of CSA includes heady ideals and hard physical labour. It’s a world where people from different backgrounds and perspectives struggle to learn how to do practical work together to create new food systems based on similar values such as cooperation and justice, intimate relationships with food and the land used to produce it, and a proper humility and perspective of the place of humans in the scheme of nature (Henderson & Van En). A study published by the Southern Rural Sociological Association found various community and ecological benefits to CSA including that of civic renewal, increased collaboration at the community level, improved access to healthy foods, and the preservation of farmland through sustainable agriculture (Brehm & Eisenhauer, 2008).
CSA requires change: change to how we eat, how we think about food, how we pay for food, how we manage a farm, and how farms connect with one another (Henderson & Van En, 2007). Both studies I’ve referenced were conducted to examine CSA members motivations for participation. In reviewing them it was obvious that many find it challenging to receive a box of vegetables each week that they did not select themselves (Cone & Myhre, 2000). One farmer interviewed who was working on a CSA in the United States called it “un-American” for people to participate in something so regimented. The same farmer even admitted to wondering if they would be a shareholder themselves had they not been growing the vegetables. A CSA member interviewed said it was important to give the concept a two season try, as it does require significant adaptation (Cone & Myhre, 2000). The most frequent reasons given by members for belonging to a CSA were concern for the environment and land stewardship, desire for fresh, organic food, and support for local farmers and local food sources (Cone & Myhre, 2000; Brehm & Eisenhauer, 2008).
As I read over these studies I found myself sympathizing with the farmer referenced. Could I be a CSA member? Would I have the patience to discover how to make Swiss chard taste good after an eight hour day of work? As a farmer if I am faced with something I don’t want to cook with one week, I’m free to leave it in the field for someone else to enjoy. The sharers of the CMU Farm CSA have become, or are becoming, the type of eaters Pollan writes about – local food eaters with all the skills and lifestyle changes necessary to become re-embedded in a place, a community; to actively remember the history and story of where their food comes from.
Robin Van En passed away at the age of 49 but was passionate about providing resources and education for CSA. She implored CSA members and farmers to teach others what they had learned about CSA (Henderson & Van En, 2007):
…[we] may not become millionaires, but we will create solid local institutions and social capital, which give us strength for the future we cannot even imagine today. Like the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain, we are building the road as we travel along it together. (p. 49)
Henderson, E., & Van En, R. (2007). Sharing the harvest: A citizen’s guide to community supported agriculture. Vermont, USA: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.
Pollan, M. (2006). The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Cone, C. A., & Myhre, A. (2000). Community-supported agriculture: A sustainable alternative to industrial agriculture? Human Organization, 59(2), 187-197.
Brehm, J. & Eisenhauer, B. (2008). Motivations for participating in community supported agriculture and their relationship with community attachment and social capital. Southern rural sociology, 23(1), 94-115.