No longer the rebellious teenager, Community Supported Agriculture in the Twin Cities turns 20 this year. Community Supported Agriculture is a marketing model for small farms; typically a consumer pays an annual subscription fee to become a member of the farm and, in exchange, receives a box of produce each week during growing season.
According to Brian DeVore, Communications Coordinator of the Land Stewardship Project, there were just two local CSA farms 20 years ago. In 2009, the Twin Cities will be served by 43 CSA farms, compared to 33 last year. “Some are new farms; others are existing farms just now going into the CSA marketing model”, said DeVore. “We’ve noticed an upward trend over the last five years, but we’re experiencing the biggest jump this year. Farmers find it a better way of farming for them.” DeVore attributes the increase to higher customer demand. “People are more interested, given the state of the economy. There is a desire to get back to basics. And CSAs are more of a bargain than ever before [compared to] other food prices.” Not only is there increased interest, but, according to DeVore, “People are calling earlier each year” about the CSA Farm Directory that the Land Stewardship Project publishes annually. “Consumers like the idea of getting connected.”
Common Harvest Farm, located along the bluffs of the St. Croix River Valley just south of Osceola, WI, is entering its 20th season of growing vegetables chemical-free and has been serving the Twin Cities as a CSA farm since the early years. Farmers Dan Guenthner and his wife, Margaret Pennings, made a choice long ago to simplify their lives. They farm with horses, and have no e-mail, cell phones, or Internet access.
Guenthner recalls that in the early years, they “had to do a fair amount of work to promote the movement.” He said, “We didn’t even know what to call it; subscription farming and contract gardening were some of the early terms.” Guenthner said that Robyn Van En, who started her farm in 1985 according to Wilson College where the Robyn Van En Center is based, was one of the first to use the term Community Supported Agriculture. Guenthner recalls 1989 as the year that CSA farms “held a series of house meetings in the Seward Neighborhood of Minneapolis. 1990, after the Exxon Valdez spill, Alar apple scares, and the second big Earth Day celebration, was a watershed year for consciousness around environmental issues” and, according to Guenthner, “was one of the first years that organic food sales increased by double digits. It has held that growth ever since.”
“The CSA movement was most successful when aligned with the community. We worked with La Leche League, workplace groups, social justice groups, and churches. The CSA became their unifying, community-building thing,” said Guenthner. In the early years of the CSA movement, the concern was that CSA farms not take away from the Twin Cities Cooperative movement. “We wanted to complement that.” Some co-ops offered to be drop-sites, with the idea being that customers would buy other items at the co-op when they retrieved their vegetables. Guenthner says he gave 75 talks in the Twin Cities over five years. “Now we don’t have to do that. Barack Obama knows what a CSA is.”
Guenthner said that CSA farming is not for every farmer. “You have to be willing to build relationships.” Of his members, he said, “We know these people. My wife, Margaret, sends out birthday cards. She calls when people lose their jobs… It’s not about cash flowing for this season, it’s about building a successful and sustainable relationship into the future.”
Guenthner said he knew he’d reached a significant milestone in building relationships one morning when he was having breakfast in a cafe. One of his farm’s members entered the cafe with a friend and, upon spotting Guenthner, turned to the friend and said, “I want you to meet my farmer.”
As DeVore said, “I can’t emphasize enough the community aspect.”
Also read: Selecting, and Surviving, a CSA Share