Agrarian Commons: Community-Supported Agriculture’s Role in Recovery

Reader Contribution by Steven Mcfadden and Chiron Communications
article image

Among the cascade of changes the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed is a wave of interest in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). In a time of insecurity, people like knowing where their food comes from. It’s basic.

National Public Radio (NPR) caught wind of the phenomenon and headlined its story, As Food Supply Chain Breaks Down, Farm-To-Door CSAs Take Off. Civil Eats chimed in to report that people are signing up for CSAs in record numbers, and that community food coops are thriving. Meanwhile, in addition to the fresh wave of people joining existing CSAs, some small- and mid-sized farms are attempting to reckon with the economic blow of the pandemic, and the consequent loss of their usual markets in restaurants and schools, by starting up CSAs.

Even the USDA is jumping in with a box scheme. They’re doling out $1.2 billion of our tax dollars in contracts for the Farmers-to-Families Food Box Program. The idea is to use web-based management systems to connect meat, dairy, and produce from farms with the multitude of families facing food insecurity. Let’s call this GSA, Government Supported Agriculture. Because contracts for this program are already being given to some to dubious corporations, let us hope the program is not infested with epic corruption. It has that potential.

With this wave of interest and energy pouring to into CSA and various food-box schemes, questions arise. Where will the energy go? Will new CSAs follow a business model as many people advocate? With the desperate poverty and hunger now afflicting the nation and the world, that emphasis could become more challenging than usual.

Or will CSAs continue to develop as a range of creative community models? Will CSAs draw in, employ, and maintain the support of local communities so the farm keeps going even as the world turns upside down? Many people are now beginning to recognize the imperative value CSA farms can have in an era of global sickness, economic calamity, and climate catastrophe.

The community dimension of CSAs can engage and activate the revolutionary, agroecological potentials that lie in the heart of the movement, not just in the USA, but around the world (URGENCI). Both during and after this crisis the many creative permutations of the CSA template can serve people by offering valid group purpose, a critical factor in times of desperation.

Common Problems

When CSA is pursued as primarily a profit-or-loss business model, it fits into the commercial status quo. But as is increasingly obvious, the status quo is in many ways inadequate for reckoning with the oceans of challenge now engulfing the world.

In terms of cost and convenience, CSA will likely never compete with industrial-scale food production. But CSA is not about competition. It’s about cooperation, and that arises from community.

CSAs create opportunities for farms, farmers, and consumers to play a cooperative role in restructuring the food system and thereby helping to reset the foundation of our 21st Century civilization. This is what Trauger Groh and I had in mind when we wrote Farms of Tomorrow: Community Supported Farms, Farm Supported Communities (1990).

“Farming is not just a business like any other profit-seeking enterprise,” we wrote, “but rather a precondition of all human life on earth. It’s also a precondition of all other economic activity. As such, farming is everyone’s responsibility. The challenges of agriculture and the environment belong not just to farmers, but are the common problems of all people.”

These same challenges also outline an opportunity, the opportunity to help transform our agricultural systems from a hierarchy of intensive chemical-industrial, bottom-line corporations, to an agroecological matrix yielding food security, healthy soil and water, climate stabilization, social justice, human and animal health, and beauty. All of that would constitute a giant evolutionary step forward. It’s time to take that step. 

Key Ideas

As CSA pioneer Robyn Van En noted in a classic 1991 interview with Mother Earth News, many of the early CSA farms in Japan, Europe, and the USA were founded by mothers, the caregivers. These mothers were wanting to take care of their families with clean, healthy food, and also wanting to care for the farmers and the land. Those are community impulses, not commercial impulses.

Van En helped to guide an early wave of interest in CSA farms in America back in 1986 when she created a workbook and a video, It’s not just about Vegetables. More than 34 years later, the validity of her title’s observation is even more urgently apparent. Indeed, CSA is not just about vegetables, nor is it about eggs, meat, cheese, honey, or any of the other wholesome, local foods they produce. It’s about community, about caring for the land, supporting the people who cultivate it in our names for our sustenance, and thereby securing clean, nutritious food. 

Those ideals are important to keep in mind as we churn through the cultural and agricultural changes provoked by the coronavirus. Farmers are our ambassadors to an abused and distressed Planet Earth. At this perilous juncture of time and circumstance, they need our support to be able to do the job right. CSA can make an important difference in this regard.

To go forward in the time of pandemic and in its aftermath as if CSA were primarily about business transactions—bucks for broccoli—would squander the opportunity presented by the intensity of our circumstances. CSA embodies the wholesome potential of helping to rightly and respectfully reconnect 21st Century human beings with the land that makes their lives possible. 

At the conclusion of Robyn’s interview in Mother Earth News she observed, “This is the only earth we’ve got. And it’s owned by a handful of people. It’s only going to get more and more precious. Arable land is a much better thing to leave our grandchildren than a bunch of time-share condos.”

Agrarian Commons

CSAs are naturally suited to leaving the kind of legacy that will feed and nurture our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, too, unto the seventh generation. A key goal for any CSA farm should be to secure land for the long term, so that it can be improved, made fully fertile, and then passed on to the next generations when the time comes.

Right now securing land suitable for farming is a formidable challenge for people wanting to start CSAs, because land is treated as a commodity. The marketplace has driven the cost of land beyond the reach of many people who have a vocational call to tend the Earth. 

This Spring a group called the Agrarian Trust began addressing that challenge by launching the Agrarian Commons, a program with potential to be profoundly helpful for many young farmers and awakened communities of citizens. Agrarian Commons is intended to provide secure, equitable, long-term land tenure, and to keep land open for succeeding generations.

Agrarian Commons addresses two primary barriers for beginning and exiting farmers: the high cost of land and the high debt burden borne by farmers. The Commons model supports farmland access for dispossessed farmers, and farmers of color. It’s intended to rebuild human relationships with the land, and to return natural capital by transitioning land from private ownership to community-held commons.

It does that through collaboration with local groups to establish 501(c)(2) and 501(c)(25) land-holding entities to support land access and tenure in perpetuity. The Agrarian Trust itself is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, with a focus of co-creating local Agrarian Commons with diverse communities around the nation.

Natural Nuclei

Now—with mounting consequences from the pandemic, economic upheaval, and climate catastrophe—it’s time to continue to expand the vision and the stabilizing, healing potential of CSA. That calls for Awakening Community Intelligence.

Many permutations of the basic CSA template are possible, and the years have given rise to a host of innovations. When it comes to establishing new CSAs, the existing community units embodied in churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples have already attained an essential step toward realization of a CSA farm. The group members already know one another, and are already part of a cooperative group with a system of inter-group communication.

As an already existing community nucleus they can if they choose expand beyond their central purpose of worship to also involve congregants in active relationship with the earth through a CSA farm, Congregation Supported Agriculture. Such groups—as well as other non-religious group constellations—can make a formal commitment, take steps to secure land suitable for crops, and then put members of their group to purposeful work cultivating the land, enhancing food quality and food security, and improving the environment.

Intelligent Steps Forward

CSA is a social and economic arrangement in which specific communities—neighborhoods, churches, workplaces, and so forth—willingly share responsibility with specific farmers for producing, delivering, enjoying, and honoring the food that sustains them. The community supports the farm, and the farm supports the community.

CSA falls under the broad, unifying conceptual umbrellas of agroecology and deep agroecology, terms which describe a range of intelligent, sophisticated, practical, and effective ways to draw our sustenance from the earth, and to reckon with the challenges of our era by establishing a healthy foundation for the next evolutionary step of humanity, and for the next generations of our children.

The wide range of agroecological initiatives underway in the USA and around the world, including CSAs, represent promising evolutions in the rapidly shifting matrix of our lives.

Independent journalist Steven McFadden is rooted in cyberspace atDeepAgroecology.net. Information about his wider work and all of his nonfiction books is available at Chiron-Communications.com. You can read all of Steven’s Mother Earth News blog postshere.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.