CSAs are here to stay
Visiting Clark Farm in Massachusetts brings every romantic notion of farming to life: stepping off the bus I inhaled the clean sweetness of hay and damp taste of freshly turned earth. A goat stared down at me, faintly amused, from a stone wall and I smiled back, feeling stress drain away through the pastoral sods.
In many ways, Clark Farm denies what we’ve come to expect of American Ag.
No ocean of wheat sways from toe to horizon. Each field is diverse, and planted to suit the desires of the town. The mulled scents of woodland, manure, and tomatoes refresh the lungs—no pesticides taint the air or the water. A heron patrolling the small pond pauses to glare his approval at frogs in the reeds.
Even more surprising are the livestock conditions. Instead of a modern CAFO, where 2,000 swine fatten in torment, confined and deranged, Clark Farm’s hogs snort their happiness underneath oak trees, rooting through leaves to find acorns.
Across a field of alfalfa, a flock of red hens clucks around, expressing their chickeny selves in the sun, pecking insects with beaks that haven’t been shorn off. They’ll lay when they’re ready in nests without bars, relaxed and at peace with their place in the flock.
It’s a dream. While I walked with Andrew, the farm manager, he gazed at the fields of clean green. “So many people remember their grandparents’ farm,” he said, “and even if they don’t, there’s a nostalgia people feel, a connection to the past.” I picked a cherry tomato and popped it into my mouth.
I tasted it. This was the way things should be. The farm belonged here, an idyll made real 30 minutes from Boston—real foods grown sustainably, certified organic, as part of a personal partnership with the land.
On the world scale, it’s true Clark Farm cannot compete. The world’s food needs increase every year, and organic, small-scale agriculture just isn’t as productive. It’s thanks to large-scale, specialized, capitalized, precision farming that America’s agricultural output has increased 40% since 1980, even while chemical fertilizer, pesticide, energy, water, and land use have all declined. Greater technological innovation on large farms keeps increasing their efficiency while decreasing inputs and prices. Given the difference between $3.95 per pound for tomatoes and $9.00 per pound for pork (Clark Farm) and $1.80 and $3.89 (US average), the choice for grocery-store consumers is clear.
But Clark Farm, and other farms like it, don’t compete on the world or national stage. They don’t sell their produce and meats next to massive-farm, CAFO-grown products; they thrive off connections to local consumers.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) at places like Clark Farm takes advantage of their contact with individual people, embedding them in local culture. In a CSA model, community members buy “shares” in a farm’s harvest during the off-season, which entitle them to vegetable “dividends” as they become available. Once a CSA is in place, the broader community assumes the risk of crop failure, while a farm is guaranteed the capital it needs to invest in the health and output of the land. Much more often than not, these “conditions conspire for a bountiful harvest.”
CSA’s aren’t just for the wealthy, either. In fact, they work best with folks who aren’t rich, who don’t leave for summer homes during harvest or mindlessly drop cash for pricey Whole Foods. Their target consumers are thoughtful people who want to maximize the health and impact of each food item they buy. Clark Farm’s eggs might be a bit more expensive, but the differences don’t worry Andrew: “Once people try them? They don’t care about the price. They’ll never go back.”
Even if monetary barriers remain a problem, many CSA’s offer sponsored-share programs, distributing shares pre-paid by community groups. Others offer work-for-share programs that foster a personal bond with the farm while earning a share of the harvest through labor. Many schools purchase CSA shares too, ensuring that children grow up accustomed to local farm food.
Large farms might have the tangible tech—huge tractors, columbines, harrows, and ploughs—but CSA’s make good use of more powerful forces: the needs and desires of specific consumers. As local demographics change around Clark Farm, so do every year’s vegetables. This fall, expect arugula, Asian greens, beets, cabbage, garlic, and escarole. Next year, check The Farm’s survey to see what worked best. Tailored veggies not only meet fickle human preferences, but allow CSA’s to adapt, ensuring their place in a food system threatened by climate change. Come what may, a nostalgic beauty envelopes the fields—a taste of bucolic splendor Americans can’t help but admire.