NPR’s Food Blog published an article on their website last week that talked about the rising controversy within Community Supported Agriculture. CSA shares allow individuals to purchase a share in a local farm, which results in a weekly box of produce from the farmer. The original spirit behind CSAs revolved around consumers developing a relationship with the people who grow their food.
However, as CSA popularity has risen, some farmers have forged a new model for CSAs to meet the consumer’s increasing expectations. This new model has farmers working together to offer their consumers a wider variety of products. Because of this collaboration, some traditionalists are left huffing and puffing. Mr. Balliett, the farmer in NPR’s article, even started a Facebook group whose mission is to identify “fake CSAs.” Yes. It boggles my mind too. I liken it to hating on “fake Red Sox fans”: Aren’t you still cheering for the same team? Sorry, random tangent for another time.
Anyways, there are quite a few CSA farms in Massachusetts, so I called around to get some insight from local farmers. Geneveve Stillman from Stillman’s Farm in New Braintree said her and her husband’s farm is mostly traditional, CSA-wise.
“I feel really good when I can look someone in the face and say, ‘Everything we give you we grew ourselves, and we can personally vouch for everything,'” Geneveve said. However, one of the challenges of one farm growing everything is that the farmer has a limited supply.
Restored pasture walls on Stillman's Farm. Photo from stillmansfarm.com.
Geneveve said that when Stillman’s Farm started selling CSAs, most of their time was spent educating consumers on the different growing seasons. We laughed, because in both the Midwest and New England there’s the ongoing joke that if you leave your car unlocked during zucchini season, you’re going to find a box of zucchinis in the back seat. Farmers can’t get rid of the zucchinis as fast as they’re growing, and consumers get zucchinied-out fairly quickly.
Geneveve said that the concept of a growing season is hard to understand because consumers have been “so incredibly spoiled”: In the grocery store, seasons don’t exist.
“The consumer tends to support and rationalize what they want because they want it. If you like the idea of being part of a CSA, but you really want bananas, you find a CSA that says, ‘Yeah, we have bananas, and we get them from Banana Bobs down in Key West. It’s the east coast, so you’re still supporting local farmers.’ Do I personally think that when I’m buying bananas from Banana Bobs I’m supporting local farming? No. I’m not.” If there’s a demand for bananas, farmers are going to try to fill that demand. This is why the CSA has evolved.
Andy Pollock from Silverbrook Farm in Dartmouth represents the other, less traditional side. A few years ago, Andy’s customer satisfaction surveys revealed the common complaint was too little variety. Silverbrook Farm now collaborates with other Massachusetts farms to provide a diverse CSA. The collaboration also provides farms with security , another consumer expectation.
Silverbrook Farm. Photo from silverbrookdartmouth.com.
“Originally, when CSAs started, if the crop was lost, then it was lost. We said we were sorry. But I don’t think that would fly that much anymore. You would be expected to source it from another farm.” Andy reminded me that a farm is a competitive business like any other, and as such they are in danger of losing dissatisfied customers. If the consumer prioritizes convenience and variety, that is what the farm will provide. Andy said this results in a disconnect between the farmer and the consumer, something CSAs originally tried to avoid.
The farm just gives consumers what they want.
“The only thing we don’t have is dancing bears,” Andy said with a laugh. “But what comes first? Education of consumer or consumer desire?”
Andy said that similarly to Stillman’s, Silverbrook Farm tries to educate the consumer on the different harvest seasons. He doesn’t see collaboration as a bad thing. To him, it’s a financially-wise decision that enables farmers to give consumers what they want. Sometimes consumers just expect too much.
“It’s like asking a factory to make everything… I think sometimes there is an idealistic view of the farmer being this magic person who is able to produce everything easily, without chemicals and without any problems.”
Consumer disconnect seems to lie at the heart of this controversy. They enjoy the idea of a CSA, and feel good when they support local farming. The thing is, to truly support local farming you have to eat according to the seasons. Strawberries in June. Corn from July to October. Potatoes and onions in the fall. It’s time to retrain ourselves and relearn the reality of our food. But is the consumer ready for that? I’m not so sure.