Wednesday, June 14, 2006

What is a CSA and why are those people taking all of those vegetables?

After being the farmer for a CSA for a decade I often forget that many people join our farm without knowing what they are actually joining.

First, before I try to answer some of the specific concerns many people have about a CSA let me give you a little background of the concept of a Community Supported Agriculture farm. That is, after all, what you have joined by signing up for a 'share' of the harvest from our farm.


A CSA is a different way of looking at food and labor than the more traditional corporate commodity system that most Americans have been raised with. Joining a CSA isn't like grocery shopping. When you join a CSA you become a member of the farm. Subscribers are called shareholders. Meaning, they join to get a share of the harvest. In good years (like this year) that share is larger and sometimes much larger than in bad years (like last year). Shareholders aren't buying produce, they are joining a farm and receiving a share of that farm's harvest.

A traditional CSA, to reinforce that relationship between the food one gets and the labor involved, usually requires a labor committment as part of the shareholders. Shareholders have to come out to the farm and work so many hours if they want to be members.

Obviously, in the DC area, with the horrible traffic and the horrible work patterns of most people, a work share doesn't 'work'. It's hard enough for me to get back and forth with the vegetables and to find a drop off time when many people aren't still at their 'jobs'.

But still, in short, you and everyone one else that has joined our farm has signed up for a 'share' of the harvest. They have not signed up for a specific amount of vegetables. (look on our webpage, we make this really clear).

Yes, being a shareholder entails a bit of honesty and trust on the part of the shareholders and farmer alike. Certainly more is involved in in CSA than just walking into a grocery store or even going to a farmers market. The farmer is trusting shareholders to sign up and pay for the number of people they intend to feed, at the same time there is a certain amount of trust on your part and the other subscribers.

You signed up and paid to join our farm before there were ever any vegetables. You, in effect have giving me money trusting that I will make a good faith effort to grow vegetables. (notice, from the webpage, it doesn't say that you will get this many vegebles each week, what it says is that I will plan to grow vegetables for you and I will plan for so many vegetables with so many varieties, however, there is no guarantee. Depending on all the variables in farming it might be a rotten season and you might get very few vegetables, or, as it is, so far this season, it might be just knock you bountiful and you are going to be flooded in vegetables.

Yes, people can obviously scam the system, especially in those years in between the two extremes. Some people could pay for a one person share of the harvest but really intend to feed 3 or 4 or even 5.

The way I look at it, though, the way that I look at someone joining a CSA with the intend of exploiting the farmers labor and really, being dishonest and stealing from the other shareholders, is that in the end, its the dishonest person's problem. These are the same people who shop lift from mom and pop stores or steal money from unguarded purses at work.

The dishonest person is the one that will have to live with themselves. They have to live with the knowledge that they are cheating their farmer and the other shareholders. They have to come to the pick up each week and look me and the other shareholders in the eye (or maybe not, maybe avoiding their eyes) and steal from them.

And, you know, my experience, most people aren't that person.

Now, the other problem that you noted, the one that happened this week and usually happens every season with the new people is people taking more vegetables than the sign says that they should.

This is a problem. Basically, these people are stealing from the other shareholders. I pick enough vegetables for everyone and someone takes, in effect, someone else's vegetables.

To cure people of this 'problem' is one of the reasons I grow and harvest so many greens early on. Its sort of an inside joke. The new shareholder coming to the pick up spot and sees the sign that says 'all you can eat mizuna' and then loads up her bag with a bushel of the stuff.

She then goes home with her mizuna, loads it into her refrigerator and over the week starts eating it.

How much mizuna can someone eat in a week? What are people going to do with more of these greens than they can eat? Are they going to eat them all? Not likely.

I personally found it somewhat amusing this week ( like I always do, because it happens every year) when the one woman on Monday seeing that it was all you can eat dumped an entire container of lettuce into her bag. When I saw her do that I smiled to myself and saw a picture of her dealing with all of that lettuce in her refrigerator. What was she going to think once she realized she couldn't eat it all. In my mind I saw her with a refrigerator of rotten lettuce.

(I bet you next week she thinks twice about taking more of a vegetable than she can eat).

So that people can easily learn that lesson about greed is one of the reasons I grow and pick and bring to the pick up site all of those extra greens for the beginning of the season. People learn really quickly that they can only eat so much.

As I said, the system depends a big on honesty and trust on the part of the subscribers. When people sign up they sign up and pay for a share for a certain number of people. Generally, I find most people honest. Yes there are a few who subscribe for a one person share of the harvest but intend to feed five people. But, you know, I am not the subscribers' parent, or some sort of morality police.

The second problem, is the 'eyes bigger than stomach problem.'

The first problem is really an ethics problem. A person who steals from the people around them. The second one, a problem of greed. Mostly, through experience people come to grips with this.

And really, joining a CSA, for a number of people is a learning process, people are learning a different type of relationship between a person and their food and the people that grow it. If I lose a little mizuna along the way of teaching people this, that's fine. And if people can come to me week after week, and stand shoulder to shoulder with the other shareholders, look me and the shareholders in the eye and take more than the share of the harvest that they paid for I feel very sorry for that person. My experience, though, is that after several weeks the amount of that going on decreases.

I hope this answers your questions. If not, please look on our webpage where I try to explain what a CSA is. There are also several books that try to explain the concept.

I hope you have a wonderful weekend,

Leigh Hauter

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