by Joan Dye Gussow
Across this country, a movement is spreading that acknowledges a long-ignored reality: most of what we pay for our food goes to companies who transport, process, and market what comes off the farm, not to farmers themselves. The people who actually grow food don’t get paid enough to keep on doing it. And so, from Maine to California, some farmers are being supported by voluntary communities of eaters organized to pay growers directly for what they produce. Bypassing the supermarket, the middlemen, and the 747s that fly produce around the world, these folks are getting fresh local produce in season, at reasonable prices. This is a book about eater communities who are buying what their local farmers grow, and this system is called—appropriately—Community Supported Agriculture.
If this is the first time you’ve heard of Community Supported Agriculture, you should turn immediately to the first chapter. There you can discover why various farmers and eaters are joining in these groups, and learn what some of them experience as they exchange wholesome food and financial security. If you have heard of CSAs but know little about them, then you need to study this recounting of the many different ways in which producers and consumers have come together to find mutually satisfactory solutions to their financial, social, and culinary needs. And finally, if you are an active member of a CSA farm, you surely need to sit down and spend some time with Liz Henderson, farmer extraordinary—and Robyn Van En, late great lady of the CSA movement. From them you can learn how to solve the problems that will crop up (if they have not already done so) as you and your co-sharers try to find ways of making good food available outside the dominant marketplace, for the long-term benefit of everyone.
I was two-thirds of the way through the manuscript of this book’s first edition when I went to a meeting of core group members of several New York City CSAs. (Yes, there were—and still are people in the heart of the metropolis getting food directly from farmers.) As I listened to these pioneers seeking help from each other in resolving emerging dilemmas, I kept wishing they had this book. Under the major headings “Getting Started,” “Getting Organized,” “The Food,” and “Many Models,” they would have found ideas on everything from “How to Choose a Farmer” and “Acquiring Land,” through “Farmer Earnings” and “Startup Expenses,” to “Distributing the Harvest,” “Regional Networking,” and “Including Low-Income Members.”
In listing these topics, I realize that I risk making this book sound like a dull instruction manual or a guidebook to CSAs. It is a guide, and it is instructive, but it is far more than either of those, and it is surely not dull. It is, in fact, a delight to read, since the woman who finally brought it together, after the original author succumbed to an unacceptably early death, is a strong and gifted writer. She recognizes other good writers when she reads them and articulate speakers when she hears them, and quotes many of them when it is appropriate—including many of the participants in these enterprises. You will learn a lot from this book. I know something about most of the subjects covered, but found myself highlighting the manuscript as I went, marking important facts or wonderful quotes. You will find hundreds of ideas here for dealing with issues that arise at each step along the way, but you will not find a single set of instructions for organizing or maintaining a CSA, since uniformity is not the movement’s (or the authors’) goal.
But if there is no single approach laid out in this book, there is, perhaps, a single goal. Namely, to encourage more people to join in the struggle to save farming. The authors are appropriately desperate to save farmers and farmland, and want more people to understand the importance of their passion. “I have searched particularly,” Liz Henderson writes about her research for this unique compilation of experiences, “for ideas on how to entice, entrap, entangle, or engage as many people as possible in community support for local farming.” This edition presents new evidence of the persistent power of these ideas; even more, it describes new ways that variously defined communities have found to help their local farmers survive.
Shortly after I had visited the early CSA begun by Robyn Van En, I met another person active in the movement who made a comment I have never forgotten. “Community Supported Agriculture,” he asserted, “is a kind of barter relationship. You pay this money up front in the fall to help support a local farmer, and next summer you get all this free produce.” As things have turned out, not all CSAs can or want to collect money up front, and not all sharers experience the produce as “free.” While generosity and community are goals, this fascinating book makes clear that it’s seldom simple to achieve them. In a society where individuality and free choice are mantras and everything has been assigned a price, self-imposed limitations do not come easily and community does not build spontaneously. If we hope to keep eating, however, we need to keep farmers in business; and if we want to keep farmers in business, it’s time for all of us, ordinary citizens and policymakers alike, to begin learning how that might be done. Sharing the Harvest is a great place to start.