"Whatever you can do or dream you can do—begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."
In 1983, my young son David and I moved to Massachusetts from the Northern California redwood forests to experience New England’s colored leaves of autumn and snowy winters, while I finished my training as a Waldorf kindergarten teacher. We planned to be in the area for a year, to get our bearings, and then find property to buy. I would look for a place with a bit of land for me to resume growing bouquet flowers and perennial stock for landscapers, as I had done in California while I went to school. Within a month after our arrival, circumstances motivated me to find the “place,” and somewhat by accident, maybe more by providence, we landed at Indian Line Farm, in the village of South Egremont.
Indian Line Farm was so named almost two hundred years ago as one of the early Dutch settlements built at an imaginary line beyond which was Indian country. Supposedly, Johnny Appleseed came along Jugend Road, planting his apple trees. Shays’ Rebellion, largely a farmers’ uprising against unfair taxation, which influenced the writing of the Constitution, took place right over the hill.
Indian Line is a beautiful farm with a big, old house and a huge dairy barn resting upon table-flat, fertile bottomland. Beneath the topsoil is limestone ledge, giving the soil a mellow pH. Nearby is an alkaline fen (wetland), a rare habitat protected and monitored by the Nature Conservancy. The middle of the field looks out on Jugend Mountain, formerly an Indian observation point, with the remains of their long houses and another old farmstead in the state park at the foot. Over the top of the mountain runs a portion of the Appalachian Trail, leading into Connecticut, just behind the first Community Land Trust and the E. F. Schumacher Library.
I was raised in California and for years had cultivated a vegetable plot, besides the bouquet flowers and perennials, but to start managing a 60-acre, retired dairy farm in the Berkshire Hills was a huge departure for me.
Soon after I arrived in the neighborhood and joined the staple foods buying club, I had a conversation with Susan Witt from the E. F. Schumacher Society. We discussed what I would be growing at the farm the forthcoming spring, besides flowers, as I had a whole lot of available ground.
I found out that most of the buying club members had their own summer gardens, but went to distant farms or the supermarket for their winter vegetables. Why shouldn’t I grow those storage crops? At a coop meeting, people said they would buy anything I grew, so I planted accordingly. By planting primarily potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, and winter squash, I had fairly good returns, with my market ready and waiting, but I still carried all of the capitalization expenses, all of the work, and all of the risk.
I spent long periods, generally while hoeing, trying to formulate a better way to oblige both the grower and the eaters. The better way would be something cooperative; an arrangement that would allow people to draw upon their combined abilities, expertise, and resources for the mutual benefit of all concerned. It would also bring the people producing the food closer to the people who were eating the food, and the eaters closer to the land.
In the middle of my second growing season, as I pondered this agricultural conundrum, Jan Vandertuin visited the farm. He had recently returned to New England from Switzerland and was anxious to share the experience he’d had working with a couple of farmers there. These farmers had asked their regular customers to pay a share of the farm’s annual production expenses in exchange for a weekly share of the produce. Shares of the vegetables, meat, and dairy products were made available to them. After talking only a few minutes, Jan and I knew that we should do the same at Indian Line Farm.
Jan Vandertuin, John Root, Jr. (co-director of Berkshire Village, a group home for handicapped adults, a stone’s throw from the Schumacher Society and a mile from Indian Line), and I got busy organizing. We introduced the “share the costs to share the harvest” concept to the surrounding community by way of the Apple Project in the autumn of 1985. People paid in advance for family-sized shares of the apple harvest. Most of those folks signed up for the vegetable shares that we offered for the following spring. We were determined to make this happen, so we were very busy educating community members about the vegetable shares at the same time we were interviewing potential gardeners and farmers. No one had ever heard of being paid for vegetables in advance, before the first seed was planted, but we were finally approached by Hugh Ratcliffe, who started breaking ground that fall for the eventual spring planting. The rest of us carried on with the Apple Project and community education.
During the winter of 1985–86, we met each week to discuss and develop the logistics and procedures necessary to accomplish our goals: local food for local people at a fair price to them and a fair wage to the growers. The members’ annual commitment to pay their share of the production costs and to share the risk as well as the bounty set this apart from any other agricultural initiative.
We didn’t take any step of this process lightly. We discussed and debated long into the nights the necessary policies and procedures, besides the possible names for the project that would convey its full intent and purpose. We finally decided on Community Supported Agriculture, which could be transposed to Agriculture Supported Communities and say what we needed in the fewest words. CSA to ASC was the whole message. We knew it was a mouthful and doesn’t fit easily into conversation or text, but to this day I can’t think of a better way to name what it’s all about. People have tried substituting other words (“consumer shared agriculture” is what some people call it in Canada), and I found obvious discomfort with the word “community” when I tried to explain the concept in the former Soviet Union. People have problems with “supported,” too. Please know that each word was chosen after lengthy consideration. I personally was adamant about using the word “agriculture” rather than calling the project CS Farms, because I didn’t want to exclude similar initiatives from taking place on a corner lot in downtown Boston. We had to call it something fast because the project was ready to go.
To secure the land for existing and potential members, I leased my garden site (approximately five acres) to the CSA, an unincorporated association, for three years with an option to buy the land into an agricultural trust after the third year.
We offered our first shares of the vegetable harvest in the spring of 1986. Early members received a bag of vegetables twice a week throughout the growing season, and twice a month from the root cellar during the winter months. This proved to be too many vegetables for most households. The next year, many found a friend or neighbor to take the second bag, and by the third year, we pared it down to one bag a week. Larger households, restaurants, or markets bought multiple shares.
We have come a long way since that first season. As the founding core group, we learned a lot, and realized that there was a lot more to learn. Working with a group of people in a manner that honors and makes the best use of the collective expertise and resources, at the same time becoming familiar with and adjusting to different personalities and agendas, is not easy. The logic, simplicity, and earthly need for the concept carried us through. Despite our many differences, we created a working prototype and replicable model of CSA. After four years, we separated—a rather grisly process—but, looking back, I can honestly say I wouldn’t have learned nearly so much about myself, about group dynamics, about CSA’s pitfalls and potential, and about the larger community, both locally and regionally, if the split had been easier.
I wrote the first edition of the CSA startup manual, the Basic Formula to Create Community Supported Agriculture, largely in self-defense, as I was spending hours in the field, on the phone, or in conference halls talking about our experiment at Indian Line Farm. I designed the manual to help readers answer many of their questions about CSA and to formulate questions specific to their own situations. Translating CSA to the North American landscape and mentality, which are vastly different in scale, available resources, and culture than Japan and Western Europe, was a challenge. CSA has certain fundamental logistical points that are similar no matter where or how it is practiced, but, at the same time, it is largely an evolving and highly adaptive process, as I tried to share and convey through the Basic Formula manual.
By the spring of 1996, close to six hundred CSA projects, engaging at least one hundred thousand people throughout the United States and Canada, were putting seeds into the Earth. An armchair social study conducted by Jean-Pierre Schwartz—a founding member of the first Washington, D.C., area CSA, and a founding board member of CSA of North America (CSANA)—compared the current number of CSAs, their rate of increase to date, and their potential increase, to the boom of bed-and-breakfast establishments springing up across the country. From this, Schwartz concluded that we might see ten thousand CSA farms and gardens by the year 2000. I certainly hope so. That could mean an average of two hundred projects in each state and Canada with nearly two million people involved, signifying an important shift in mainstream consciousness. We would be well on our way toward a “trend,” with 2 percent of the overall population becoming aware of this new alternative for purchasing fresh food. People don’t even need to be actual CSA members, just marginally aware. If we can achieve that much consciousness in the U.S. and Canada, CSA’s presence certainly will have increased around the world too. (CSAs have not multiplied as quickly as Robyn hoped, perhaps because they are far more complex than a bed and breakfast. In 2007, the best estimate is 1700 CSAs in the US with a total of perhaps 100,000 members. EH) While the Indian Line Farm project was modeled after Jan’s experience in Switzerland, I have since learned that the CSA equivalent was developed first in Japan in 1965, initiated by a group of women concerned with the use of pesticides, the increase in processed and imported foods, and the corresponding decrease in the local farm population.
The group approached a local farmer and worked out the terms of their cooperative agreement, and the teikei movement was born. Literally translated, teikei means “partnership” or “cooperation,” but according to teikei members in Japan, the more philosophical translation is “food with the farmer’s face on it.”
The philosophical aspects of teikei are also represented in the names of their groups, such as the Society for Reflecting the Throwaway Age, the Young Leaf Society, and the Society Protecting the Earth. This aspect is fairly common in North American CSA as well, with names like Walk Softly CSA, Twin Creek Shared Farm, Deliberate Living CSA, Gathering Together Farm, Caretaker Community Farm, and Heartbeet.
The teikei farms or garden sites in Japan tend to be quite small and intensively farmed. It is common for a group of farmers, dispersed throughout the countryside, to supply a large group of urban members by delivering their produce to one of the express train depots for transport to a central pickup point in the city. It is also common to have groups of fifteen hundred households networking with a group of fifteen farmers to get a consistent and diverse selection of products. Typically, members are supplied with their weekly vegetables, herbs, fruit, fish, poultry, eggs, grain, and soy product needs, along with soap and candles from a community-supported cottage industry. (For a more in-depth examination of teikei, see the brief history by Hiroko Kubota, Chapter 22.)
In 1992, I had the great pleasure of cohosting members from one of the teikei groups that was traveling in the U.S. and Canada. They had come to see organic farms in general and some CSA projects specifically. I was amazed how similar each of our concerns and visions were for teikei and CSA and for the future of agriculture as the basis of all culture. It was truly a full circle experience for me.
Equally empowering to both the community and the farmers, CSA offers solutions to common problems facing farmers and communities worldwide. Ultimately, the concept is capable of engaging and empowering people to a capacity that has been all but lost in this “modern” world.
Robyn Van En
Indian Line Farm