CSA as Involvement in the “Whole Farm”: A Letter to CSA Members
By Jeff Schreiber
Originally printed in the June 19, 2014 Three Sisters Community Farm newsletter.
On our website you’ll notice a running tally of where we stand in meeting this year’s budget. To see the details of this budget – what we spend your money on, how much we pay ourselves – check out the February 2014 newsletter.
This transparency is important to us, and is in line with the kind of CSA Kelly and I try to steward. To us, CSA is not just another way to sell vegetables, but rather an exciting and radical attempt at creating an alternative food economy that works for farmers, consumers, and the land.
When you contributed toward this year’s budget, you did so not to buy vegetables. Nor does your contribution pay for our labor. Instead, your contribution supports and connects you to the farm as a whole. As intermediaries between you and the farm, we use your contributions and our skills to steward the whole farm and bring to you, as a gift, the farm’s bounty.
Why involve you in the “whole farm?” Why not just let you buy individual items – like a bunch of carrots – from us, as you would at a grocery store or farmers’ market? The reason is that a bunch of carrots – or beets, peas or carton of eggs – cannot really be disentangled from a farm that is healthy and whole any more than an organ or limb can be disentangled from your body. Everything on the farm is connected by complicated and ever-changing relationships: the carrots to the soil, to the compost that we put on the soil, to the materials we use to make the compost, to the animals that contribute to those materials, to the feed those animals eat, to our labor…and on and on. The farm, with all these complex relationships, is really more of a verb than noun – a living process that emerges from the interaction of all the parts (of which you are one!).
Your contribution gives you a stake in this whole, and together we build an economy out of it. Since we all have a stake in the stewardship of this common resource of the whole farm, it makes little sense that we would abuse it or push it beyond its capacity. Viewing the farm whole, together, is environmental activism. It is also social activism, but that’s a topic for another newsletter.
While we’re always striving to be more economical in all we do, the whole farm does have a limit, a point beyond which it cannot be pushed without breaking down into a loosely strung-together, unsustainable collection of parts. We, your farmers, determine this limit and set the yearly budget accordingly.
You’ll notice, however, that we have not yet met our budget. And we have filled all available CSA spots; we’ve reached the limit of what we think the whole farm can handle. Our budget shows how we hope to make up the difference: after each week’s CSA harvest we sell, if available, the “buffer” harvest – the extra we plant to account for loss – at the farmers’ market or other outlet. We enter “the market.”
We’d prefer not do this, to be honest. We’d rather serve only those with a stake in the whole and give them the option of taking what they need from the farm’s full bounty. The market is cutthroat, risky, and does not recognize the whole farm. If it rains and no one shows at the farmers’ market, the produce we’ve harvested is wasted (well, it usually becomes chicken food!). If (as happened this week) a restaurant changes its order at the last minute, we haven’t “just” lost 10 lbs. of lettuce mix; the whole farm is affected. To compete in the marketplace, we’d need to focus less on the whole and more on our era’s twin values of successful business: profit and efficiency.
But profit and efficiency have not shown themselves to produce food that really nourishes people. Nor does a striving for these things seem to bring about healthy environments or communities. Given these facts, it would seem sensible to explore alternatives like the kind of CSA you’re a part of. Trying to make this alternative work is an exciting, messy experiment that we’ll keep working on, together. We’re glad you’ve decided to join the ride this season!
Farmers Jeff Schreiber and Kelly Kiefer met while working at Wellspring, a Milwaukee-area farm-based educational organization. In 2011 they started Three Sisters Community Farm on Kelly’s family’s land in Campbellsport, Wisconsin, a community-oriented farm serving the greater Milwaukee area. Through their community supported agriculture (CSA) program, farmers’ markets, and other direct-to-consumer sales, they meet the needs of those who seek quality, organically-grown food, and a connection with the source of this food, while also treading lightly on the earth and providing for themselves a quality and balanced lifestyle.