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Sharing the Loss: Embracing a New Agricultural Paradigm

August 27, 2015

By Jeff Schreiber, Three Sisters Community Farm

Three Sisters CSA boxesAs many who read our newsletter know, the philosophy of community supported agriculture (CSA) is a favorite topic of mine. So it was with great interest that I recently heard a different take on the idea while listening to a farming-related podcast. In this episode of the excellent Farmer-to-Farmer podcast, host Chris Blanchard discussed the core values of CSA with Dan Kaplan, the long-time manager of Brookfield Farm in Amherst, MA – one of the first CSAs in the US. Kaplan stressed the often-heard notion that CSAs are about consumers and producers sharing risk. But then he took it further: CSA, like no other farming model, is also about consumers and producers sharing loss.

Whoa – that’s a crazy notion. Why would people want to pay money to experience loss? Kaplan explained: Modern life – modern American life especially – is about avoiding loss at all costs. We don’t want to know about it, and our culture hides it well. Death, for instance, is not typically a topic of substantive conversation in our media. And the marketplace is adept at covering it up; consider the overflowing abundance of the shelves at the local grocery store.

But on a farm – and in the natural world generally – there is loss. Guaranteed. And often this loss comes after you’ve put a lot of work into something, like when a blight kills the tomato plants you’ve nurtured for months. Or when a predator kills the chickens that were just about to start laying eggs. Such losses are nowhere to be seen in the bounty of the grocery store, a fake bounty in reality propped up by such externalities as fossil fuels, the exploitation of people’s labor, and much else.

So, CSA (or, more directly, growing your own food) can be a way to have an experience of loss, to have an experience of the reality of the natural world. That’s much different from the very controlled experience of the marketplace.

Control. To some, that notion may be the very definition of agriculture: we control the natural world to produce the things we need to survive. In the marketplace, if you don’t make it, it’s because you don’t control nature well enough. Such an impulse perhaps wasn’t such a big deal before we started using fossil fuels. But now? Well, just look around….

Perhaps it’s time for a new agricultural paradigm, one that replaces the rigid impulse of control and dominion with a more fluid impulse of expecting change, of anticipating – maybe even celebrating – loss. Perhaps if we worked with nature, rather than against it, our farms and communities might look quite different than they do now. Maybe, in the absence of relationships based on control, there might be room for relationships based on trust.

Three Sisters Jeff and KellyCan you experience this new paradigm through a CSA newsletter? Perhaps a little. But, if you’re able, it would be much better if you actually came out to the farm and experienced it with us firsthand. Visit the farm a couple times each season. Help us plant or weed a certain crop. Come back later and you’ll see that some part of that crop probably didn’t make it; it died for some reason or another. It might even be the part that you lovingly tended to while you were here. Does that mean your work was for nothing? Shall you throw in the towel, go back to buying your food from the grocery store?

No. Easing up on control and embracing change does not mean inaction. You keep weeding, keep cultivating, keep nurturing. You continue to strive – earnestly, sincerely, with humility – with no attachment to the outcome, with no attempt to control, knowing that some of what you do will not yield results, that there will be loss. And that’s OK, because then you know it’s real, that it is alive. The more alive something is, the less can it be controlled. And maybe, by trusting the wisdom of living nature, we might also then experience real abundance and bounty.

These are lessons that many a 21st century American could stand to learn, farmers included. CSA offers one way to begin to experience them.


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.

Originally printed in the August 2015 Three Sisters CSA newsletter.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 28, 2015 12:10 am

    Thank You Jeff and Kelly!

    CSA’s are the most realistic business model. Farms are a great place to have this model (and so are community supported kitchens and community supported health care centers).

    This statement attracted my greater interest: “The more alive something is, the less can it be controlled.” It immediately inspired me to think of social conditioning in the public arena. I’ve been researching how extensive control is via public education, media, government, etc. (all of which I am completely done with). I’m so grateful to be “more alive”!

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