Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is an innovation in food selling and buying that has finally broken into the mainstream. These kinds of programs that usually involve a consumer signing up with a local farmer to get a weekly box of seasonal vegetables. In some cases the boxes are picked up at a farmers' market, on the farm, or they can be delivered at an extra cost. These innovative arrangement first emerged in Europe and Japan as a response to hardships experienced by local farms and farmers, and in an effort to bridge the relational gap between consumers and growers. As the interest in locally grown food has skyrocketed in recent years these programs have proliferated.
My favorite CSA in Spokane is the one from Rocky Ridge Ranch, located in Reardan. Gary and his wife So have summer, winter, and spring CSA subscriptions. They also have a meat CSA that's the best deal in town for locally, naturally raised beef, chicken, and pork. The Millwood Farmers' Market, that I help manage, is one of their two CSA pick-up sites.
As more farmers have offered these programs and they have grown in popularity there are some interesting growing pains and ethical dilemmas that are starting to emerge, both for shoppers and farmers. One regular reader of the blog lamented last summer that, after putting up big bucks for a summers' worth of vegetables, the offerings in the box were sometimes dissappointing compared to what the farmer had on display at their farmers' market booth. She discovered the uncomfortale tension that come with a direct relationship with a farmer. What do you do when you're unhappy? It's one thing to talk to the produce manager at the grocery store, which seems safe, but it's a whole other thing to file your complaints with the person who planted, nurtured, and plucked the plants out of the ground. To complicate matters, the skill-set required to be a great farmer does not necessarily lend itself to having good customer-service skills. CSA's make buying food a relational experience, which brings with it the mixed-bag of what we experience in human relationships. Here's how the unsettled CSA customer put it last summer:
But I’m wondering – here, finally, is my question – how you think we might navigate those imperfect relationships, with all of us imperfect ourselves, when we’re talking about non-negotiables, about food? In a local, relationship-based economy, there’s no room for mistakes. What happens if I have a bad day? Grocers, middlemen, long supply chains, all create room for me (and the growers) to be imperfect. How do we live without that when we’re, you know, human?
She makes a keen observation - that one of the hidden efficiencies of our long supply chains in the food system, is that they remove the human, relational element. They give the illusion of a transaction based only on price and quality, and erase the fingerprints of the farmers who grew the food. But this is only ever an illusion. CSA program that put us face-to-face with a farmer ultimately force us to give up our romantic notions, maybe the very notions that led us to sign up for a CSA, and encounter food, people, and land in new and responsible ways. In my mind, the purpose of CSA programs is the formation of community. It's an intentional complicating of life. Yes it's probably cheaper, easier, and more time-efficient to just go to Win-Co and load up your shopping cart on a weekly basis - but sometimes more expensive, more complicated, and less efficient is better.
Which brings me to my next observation about this fast-evolving market segment. I knew we were in new territory when I saw a "CSA" program show up on Groupon here in Spokane. Full Circle Farm was offering a deal on subscriptions to their CSA program. I was surprised, because I'd never heard of Full Circle Farm, and I take pride in having my finger on the pulse of our local food system. I did a little investigating and was intrigued by what I found. I have a call into Full Circle and will follow up on this post with more details and observations when I have to chance to talk to them.