Saturday, 21 February 2015

Community-supported agriculture

Published in the Kildare Nationalist this week. 

When people start their own business venture, they usually prefer finding investors to relying solely on a bank loan – many other people can share in your risk and rewards, and they find it in their interest to help you succeed. Now, some farmers are using this model, finding selling shares of their farm to the people who will eat the crops.

Under a system called Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), local residents invest in a farm at thebeginning of the year, before the crops have been planted. Typically each family buys a standard share of the farm’s produce, and in exchange they receive a box of crops each week for the rest of the season. What they receive will depend on the time of year, but if a farmer plants enough variety, any weeks’ box will likely have several different kinds of crops, whether delivered in May or October.

Such projects make a farm particularly resilient in the face of global financial crises. A CSA farm does not depend on loans from major banks to continue from year to year, nor do its crop sales depend onthe vagaries of faraway markets. A CSA pays the farmer early in the year, so that the farm does not have to go deeply in debt each year, and it allows the farmer to market their food before their 16-hour days begin.

Sometimes a CSA plan finds a use for plots near towns that otherwise might go unused. They providework for farmers in an age when their numbers are diminishing – and if the community hires young people as hands, they give wages and rural skills to local youths.

In addition, CSAs allow neighbours to form a personal relationship with the person who is growing their food, and allows the farmer to hear and respond to consumer demand quickly, without the need for commissioning survey groups. Since people must invest in the farm, they usually must cometo the farm at least once a year, and get to meet the farmer and see where their food comes from. They must accept a variety of vegetables and learn to cook them.

But perhaps the most important use of such farms is giving a community food that is not flown in from across an ocean -- food that must often be must be sealed in plastic and foam packaging, sometimes preserved in chemical gases, to delay spoilage. We are surrounded by fertile land here in Ireland, yet we import 90 per cent ofour food. If there were an oil crisis, as many predict is beginning now, we would have to rebuild muchof our local agriculture from scratch.

If the farm is next door, the food is always fresh, no rubbish need be generated, and we would not use those thousands of gallons of fossil fuel right away, and do our part to delay a global energy crunch. CSAs can go beyond vegetables as well, to include grains, meat, home-made bread, eggs, cheese, flowers or fruit. Several farmers could join forces to create a regional CSA, coordinating their efforts –one supplying chickens, for example, and another supplying vegetables.

By looking at ways to embrace CSAs in this country, we might be able to stem the gradual loss of our farms and farming families, and to ensure that those that remain not just survive, but thrive.

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