Thursday 22 October 2009
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 it is in their business if you succeed. Now, many farmers are using this model, finding selling shares of their farm to the people who will eat the crops.
The model, called Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), is spreading rapidly across North America and coming to Europe. In a CSA model, residents of the local community invest in a farm at the beginning 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 on the 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 provide work 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 come to 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.
Finally, food transported from Athy or Allenwood to somewhere else in County Kildare uses very little fuel, compared to the majority of our food that is transported from across an ocean. Local food creates very few of the carbon emissions that create the greenhouse effect, and so do not worsen climate change.
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.
CSA have mostly spread through the USA and Canada, where the group Local Harvest lists 2,500 CSA farms, almost all of which appeared in the last 20 years – but a few CSAs have begun here in Ireland. My group is keen to start one in our area --- I know you readers are from all over, but if you have experience with starting a CSA, please send it to me. If you are in the County Kildare area, e-mail me and let's work together.
(Photo: cows across the River Liffey from us.)