As industrial farming comes under attack, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) hopes to change the game
Revolution is the new black. Every pillar of our existence is under attack, from democracy to what we eat. For Ronald Jacobs and his wife Shelly, founders of Kurt Pure Frozen Yogurt, it’s become a call to action. With five like-minded families, he has taken up arms on a muddy site in the midst of idyllic Waldviertel farmland, where a reclaimed 450 m2 greenhouse has become a rallying point for his nonprofit Verein, Wunderboden (Miracle Ground) – a Community Supported Agriculture project, or CSA.
CSAs developed in the U.S. and Japan in response to post-WWII industrialization of food, to the lack of transparency, unethical treatment of animals and workers, poisoned soil, antibiotics in meat, genetic modification and waste. CSA cooperations between farmers and consumers share the risks and rewards of producing organic food (called ‘bio’, for biologisch, in Austria).
Ge-La (Gemeinsame Landwirtschaft) or SoLaWi (Soziale Landwirtschaft) were CSAs launched as long ago as 1988 in Schleswig-Holstein, but it was the 2008 financial crisis that triggered a proliferation of European CSAs. Jacobs is passionate about the market’s destructive impact: “The price for produce is so warped because it’s globally traded. A ton of wheat is worth 30 bucks! We’ve created an artificial system, run by traders in London,” he said, pausing to pet passing goats. One farmer told him the wheat was sold on 22 times before delivery. “The entry price has to be low enough to add 22 margins. That’s why farmers rely on state subsidies. It’s a house of cards.”
Everything is alive on an organic field, butterflies, insects, beetles… On a conventional field, everything is dead. Conventional agriculture is war against nature.
Werner Lampert, Austrian bio pioneer
For Werner Lampert, the Austrian pioneer of all things bio, organic is the only sane alternative.
“Everything is alive on an organic field, butterflies, insects, beetles. On a conventional field, everything is dead. Conventional agriculture is war against nature.” Lampert enters his office via a vintage, carbon-free paternoster elevator, into a hallway decorated with portraits of free-range heritage cows.
Factory farming appalls him: “Since my childhood I dealt with animals and experienced their vitality, their joy in life. Putting them in a dark barn would break my spirit.”
Back to the roots
CSAs come in many permutations: Consumers help farmers to sow and distribute; farmers reveal their financing. It’s open source farming, a far cry from the black-ops secrecy of food factories. Consumers share “the hungry gap” in spring (when fresh produce is scarce), keep heritage varieties alive by planting and buying unlimited varieties, and producers regain the fun of farming – working with people and animals, not with machines owned by the bank. Wunderboden, on farmland owned by fellow-member Silvia Schildorfer, plans to support 150 member households, feeding over 300 individuals.
CSA exponents are inspired by philosophical concepts of nature and food, most prominently permaculture, anthroposophy, teikei, food sovereignty, agro-ecology, and Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamics. Lampert described meeting Steiner in Switzerland. “There, I lived and worked on farms where so-called handicapped and non-handicapped people worked together. I discovered completely new views on agriculture, which set my soul on fire! This understanding that what we do with the earth is intimately bound with the cosmos has stayed with me. We are connected to animals, to plants. Agriculture is something spiritual and changes us. I felt I had found my proper place.”
CSAs are a Maslow’s Hierarchy dream, concluded a study at Washington State University – consumers satisfy both “observable” needs, like guaranteed fresh food, and “non-observable” ones like fair trade. Membership fees provide farmers a guaranteed income. Reports from the U.K.’s Soil Association revealed CSA members enjoyed a 70 percent improved level of happiness.
Organic for the people
Lampert created the organic supermarket brands Ja! Natürlich and Zurück zum Ursprung for REWE (Billa and Merkur) and Hofer, respectively. The big step, he says, was between 1992 and 1994, when policies encouraged farmers to switch to organic farming. “But there was no market yet, just a couple of Naturkostläden. Organic food had a market share of only five percent.” Fearing things would regress, he decided to introduce bio foods in supermarkets. “That’s where people buy their daily food; this is where you have to arouse interest.” He smiled, “I saw it as a social act to ensure every Austrian has access to bio food and can afford it.”
Over 20 percent of agricultural land in Austria is certified bio, and Austrians spend €1.2 billion annually on organic products. A growing number of consumers get weekly produce delivered in crates from community food networks. They pay €9–€15 per Kiste, with an annual membership fee of €600–€1,000 reinvested in the next harvest. Lampert admits some disappointment: “We had hoped to have 40 percent of Austrians eating only organic food by 2000. We were wrong. People adapted their shopping to their circumstances – sometimes organic, sometimes conventional.” But he accepts that. “We didn’t found a sect,” he said. “We must convince people with our quality. And therein lies our big advantage.”
Price, however, is an issue. The primary buzzword is “local” – consumers will pay a 10-20 percent premium for the satisfaction of supporting their own economy – but only if quality is guaranteed. Consumers are skeptical of bio labeling, but switching to direct buying is complicated. For Jacobs, CSAs give the public what they need: “The operating costs of the farm are split amongst its members. You know what you’re paying for.”
The numbers favor Wunderboden. Sales by America’s 1,000 member CSAs top €300 million. CSA farms employ around 0.14 employees per hectare versus 0.027 on factory farms. Wunderboden plows its land with two muscular French horses – which makes economic sense for farms under 60 hectares, confirms Jacobs, together with natural fertilizing. “If subsidies stop, many farmers will be wiped out. In comes the CSA model, where we say, screw all of that! We want to prove that this model works without subsidies.”
If subsidies stop, many farmers will be wiped out. In comes the CSA model, where we say, screw all of that. We want to prove that this model works without subsidies.
Ronald Jacobs, founder of Wunderboden
Bioneers on the march
In March, a comprehensive report of 22 European countries concluded that the CSA movement was “increasingly recognized as an alternative to the unsustainable industrial food system.” In France, 2,000 AMAPs, the local version of a CSA, feed 200,000 people. Despite this optimism, CSA development across Europe is uneven, limited above all by the minimal marketing and branding capability of small-scale farmers. Mailing lists won’t convert app and social media users. Professional advertising works – New Jersey’s $1 million campaign generated $60 million in sales of local organic food.
Since the Austrian market is controlled by four major food distributors, small players need to work together. The Gärtnerhof Ochsenherz near Vienna was the first Austrian CSA, founded in 2011. By 2013, there were nine. A 2015 study for Vienna’s University of Natural and Life Sciences (BOKU) concluded that the main barriers to greater CSA development in Austria are the conflicting views on how to progress. The author concluded, “The future is uncertain.”
In the near future, independent players could profit from recent innovations: fresh food delivery systems, such as Rita Bringt’s bicycle deliveries, Amazon and Uber; apps enabling 100 percent direct marketing; and the City of Vienna’s initiatives to encourage urban gardening.
Jacobs relishes the challenge of revitalizing areas where the flight to cities has decimated previously buzzing market villages: “At this point, we volunteer a lot.” Operating costs will be shared eventually. Jacobs was at Arche Noah a week earlier to promote the project to consumers. “We have a three-year plan – now we’re plotting the field, designing the raised vegetable beds. And we expect our first crops in January 2017.”
Lampert is enthusiastic about CSAs. “Bio is the future, bio is sexy! Bio is a way to produce food with nature, not against it.” Through CSAs, urban families reconnect with food sources with a day in the countryside. Jacobs indicates the idyllic farmland around us, a hen rooting lazily for a perfect egg-laying spot. “You see we’re working organically. Join in!”
And get the undeniable benefit of knowing one’s food wasn’t produced by nappy-wearing food factory workers. One’s body may not be a temple, but we certainly are what we eat.