By Donella Meadows
–April 16, 1998–
On average, 65 cents out of every dollar you spend for food at the supermarket go for packaging, delivery and marketing. Thirty cents go to chemical companies that make fertilizers, pesticides and genetically altered organisms. That leaves five cents for the farmer.
If you wonder why farms are failing (over 20,000 a year go under in the U.S.), that’s why. If you wonder why your food seems more like something factory-made than something fresh, alive, healthful or cared for, that’s also why.
Our big-time food system, based on chemicals, supermarkets, and industrial farms, undermines rural economies, the environment, and our health. I dropped out of it long ago; I haven’t been in a supermarket in months. Yes, that is possible; lots of people do it. If they want the best, the freshest, the most trustworthy food, they raise it themselves or they buy it at a local coop, a farmers’ market, or a CSA.
Only the last of those options needs explanation. CSA stands for “community-supported agriculture,” a name that explains nothing. Most farmers haven’t got a marketing bone in their body, or they’d invent a better term — “subscription farm” or “partnership farm” or maybe “rent-a-farm.”
Here’s how it works. You sign up with a local farm (even in urban areas there can be local farms — I know of great CSAs in New York, Santa Barbara and Vienna), paying for a whole season in advance or in regular installments. Once a week you get a load of fresh-picked goodies, whatever is ripe. Around here that means lettuce, spinach, scallions and baby beets in June; zucchini, green beans, chard, broccoli and carrots in July; all the above plus tomatoes, cukes and sweet corn in August and September; and in October the storage crops — potatoes, leeks, pumpkins, cabbage, onions. Many CSA farms add flowers and small fruits.
The farmers know in advance how much to plant; they also get paid up front, so they can afford the seed and tools to get going. They share risk and luck with the customers; if the early lettuce freezes, everyone has to wait for the second planting; if there’s a great year for melons, everyone gets extra melons. Since most CSA farmers plant dozens of crops, the deliveries tend to be lush every week. Even with no pesticides crop failures are rare.
The customers get produce the day it’s picked, not stuff that has been shipped thousands of miles. They know how it is grown; many pick it up right at the farm. They know the farmers. They can ask questions and provide feedback. Hey, how about more fresh dill? And a tad less zucchini?
I think the health, freshness, and taste advantages are the big ones, but it’s also notable that a CSA can split most of the 95 cents that go to marketing and chemicals between the customer and the farmer. A study of three CSAs in Massachusetts showed their customers getting veggies at half the supermarket price. You buy for less; your local farmers get more.
I’m coming to know intimately how CSAs work, because last year one started up across the road from me. Stephen Leslie and Kerry Gawalt plowed up an acre of bottomland, took soil tests, worked in manure, and brought in a state inspector who went over the history of the land and their growing plan and gave them an organic certification. They offered shares at $200 for a small share (about right for a couple), $300 for a medium, $400 for a large. It was their sixth year of CSA farming, but their first in this location. They signed up 18 families.
Then I got to watch the scramble. First there was the planting and weeding, done according to an elaborate schedule tuned to keep yummy things ripening every week for five months. While replanting and weeding went on, the picking began. Can you imagine picking a week’s veggies for 18 families all at once, starting at dawn to catch them cool? And washing and sorting? And packing (in plastic, returnable tubs)?
In addition to farm pickups, Kerry and Stephen offered two drop-off points in nearby towns. I volunteered to deliver on my way to work, so every Tuesday morning I loaded my car with tubs of vegetables, herbs, flowers, often with suggested recipes tucked in the side. (Not everyone knows what to do with arugula, celeriac, tatsoi, collards, or rutabaga. And everyone needs zucchini recipes.) The filled tubs were works of art. I felt joyous, delivering them to the subscribers.
Kerry and Stephen felt joyous too, producing all that good food in a way that built up the land. On their acre they turned out more than enough for their shareholders, so they also sold at farmers’ markets and to the local food coop. (I got to see the wastefulness of the farmers’ market, when they returned with wilted, unsold greens that had to be fed to the chickens. The chickens were happy, though.) They didn’t make much for their half-year of hard work, but it was enough to keep them going. Their customers’ enthusiastic reactions gave them the courage to add another acre this year. Just this week they took out their Norwegian Fjord horses Mari and Cassima and tilled and seeded 240 feet each of spinach and peas.
I don’t know how long our industrial food system, dependent on long-distance shipping, cheap oil, big machines, poisonous chemicals, loud marketing and underpaid migrant labor will last. I do know what could replace it: CSAs and local markets. We’ll probably always trade maple syrup and apples for oranges and winter lettuce, but we’ll eat foods more in season; we’ll understand how the seasons work. Our food will be fresher, tastier, cheaper, and healthier, and our small farmers will stay in business.
If that’s a future you like, you don’t have to wait for it.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998