There are over 2,700 Community Supported Agriculture farm operations in Europe.
A slightly broader definition, taking in closely-related initiatives, puts this number well over 6,000.
Most have formed since the mid 1990s, with France being the country with the largest number, and the strongest member commitments.
Ireland has only six, but this may increase, following the setting up of the CSA Network Ireland umbrella body, in 2014.
Imagine being paid by your local community to farm?
Paid not just for the food produced, but for the effort of producing it?
And paid however big or small the harvest is?
What’s in it for the community?
A connection to farming close enough to have say, a stake in the who, what, where and how of local food (who produces it, what is produced, where it happens and how is it produced).
Welcome to the world of Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA.
Everyone compromises a little, everyone gains a lot.
CSA is about sharing the risks, rewards and, importantly, responsibilities of farming.
The farmer is guaranteed a committed market.
The community has a strong relationship with this food producer.
To greater or lesser extents, it’s a partnership, a contract, an understanding, a say in the business.
So, rather than hope for good weather, or hope to get a good price from an ever more monopolistic beef sector or a volatile dairy sector, everyone knows where they stand with a CSA.
There are a number of different models, some are farmer-led, some are member led.
The first examples of this sort of risk, reward and responsibility sharing emerged in Japan in the 1960s, with the Teikei and Seikatsu club models.
In both, Japanese family women in cities wanted to support farmers growing traditional staple foods.
Both models are still thriving, with hundreds of Seikatsu clubs and related social businesses all over Japan today.
CSA emerged 20 years later, first in Europe and then in the US (where the Department of Agriculture says Community Supported Agriculture consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production).
Róisín NicCóil is the National Co-ordinator of the CSA Network Ireland, the sector’s fledgling umbrella body founded in 2014.
She says, “CSA or Community Supported Agriculture is a model of small-scale farming which provides food at a local level with short supply chains.
“Mainly, farmers produce vegetables, but in some farms, egg, bread, meat, cheese and honey are produced.
“There is respect for the environment and the soil.
“It is important to have fair wages and living conditions for farmers.”
“There are only six as of yet in Ireland, in Clare, Galway, Tipperary and around Dublin.
“In Derrybeg farm, Nathan Jackson produces the food, while Anne Ryan is one of the happy eaters and helpers.
“We set up Derrybeg Farm in 2012”, Ryan says. “Along with the desire to eat local seasonal food, I was attracted to the community aspect of CSA.
“I could also could see the possibility to create employment for a local grower.”
She says, “It became clear that the only way I was going to find a CSA would be if I helped start one.
“By chance, I met Nathan Jackson, who is now the farmer at Derrybeg.
“We talked about possibilities for growing and marketing in our area, and gradually gathered around us a planning group.
“This planning group of founding members found land to rent, recruited members, looked after finances and did all the other non-growing activities necessary to start the farm.
“The planning group has evolved into a steering group, which continues to manage the farm on behalf of the members.”
Derrybeg produces vegetables on one acre, rented from Kildare Co Council, situated between Maynooth and Celbridge.
In 2014, they started supplying a weekly box or bag to a membership of about 30 households, paid either monthly or yearly in advance.
At the other end of the scale, in Skerries in Co Dublin and Cloughjordan in Co Tipperary, there are larger set ups.
In Skerries, Paddy Byrne grows on 15 acres of certified organic land.
He also supplies eggs, and members pick up their supply at the local farmers market.
Cloughjordan has a member-owned and operated model, situated in Ireland’s only ecovillage, adjacent to the town.
In both Skerries and Cloughjordan, the model provides living wages for farmers.
Cloughjordan puts aside €40,000 per year for farm income.
The farm was established when locals put up enough loan stock for a German ethical bank to provide financial support.
Leaf and Root in Galway is a farmer-led CSA, where Fergal Anderson and his partner Manu Rosso grow for a local group they have nurtured, as well as for Enda McEvoy’s Loam restaurant.
In Co Clare, Moy Hill Farm grew from a community garden.
Now, a group of young ex-professional surfers produce on three acres.
Both farms are especially committed to produce dozens of varieties of produce, including 26 varieties of potato in the case of Moy Hill.
How difficult or awkward is it to manage expectations?
Seamus Bradley is the grower with Dublin CSA, which grows at Celbridge in Co Kildare for a consumer group in Dublin.
“Getting feedback from members on new varieties of vegetables has been helpful.
“Trying to give all members custom-made bags each week would cause a lot of extra work, so members receive whatever is in season.”
Nathan Jackson says: “I have been very lucky, in that the steering committee has consistently been able to weed out bad suggestions and keep things focused.
“On occasion, I have had to compromise, for example with pre-packed bags of produce.
“For the farmer, this is more awkward and time consuming”.
In Cloughjordan, by contrast, the produce is delivered to a building, having been minimally cleaned and sorted.
The membership sorts out who gets what between them, in a time-saving take-what-you-think-you-should approach.
Jackson says that the membership at Derrybeg accept that their convenience will reduce his productivity, also stating, “We regularly get good ideas or offers from the membership.
“For example, we suffered from limited irrigation potential. The dedicated involvement of a couple of members sorted this.”
As well as financial support, CSAs can have members helping with growing, delivery, administration, funding applications, organising PR events, loan stock, and decision-making.
Farming can be a stressful and lonely profession, but CSAs are neither.
To find out more about CSAs, contact Roisin NicCóil at email@example.com by email; at the communitysupportedagriculture.ie website; or at 086-3963606.
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