Over the last 18 years Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has taken
root in North America with moderate speed and has gradually grown
to include as many as 1,700 farms spread over every region. Against
a surging tide of decline for small farms in general, CSA has set
roots deep and wide.
CSA is providing direct support for hundreds of small farms and
clean local food for thousands of families. As side benefits, CSA
is also establishing a matrix of environmental oases, building networks
of families who are cultivating new and healthy aspects of community
life, and helping to shape a new vision of agriculture.
As CSA approaches its 20th anniversary, the possibility of a substantial
third wave of development looms large. The workable paths are well
known by now; meanwhile, a host of food- and farm-related issues
is steadily building a groundswell underneath this grass-roots movement.
Oddly, the origins of CSA in the United States have remained indistinct
and are routinely reported incorrectly.
PART I: The Origins of CSA in America—Dispelling
an “Agrarian Myth
For years, one standard albeit erroneous telling of CSA’s
history has been echoed in hundreds of articles and web sites. That
version was recently repeated by Time magazine: "The CSA movement
began in Japan some 30 years ago with a group of women alarmed by
pesticides...Their teikei [partnerships with local farmers through
annual subscriptions] spread to Europe and the U.S. From a single
Massachusetts CSA in 1986, subscription farms in the U.S. have boomed..."(1)
I can fault no reporters for repeating this false history. While
I did know all along that CSA sprang forth from not one U.S. farm,
but from two, for most of the past 18 years I also labored under
the misimpression that some of CSA’s inspiration had come
from Japan, for that is what I read everywhere.
But that’s not how it happened.
An email discussion on the CSA-L list (http://www.prairienet.org/pcsa/CSA-L/index.html)
piqued my curiosity. Correspondents such as Wolfgang Stranz of Germany,
Allan Balliett of West Virginia, and Connie Falk of New Mexico uncovered
many of the details of how CSA unfolded here in the United States.
I’ve been reporting on CSA since 1987, so when I read their
postings, I was prompted to research the movement’s beginnings
to unearth a clearer sense of what really happened and why. I also
wanted to see how the beginnings might bear upon the present and
I learned that while community farm initiatives got under way in
both Japan and Chile in the early 1970s, those efforts did not directly
influence the 1986 start of the CSA movement in the states. The
U.S. impulse came from Europe, and specifically from the biodynamic
The ideas that informed the first two American CSAs were articulated
in the 1920s by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925),
and then actively cultivated in post- WW II Europe in the 1950s,
1960s, and 1970s. The ideas crossed the Atlantic and came to life
in a new form, CSA, simultaneously but independently in 1986 at
both Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and Temple-Wilton Community
Farm in New Hampshire.
The two original CSA farms are still thriving as of 2004. Both
have established enduring legacies, even though they have confronted
many challenges over the years.
The stories of these two farms illustrate many of the challenges
the entire CSA movement faces. Their stories also demonstrate many
of the potentials.
Indian Line Farm
Susan Witt was there at the beginning. She is director of the E.F.
Schumacher Society, headquartered about a mile down the road from
Indian Line Farm in South Egremont, Mass.
Susan recalls that articles in Rodale’s Organic Gardening
magazine (2) attracted a young gardener named Jan Vander Tuin to
South Egremont in 1985, where he met with her, Robyn Van En and
other members of the community.
According to a 1992 article that Vander Tuin wrote for RAIN magazine
(3), he had been working on a biodynamic farm named Topinambur near
Zurich, Switzerland. He also traveled to explore other farms—Birsmatterhof
in Germany (close to Basel, Switzerland) and Les Jardins de Cocagne
in Geneva, Switzerland. Vander Tuin noted that the producer-consumer
food alliance in Geneva had been founded by a man inspired by the
co-op movement in Chile during Salvador Allende’s administration
These experiences shaped Vander Tuin’s thinking as he returned
to the United States and began talking with Witt, Van En, John Root,
Jr., Andrew Lorand, and others. Each individual was generally knowledgeable
about anthroposophy and biodynamic farming (two pillars of Steiner’s
Witt recalls that their discussions were informed by Steiner’s
concept of world economy, and she felt the work of the Schumacher
Society best put those ideas into practice. "One of Steiner’s
major concepts was the producer-consumer association, where consumer
and producer are linked by their mutual interests," she explained.
"And one of Schumaker’s major concepts was ‘to
develop an economy where you produce locally what is consumed locally.’
We began to see CSA as a way to bring these key ideas together."
In those early days there was much talk of biodynamics and anthroposophy
and the "Small is beautiful" philosophy of E.F. Schumacher,
as Witt recalls, but definitely no talk of Japan. "None of
us had heard yet of what was happening in Japan."
On this point, Anthony Graham and Trauger Groh of the Temple-Wilton
Community farm agree. None of the CSA pioneers in the United States
had heard a word about teikei in Japan.
As Anthony recalls, "We (Anthony, Trauger, Lincoln Geiger)
all went to a conference in Kimberton, Pennsylvania, as well as
a group from South Egremont including I believe Robyn Van En. This
was after both of our farms had started, maybe a year later. A speaker
at the conference mentioned what was going on in Japan, and that
was the first any of us learned about it."
In autumn 1985, with Vander Tuin’s enthusiasm added to the
wherewithal of the rest of the community, the Massachusetts group
undertook a project with an apple orchard. Root and a community
of developmentally disabled people from nearby Berkshire Village
sold 30 shares in the orchard, then picked, sorted, and distributed
360 bushels of apples, as well as cider, hard cider, and vinegar.
While that project was under way, the core group made plans. They
began as the CSA Garden at Great Barrington (not Indian Line Farm)
an unincorporated association managed on behalf of all shareholders,
with Witt, Root, Van En and Jan Vander Tuin acting as principals.
The association entered into a three-year lease with Van En to use
land at Indian Line Farm for a garden starting in 1986, the same
year the Temple-Wilton Community Farm started about 80 miles to
the northeast in New Hampshire.
The association that leased Indian Line Farm held onto the name
CSA Gardens at Great Barrington until 1990, when there was a difficult
split. Robyn stayed on her land; the farmers and many members departed
to form the Mahaiwe Harvest CSA at nearby Sunways Farm.
Robyn went on to write the pamphlet "Basic Formula to Create
Community Supported Agriculture," to produce a video "It’s
not just About Vegetables," and in 1992 to found CSA North
America (CSANA), a nonprofit clearinghouse to support CSA development.
In 1997 at age 49, Robyn died of an asthma attack. Her contributions
were later recognized in the naming of a national clearinghouse
of information, the Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources.
After Van En’s death, her son was forced to sell the farm.
The farmers who had been working the land could not afford to buy
it. But with the help of the Schumacher Society, they partnered
with a community land trust and The Nature Conservancy to buy Indian
Line Farm in 1999. This partnership serves as a model for other
According to Susan Witt, the key idea of the Indian Line Farm transaction
is this: The consumers actively took responsibility to hold farmland
open and to make that land available and affordable for farmers
over a long term. Other CSAs, she said, should give serious consideration
to this basic idea.
The Temple-Wilton Community Farm
Anthony Graham was among the founders of the Temple-Wilton (TW)
Community Farm, along with Trauger Groh and dairyman Lincoln Geiger.
Anthony remembers that they were all talking with one another back
in 1985. "Trauger had just moved to New Hampshire from Germany.
He and I and Lincoln and others in this community were talking intensively,
making plans. One day in the autumn we drove out to South Egremont
to meet with the people there and share ideas. There was a lot of
"The folks in Western Massachusetts had their approach and
we had ours," Anthony recalled. "A lot of our inspiration
for the Temple-Wilton farm came out of discussing with Trauger what
he knew from Germany, and from the Camphill Village in Copake, New
York, in 1961.”
Through the 1970s and early 1980s, Trauger, Carl-August Loss, and
other farmers at Buschberghof in Northern Germany had been experimenting
with ideas from the work of Rudolf Steiner. Then Trauger met Alice
Bennett of New Hampshire. They were wed and he moved to be with
"Back in 1985, out of our discussions with Trauger, we decided
on our approach,” remembers Anthony. “We asked members
of the farm community for a pledge rather than asking them to pay
a fixed price for a share of the harvest. We realized that the members
of our community had a wide range of needs and incomes and that
one set price was not necessarily fair for every family. What we
do each year is to present a budget showing the true costs of the
farm over the coming year and then ask the members of the farm to
make pledges to meet the budget.
"Our approach works. It requires honesty and good will, but
it works,” Anthony says. The last four or five years, our
annual budget meeting with the farm members has only taken about
45 minutes. It’s fast, up front, and everyone understands
it by now."
The overall philosophy of the TW Farm evolved from some of Steiner's
ideas spelled out in his anthroposophical writings. Some of the
farm’s key ideas are:
New forms of property ownership—The land
is held in a common by a community through a legal trust. The trust
then leases its property long-term to farmers who use the land to
grow food for the community.
New forms of cooperation—A network of human
relations replaces old systems of employers and employees as well
as replacing the practice of pledging material security (land, buildings,
etc.) to banks.
New forms of economy – (associative economy).
The guiding question is not "how do we increase profits?"
but rather "what are the actual needs of the land and of the
people involved in this enterprise?"
Trauger Groh is retired from active farming but stays close to
the TW Farm. As he looks back over the years, he said he feels satisfaction.
The farm has found a permanent home on good land and has also secured
an orchard. In 2003, he said, the farm had a record harvest, and
it received funding support from state, federal and local sources.
"The farm will easily raise the rest of the money," Trauger
said. "There is enormous public interest. Wilton has voted
at town meeting two years in a row to spend $40,000 of taxpayer
money to support the farm and its programs. Now remember, this is
in skinflint New Hampshire, where a request for money for a new
light bulb can cause a knockdown, drag-out debate. Not one person
has ever stood to speak against the funding request for the farm.
"Now is when all our work is paying off," Trauger observed.
"We have a track record of 18 years. People know us and trust
us. They can see what we are doing for the land and for the community."
Reflecting on the start of CSA in America 18 years ago, Trauger
said "As with all great ideas, the idea of CSA had arrived.
It just needed to emerge. The time was ripe. Who started at what
hour is totally unimportant. What is important is that the CSA initiative
has emerged and developed, and there is now a base for people to
here for Part II, CSA’s
World of Possibilities.
on the horizon for community supported agriculture.
Journalist Steven McFadden co-authored Farms of Tomorrow: Community
Supported Farms, Farm Supported Communities (1990), and Farms of
Tomorrow Revisited (1998) with Trauger Groh. Steven is the director
of Chiron Communications in Santa Fe, NM http://www.chiron-communications.com