CSAs as Relationship Engines

To hear Terra Bella farm manager Joe Sunderland tell it, what's happening on their farm is the most natural thing in the world. "People are naturally drawn to want to have community," he says. "You give them the opportunity to meet on common ground and the rest is not brainwork -- it's natural." At Terra Bella, located in San Francisco's East Bay town of Pleasanton, all the members come to the farm to pack and pick up their produce. People tend to come around the same time each week, so they run into the same people time and again. At some point they begin get to know one another. Some people bring their kids, and many people linger on the farm, chatting with other members. A farm play group is being established this year, where several parents will look after the kids while other parents (including the farmers) work on the farm.

The farm also has a bulletin board where members are welcome to post notices of community events or information about their businesses. "There's lots of great referrals. These are all like-minded people," says farmer Shawn Seufert. Members barter, too, with each other - massage for daycare, for example, and with the farm - like graphic design for produce. Terra Bella also barters with others in the community: vet services for tomatoes, and produce for baked goods.

Shawn and Joe attribute the growing community among their members to the particular structure of this CSA. Members bump elbows over boxes of cauliflower and salad greens. "It's easy to start a conversation when you're talking about food," Sunderland says. "Our members already have something in common. The food brings people together, but the CSA is just the starting point."

Across the country at A Place on Earth CSA in Turners Station, KY, farmers Carden and Courtney Willis are part of a similarly synergetic community. Here, the growth point for the community seems to be an attachment to the farm itself, and its care. Volunteers fill a few key roles, and a small group of working members each contribute a half-day of labor per week. Carden says they all look forward to their mornings on the farm, where they work and then share a meal together, week after week through the seasons. They are an unlikely group - including a retired Navy man, an interior designer and a nurse - brought together by their love for this farm, their willingness to participate in the labor food requires, and the fondness that has grown between them over time. Carden wrote about the group in a recent farm newsletter.

"Our relationship is entirely forged over this food at this place.  Food is not yet a fact on the table but a work in progress.  We all know the sometimes excruciating lengths we go to, and we all know the primal, pure triumph and joy of the exquisite specimen.  Tuesday morning we work, and Tuesday mid-day we banquet.  And just so much as the work can be anciently agonizing, the dining can be Epicurean.  It is only right to love the eating of the food and the gathering at the table to the same degree that you lavish love on the food as it is growing.  Courtney makes the vegetables sing the sweet story of their life with delectable dishes, Stan brings his trusty, tasty loaf of bread and someone may furnish a delightful dessert.  Good honest work, delicious eating, laughter and companionship accompanying and easing digestion—the ritual is complete."

Carden sees that CSA may provide the footings on which alternative economies will be built. Their farm, too, barters. But perhaps more significantly, they have story after story of people offering their labor simply to help each other out. Last year, for example, the farm needed an eight foot deer fence installed around three acres. Picture two hundred 12 foot posts, each sunk three to four feet deep, strung with 2400 feet of 8 foot tall woven wire fence. Hard, heavy, awkward work, and pretty near impossible had their neighbors and members not turned out to help. Carden's description of the project made me think of the days when neighbors worked to bring in each others' harvest, bring up the kids, raise the barns. People's relationship to labor was different in those days. The sharing of work was an economic necessity, and lending a hand was what being part of the community meant. Nowadays most of us are more accustomed to exchanging our time and skill for money. Perhaps what CSA offers us - besides great produce -- is a chance to experience what it is like, as Carden puts it, to be "part of something that's not based on being on the clock." To give of ourselves, to connect through our common appreciation for work and food, and ultimately to belong to a real community. This isn't one of the usual reasons given for joining a CSA, but if you find it, it will surely be the reason that keeps you.

Back to the March 2010 Newsletter