Student research finds CSA farmers lament lack of community

Many small farmers want to use food as a vehicle to create community, says Beth Satterwhite ’10, who surveyed 12 Portland-area farmers this spring for her senior thesis.

During the last 20 years, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer through the purchase of shares, and this local food movement has made significant steps forward in improving the supply of fresh, seasonal vegetables, but many farmers want to grow more than food, reports the sociology major.

Many, she says, want their business to be based on something deeper than monetary exchanges. Their goal is to use food as a vehicle to create community.

Satterwhite interviewed farmers affiliated with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), many of whom are highly educated first-generation farmers. They weren’t born into farming, she says, but have adopted the vocation as their calling, rejecting modern agricultural methods as damaging to the environment and rural communities.

“They want personal relationships,” she says. “They want to share their knowledge and experience. They want to create an intentional type of community that connects people to the land and to their sources of food.”

The Willamette Valley, many surmised, would be the perfect place for community-centered agriculture. Portland is known as a model of civic engagement and its residents share a lot of rhetoric around sustainability and community.

“It’s cool to say you’re part of a CSA,” Satterwhite says. “People have read Michael Pollan, but members lead busy lives and are not engaged at a deeper level. Community takes commitment.

“What CSA farmers report is a perceived lack of interest in community,” she says, “which leaves many once-enthused farmers demoralized.”

Stretched thin by farm chores and financial liabilities, they are doubly discouraged when CSA members don’t ask questions or talk to each other. People are willing to spend money, but not time, with one farmer reporting that he has only talked to a few of his customers. They email him and send a check.

“Farmers want to create more points of connection where they can interact with their customers, and their customers can interact with each other,” Satterwhite says. “Every farmer I spoke with wants to get their CSA members out to their farm. Many want to share harvest potlucks or gatherings at the end of the season.”

“Most CSA farmers would like to see more community connections, but we are appreciative of the connections we do have, says Josh Volk, the owner of Slow Hand Farm, a CSA farm in Portland. “Even if the connections are virtual, or limited to once a week at pickup sites, it is still a huge improvement over the complete lack of connection most consumers have with their sources of food.”

Portland Area CSA Coalition

Oregon CSA Farms