Community Supported Agriculture ~
My name is Martha Steenberg. As a student of Environmental Studies at St. Olaf College I have spent a good deal of time thinking about sustainability and the myriad of environmental problems facing the citizens of the world today. I recall hearing a lecture by David Orr, a professor at Oberlin College in Ohio. Orr noted that there is an abundance of negative environmentalism present in the United States today. We do a lot of doomsaying and read literature describing the speed at which we are heading toward ecolgical disaster. I think it is important to read these books. I think it is improtant to listen and to be afraid, and sometimes to get angry. But despair can become paralyzing, and it is easy to throw up your hands and say "this is inevitable." But ecological decay is not inevitable. And so I think there is a great need for positive environmentalism as well--a fresh look at the world that is hopeful and energizing.
As I began to think about a topic for my senior research, I knew I wanted to research farming. I have spent the last two years studying fish--specifically Chinook salmon decline in the Columbia Basin. As I began to research salmon I not only saw what a quagmire it had all become; I saw that agriculture played a huge role in salmon decline. My junior year at St. Olaf I read a couple of books on the current agricultural crisis and was horrified. And so I wanted my senior research to embody something hopeful, an alternative to the industrial agricultural model that has played such a large role in ecological decay and salmon decline. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is positive environmentalism.
There is a lot of bad news in agriculture today. There are many disturbing trends that require our immediate and vigilant attention. But there is good news as well. And it is an endeavor to investigate the good news that I write this paper. Community Supported Agriculture is an agricultural paradigm that offers an alternative to industrialized agriculture. If industrial agriculture is “the process by which agricultural production becomes less a way of life and more a commercial activity (Groh 1997)” then the CSA movement is an attempt to reverse that trend. The CSA movement seeks to combat the destruction of land and people inherent in the industrial model by disengaging from it and building on a set of principles that are environmentally stable, socially equitable and economically viable.
Mary Ellen Frame, a longtime Northfield resident gave a lecture on the current trends in agriculture on February 23rd, 2004. She pointed out that there are two trends—commodification of agriculture, and its counter-current, small-scale quality-oriented production. She noted that each of these trends implies its own set of consequences. When I began my research it was my goal to look at CSA farms in light of these trends paying attention to differing impacts and environmental outcomes of CSA farming in this region. In dealing specifically with the idea of place I hoped to be able to notice ways in which CSA farming aids in building a sense of community and rootedness in a geographic place.
My goal was to describe local Cannon Valley Watersehd CSAs as interesting stories of place-based agriculture and also to put them into a broader national context. In doing this, I was able to look at the implications of their role within the communities and the specific ways in which they combated local ecological concerns. I sought to create a profile of local CSA farms that was normative as well as descriptive. I examined and analyzed what’s going on in industrial agriculture today and how CSA farming combats these dangerous trends, and I also make a normative argument about how these pieces should be connected to each other, and how we ought to make that happen, both locally and nationally.
I began my research by reading current literature on industrial agriculture in the midwest and ecological concerns in this area affected by that agriculture. I then contacted and interviewed local farmers in order to write profiles of their CSA operations. I asked questions regarding the background and personal history of each farmer and their philosophy of sustainability and sense of place. I concluded by using the research I gathered to evaluate the capacity of CSA farms to contribute to the establishment of a sense of place in this region.
To look out upon the agricultural landscape in America is to look upon a changed territory. The last century has seen the burgeoning of industrial agriculture. Ever-increasing numbers of vast industrial mono-crops have replaced a once diverse vista with miles upon miles of uniformity. This transformation is not only an eyesore, it signifies an agricultural paradigm that drains fertility from the land, alienates the farmer from the art of farming, and eradicates biodiversity from our home landscape. As humans we must eat to live, and so the sustainable production of food is an issue with which each citizen should concern himself.
The dominant agribusiness practice in the Midwest is the cultivation of corn and soybean row crops. Art Thicke, a dairyman from southeastern Minnesota notes: “Corn and soybeans are the duel banjos of conventional agriculture that amount to little more than subsidized erosion” (Imhoff 2003).
To watch the transformation of the agricultural landscape in southern Minnesota is to see a decline in small grains and alfalfa and a doubling of the acreage supporting corn and soybean cultivation. This shift has been accompanied by fewer livestock farms and the concentration of acreage into the hands of corporate absentee landlords. There is increased soil erosion and more pest problems. The pollution of groundwater and rivers is at an all time high. The Minnesota River, a tributary of the Mississippi is the most polluted in the watershed and has contributed significantly to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It is becoming more and more apparent that the dominant agricultural system that requires large monoculture farms with increased pesticide and fertilizer use in order to produce corn and soybeans is not sustainable. This dominant agricultural system impacts every aspect of the midwestern environment: the ecology, the economy, and the social stability.
At a seminar at Eagle Bluff Environmental Center concerning conventional
agriculture in the southern Minnesota region, Dr. Gyles Randall noted that
there are three ecological factors of great concern in this region: increased
soil erosion, high nitrate losses, and flooding. Because of tilling and
the intensive cultivation of corn and soybeans there is very little protection
on the surface of the soil until mid-July. Without a cover crop or a deep
root system the big storms that come in the spring wash the topsoil from
the farmlands into the rivers. Exposed soil also has low transpiration
rates (plants moving water from the soil in to the atmosphere) which results
in increased erosion. The sub-surface tile drainage system that takes this
excess water out of the soil and moves it to the river results in high
concentrations of nitrate fertilizers in the river system. The use of nitrate
fertilizers is exceptionally high in corn and soybean production and has
become more concentrated as soil fertility declines. Flooding in April
through July intensifies this problem of soil erosion and water pollution.
Widespread insecticide use (over four million acres in SE Minnesota are
sprayed for aphids) indiscriminately kills of beneficial bugs. The limited
diversity of species under cultivation results in lower economic and biological
These unsustainable farm practices have wide reaching effects. The fertile black soils of the Midwest have been washed away and farmers now cultivate their crops on the underlying sub-soil. Sedimentation in the Mississippi River has led to turbidity impairments and the habitat destruction that inevitably follows. Nitrate concentration lead to algae blooms and directly contribute to the ever-growing Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. But it is not only the land that is affected by these agricultural practices; the economic and social landscape is impacted as well.
Subsidized monocultures and improved biotechnology result in increased supply and decreased demand. The inevitable result is low pay for high cost production. The dominant agricultural system requires large scale in order to be profitable and small farmers just can’t afford to compete. Wal Mart is now the biggest food retailer in the world and four firms own eighty percent of grain production in the United States. Lack of competition in food production results in lack of motivation to produce high quality, sustainable, and healthful crops. Thus we see prices for food that don’t reflect the actual cost of production. The majority of profit goes to absentee landlords and local communities absorb ecological and social consequences.
The industrial agricultural model has caused a drastic decline in the
stability and vibrancy of rural communities. Farm operators are tied less
and less to the land and do not know its character and feel no responsibility
to its sustained health. Corporations go where the money is, where labor
is cheap and profit is high. People, on the other hand, are tied to landscapes
and have vested interest in long-term stability and health. Thus we see
a great giving over of self-determination when we allow corporations to
be responsible for our food production.
Farming is becoming less personal and more polluted. As corporations consolidate their monopoly in the agricultural sector small towns pay the costs. As citizens of small towns like Northfield or Nerstrand, MN we cannot escape our landscape. We are tied to it out of necessity and out of desire. Thus, the industrial agricultural model is toxic not only to the land but to our sense of self as people of the land.