After quitting my job as a school teacher in 2010 to become a full-time organic farmer, I was left with a dilemma. I was quite certain that I could grow high quality produce, but what was I going to do with it? I had heard about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs from various other small-scale farmers with more experience than myself. Many of them touted this model as a way forward for the small-scale farmer, and a way to assure the farmer income to make a living on a small acreage. I had not yet been fired in the furnace of reality when I heard these proposals for a local agrarian model. The stars were still twinkling in my eyes, as reality’s baseball bat hadn’t yet knocked them loose. That changed during my first season as a full-time farmer. This is the story of how I, as a first-year farmer, made a profit using the CSA model.
Before I begin with my story, I need to explain the CSA model and why it fits with the Distributist ideal. The term “CSA”, which stands for “Community Supported Agriculture”, is a sort of subscription service used by a farmer to provide various farm-related goods directly to the local consumer. There are many benefits for both farmer and consumer in this relationship. The consumer can be assured that the food they receive is raised in a healthy manner, is fresh, is grown locally, and is free of many harmful chemicals. In other words, they can be assured that their food is real food. The consumer can also build a real relationship with a real farmer, rather than supporting the food company giants. The farmer receives a fair price for his work and is able to get funds early in the season to continue his farming. He can also concentrate on producing high quality food (or other goods), rather than focusing on marketing, with the assurance that he has a waiting market for his goods. Prior to the growing the season, the farmer advertises his CSA to people who might be interested. These people are given the opportunity to buy a share of something (produce, eggs, meat, bread, etc.) for the season directly from the farmer. This “something” will be dropped off each week for a set number of weeks at a meeting point convenient to the consumer. For produce, this typically ranges from the beginning to the end of the growing season. That’s a CSA in a nutshell.
My first year of farming began with rain… lots and lots of rain. My young spring plants really don’t mind such weather. In fact, my lettuces were beautiful and bright for that first late April farmer’s market. I packed our big conversion van full to the brim with all sorts of spring greens. Bright lettuces, radishes, and dark green spinach were all there in our beautiful hand-crafted farmer’s market stand. My spirits were high until I got to the market. Then the clouds let forth their continued and persistent rain. The market was a wash, and this was the model for the next several weeks. We earned about $200 at that market. I began to add things up. I had no control over the market buyers or over the weather. The guys next to me at the main market took more than a half-million dollars in government subsidies the year before, and sold mostly grocery store overstock for prices that Wal-Mart couldn’t compete with. I, however, grew all of my own vegetables. I did it without any pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, or government subsidies. I didn’t have a hundred workers working for minimum wage to pick those precious green beans that fetched a high price at the market, nor did I have thousands of dollars’ worth of greenhouses to extend my season almost indefinitely. I needed a way to control the income that came in from my produce. The market had too many factors over which I had no control. I wasn’t there selling my produce as a hobby; I was there to make a living and support my family. I needed a model that would offer me a just wage, and that was in keeping with my ideals of selling locally and staying away from the big box stores. I now realized how vital setting up a CSA was going to be to our success as small farmers.
I had set up a CSA and advertised locally, but with little success. The first week of the CSA came and we had twelve members. Suddenly it hit me that I was trying to advertise in the wrong places. Two days after that first drop-off for the CSA was the next farmer’s market. I put out a sign that said: “Join the Ford Family CSA.” In two weeks our CSA was full to capacity. The rest is history. We had a successful and even profitable first year, despite its troubles. The rain that was so plentiful early in the season became one of the worst summertime droughts in Kansas history. The rain literally stopped and didn’t come back until after the season was over. Nonetheless, we were able to provide every member of our CSA with more produce than they actually paid for. We built many friendships with those in our CSA and some of them even shed tears as they left the drop-off on the last day of our season. They had been given the news that we were moving to our new farm, and that the CSA was moving with us. That is the personal nature of a local economic endeavor. One couple who was close to our age discovered that we were Catholic (we don’t proselytize). Conversation ensued and we eventually invited them over for dinner. Now, although they are both Protestant, they are attending Mass regularly together rather than their own church. They are discovering the true Faith, and I believe that eventually they will both join the Church. The impact of economics at the level of the human person is beautiful.
Distributism calls for the distribution of real property as widely as possible amongst the populace. When Distributism is applied to agrarianism, it calls for the widest possible distribution of productive land. The CSA model is a way to live a Distributist agrarian life without having an outside job. Without a way to market goods grown or raised on a small-scale for a reasonable profit, we can be certain that there is no future for agrarianism. So long as there is a local population willing to buy locally, or who can be educated about the benefits of healthy, local food, then there will always be a ready and steady market. The farmer’s market offers a nice secondary outlet for our goods, but it offers no stability. In the past, farmers knew they had a waiting market for their goods. Those farmers didn’t have a big box store to compete with, nor did they have to sell their produce in competition with corporations stuffed by subsidies. Those days are past, and today we have to find new and ingenious ways to live on the land. Community Supported Agriculture is a way of continuing this tradition of small-scale farming in our own times.
When we began our journey into farming almost two-year ago, we had very little money and very little experience. We felt it was God’s will for us, and so we jumped. Getting started in small-scale farming requires little start-up cost compared to most business endeavors. It can begin as a hobby in a side yard. There are even those who are able to make a living on a city lot that is farmed intensively. The idea of urban farming has been very popular in cities such as Detroit, which has an abundance of empty and abandoned lots. We began with a small, set amount from the sale of our house, and we ended the season with more than what we started. We had to purchase all of our equipment new as we had done no farming of this scale prior to this year. No, we didn’t grow rich in our first year of farming. We lived with my wife’s parents for that entire time, and we borrowed land from her father. Without the assistance of her parents we would’ve had a much longer road to full-time farming. We made many, many mistakes, and many, many sacrifices, but in the end we had more success than we had failures. Many businesses typically have five-year plans at start-up. This is the time frame that they have to start making a profit. In the meantime, they live on borrowed money, and they attempt to pay the interest on their loans. Our agricultural endeavor required no loans, and we made a profit from our modest beginnings. Yes, I fully realize that we were in a unique situation, but I also realize that similar situations for others can be found if you are willing to make the sacrifices. In fact, we have even now moved to our new farm, and we are living off of what we made last year as we prepare for our second year of farming.
Distributist agrarianism is only something that can be lived out by individual small farmers and craftsmen and those who buy from them. If good Christian farmers do not live out this vision, then it will not happen. Those who do not share our faith will always fail in certain ways, because they don’t understand the most basic truths behind a rural movement, or behind a Distributist movement. Non-Christians often lack certain fundamental truths, such as respect for human life, while overemphasizing lesser ones, such as respect for creation. With this lack of balance, we too often find pantheism and hedonism alive and thriving on many modern small-scale farms. However, we as Catholics seek a life in tune with our nature, one where we can raise healthy families and healthy food. Yet, it is not only the small farmers who can help assist in the restoration of a healthy social order, but also everyone who buys these goods regularly. By choosing to buy from your local farmer, you most certainly are assisting and furthering the reign of Christ the King. G.K. Chesterton in “The Outline of Sanity” points out: “Of all the things in the world, the rush to the big shops is the thing that could be most easily stopped, by those who rush there.”1 It is really not so much a question about necessity as it is about the will. If Distributism is to be successful, if we are to return to a Catholic Social Order, then we need men, women, and families who are willing to do more than merely write about it.
So it is that I found a way to live out Distributism in an agrarian setting. It was not easy, and it is not perfect. It was humiliating at times to depend on others for many of the daily necessities of life. I had the difficulty of not owning my own home where I was king. Also, if I hadn’t been born and raised in the country and blessed with a great amount of practical knowledge, my first year as a farmer would probably have been my last. I still made a few disastrous mistakes, but in the end I passed through the blazing furnace of ignorance and became a steeled farmer. I think that farming is one of those things in which you often become a veteran after the first year, but in which you are always learning more. Our first year was a true blessing, and through our CSA, I began to have a larger vision for what I could do in the Distributist and Agrarian Movement. Now the question is: What can you do?
- G.K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity, (Norfolk : IHS Press, 2001), 72.