Monday, 17 May 2010

Community supported agriculture (CSA)

Back in November last year, when I wrote about the Zero Growth Economics weekend, I included a short section on CSA because one of our optional workshop sessions was on that theme (see post dated 5 November 2009, 'A Zero Growth Economics?'). Caz and Tom Ingall gave a session about their project, Canalside Comunity Food, and I included just a brief paragraph. Last weekend, I visited Canalside, along with a group of organic growers who are members of Heart of England Organic Group, and we were given a guided tour, a brief history, and information about how the whole scheme works. These last two probably make up the information that participants in Tom and Caz's workshop got at the Woodbrooke weekend.

CSA is an umbrella term for schemes that link customers/consumers to growers in a partnership that shares both the risks and the benefits. It isn't just another name for a veg-box scheme. If you subscibe to a box scheme, you're guaranteed a certain amount of food for your money. Mostly this will be local and seasonal, but might be supplemented by bought-in produce at lean times of year, or if there have been particular reasons why the local crop has failed or is inadequate. Many such box schemes are set up to provide secure markets for the growers - but that's only if the growers produce. If poor weather, or pests and diseases, cause a crop failure, then the grower is not protected and the consumers get their produce supplied from elsewhere.

In a CSA scheme you buy a share - so if the yield falls, so does your share of it. The risk is shared with the grower.

Canalside came about folllowing discussions with Action 21 (the local Agenda 21 group). A CSA scheme was thought to be a good idea, and then Tom Ingall said that part of Leasowe Farm could be used. Tom is the son of the farmer who owns the land, and wanted to be involved in farming but in a different way. Canalside rents its space from the farm, and employs some of Tom's time - so the whole venture could also be viewed as a means of diversifying for the farmer.

Canalside Community Food is set up as a Social Enterprise (SE): a not-for-profit company. The two main issues for any hoped-for CSA are finding the land (of course!) and finding someone willing and competent to do the accounts, deal with the legal ramifications of being an SE, and making sure the scheme both stays solvent and makes no profit.

Some CSA schemes ask members to purchase their share by lump sum once a year, in the early spring. This has a benefit to the grower in that the money for all the upfront investment comes in at the start of the season, providing ready cash for seed purchase, repair and maintenance of tools and machinery, and so on. The disadvantage of this is that it excludes from membership people who don't have access to several hundred pounds at one go. In the Canalside project, members pay by monthly standing order, and are required to give 3 months notice if they want to withdraw, to give the scheme time to recruit a replacement. The project is set up to create 130 shares, of which 115 are currently taken. When there is surplus food, beyond what members take, it is supplied to a few local food outlets, thus generating some income for the scheme.

At Canalside there is provision for a limited number of 'work shares', where members work a certain number of hours in the year instead of paying. This is great for people who are time-rich but cash-poor, as they get access to good, healthy food. It helps the scheme as a whole by keeping labour costs down. Additionally, every member is required to do 3 half days work per year, and this is usually done on certain work days, where a large number of volunteers, all present at once, can make some tasks much easier, and can turn other tedious chores into a fun co-operative exercise. The scheme also has a bonfire and outdoor cooking area, with a yurt for shelter, and makes sure that frequent social events, with food, keep the member group feeling like a community.

Most of the members are very local, which is the best way to keep associated food miles down. The location makes it difficult for most people to walk, bus or cycle to collect their weekly share, so there are some car miles associated with the scheme, but vastly less than the food miles attached to supermarket food. I have been interested in the scheme since it started, but I live too far away (10 miles and 2 buses) for it to make sense for me to particpate. And the scheme is, of course, organic. Three growers are employed. One works 5 days in the main growing season and 4 days in the winter. The others work fewer hours. There is also a part-time administrator/book-keeper.

Canalside started life with a pig club - a group of people clubbing together to buy a number of weaners, pay someone to rear them, and then share the meat. In the meantime, the pigs very effectively 'rotovated' the field and grubbed up perennial weeds and roots, preparing the land for growing vegetables. At the end of this first project, the members (and others interested, who might become members) made it clear that they wanted vegetables, and not meat. So the current veg-growing scheme was set up.

Some of the growing is done in a row of 5 polytunnels, with the usual annual crop-rotation between them:

Tender crops (eg: peppers, aubergine, tomatoes) are grown in the tunnels, but also hardy crops so that the cropping season can be extended. A drip hose system is used for irrigation, which the most efficient way of using water, although it isn't always the best method for every crop.

Lettuces (centre of picture), spring onions (to the right) and leek seedlings (left). Drip hose is visible to the right of the spring onions. Strings hanging down are for when the crop rotation brings tomatoes, beans or peas - all of which need supports - to this tunnel.

Tomato plants, with length of fleece lying alongside - used to cover them at night while ground frosts are still a threat.
On the right, brassicas that are being harvested as spring greens - taking outer leaves and leaving the plant to grow on. Small plants of new season's vegetables on the left - I can't recall what they were and the picture is too small to see! Irrigation hoses clearly visible.

Early carrots, covered in fleece to protect from carrot fly. Just visible at the far end are tables with module trays of seedlings to transplant when space becomes available - part of successional sowing/harvesting.

Tables of module trays.

Other module trays stand on trailers outside and are covered with fleece at night.

Hardy crops, and those requiring a lot of space, or to stay in the ground a long time, are grown outside in the fields. Here is a field of rows of earthed-up potatoes.
Fleece is also used to protect young crops outdoors.

A new venture is a field of nut trees - this is a serious long-term investment by the group, as it will be some years before a significant crop can be harvested.

Close-up of one of the young nut-trees.

A second long-term venture is the planting of an orchard. Advice was taken from Permaculture expert, Patrick Whitefield. He surveyed the farm and advised on the best location for the orchard (in terms of shelter, wind direction, etc). He also applied a simplified form of permaculture 'forest garden' principles, and so the orchard consists of alternate rows of top fruit (trees such as apple, pear, cherry, and so on) and soft fruit bushes (currants, gooseberries, etc). As the trees grow up, they will provide the shelter that the soft fruit will benefit from. The rows are oriented north-south to gain maximum benefit from the sunlight.
The administrative centre of the project is in this yurt.

Noticeboard outside the yurt for group members.

Inside the yurt, where members collect their weekly veg share. The scheme does not have its own livestock, but members can order eggs from a nearby organic farm.

Benches inside the yurt where the week's harvest is laid out. Notices tell people what weight of each item constitutes this week's share (members can subscribe to a 'small' or 'large' share). Each person weighs out and takes their own share.

The location of the Canalside project is very much a 'farm' - it was only when I saw it that I realised I had expected it to look more like a market garden (because of it being all fruit and veg). The advantage of the location, and the association with the farm, is that there is no shortage of land. The CSA adviser who helped to set up the project told us that the greatest problem most groups have in getting started is finding the land - Canalside had a head start!
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