Julie Graham Ted White University of Massachusetts Amherst

The Impact of the Community Supported Agriculture Model on Diverse Economic Practices: A Qualitative Investigation in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts

In the wake of the recent global economic downturn, interest in economic alternatives has grown and alternative economic models and practices have gained visibility. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which has existed in the U.S. for nearly twenty-five years, is an economic model that exemplifies this growing interest in alternatives to capitalism. CSA farms involve their member/share-holders in diverse non-capitalist practices such as non-market pricing (advance payment directly to farmers), volunteer labor arrangements, community land ownership, and work trades that require members to trade a designated amount of farm work in exchange for the produce they receive.

This doctoral dissertation research identifies the diverse economic practices that begin with CSA and examines the ways in which they are implemented, whether they are modified or expanded, and whether they are being extended by participants into non-agricultural sectors and activities. Are CSAs fostering new possibilities for ethical, sustainable alternatives in the wider economy or is their potential impact being diminished by market pressures, exploitative labor arrangements, and consumer exclusivity? To address these questions, this study (1) inventories and evaluates diverse economic practices typical of CSA; (2) asks CSA farmers, farm workers, and farm members to explore both the positive and negative aspects of their CSA experience; and (3) prompts them to recognize whether and how their participation in CSA has supported their involvement in diverse economic activities beyond CSA. Data collection involves qualitative research methods including in-depth interviews and focus groups with both CSA farmers/workers (producers) and farm members (consumers). On-site participant observation at six CSAs in Western Massachusetts will provide insight into the role of place and space in CSA experience and the social interactions between producers and consumers. Historical research will provide a context for the origins and evolution of CSA as an economic model. Based on an analysis of the data, the research will identify which geographic conditions, economic practices, emotional experiences, and social interactions at CSA have a positive impact on expanding diverse economic alternatives and which have neutral or negative impacts.

As a compelling alternative to mainstream agribusiness food production and distribution networks, the popular CSA movement is increasingly in the spotlight. This study will contribute to our knowledge of the wider impacts of CSA and, more generally, to our understanding of how small scale, diverse economic alternatives develop and become integrated (or not) into the larger economic context. The broader impacts of the study include making the actual practices of a diverse economy and pragmatic alternatives to capitalism more visible to policy makers and economic development specialists. The research findings will assist policy makers at the local, regional, national and international levels in developing more diverse development pathways and resilient economic programs, serving a greater range of needs through offering a wider spectrum of options for participants. As a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement award, this award will also provide support to enable a promising young scholar to establish a strong independent research career.

Project Report

Project Goal: To investigate how participation in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and other Community Supported Enterprises (CSE) has impacted the economic behaviors and attitudes of participants. Specifically, this research asks: have CSA and CSE been able to encourage diverse economic practices that strengthen and expand alternatives to typical capitalist economic practices? And if so, how has this occurred? Major Activities: Qualitative research techniques were utilized. In depth interviews were conducted with participants of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and other Community Supported Enterprises (CSE) from 2010-2012. Examples of CSEs include Community Supported Fisheries, etc. In total, 56 interviews were conducted. Participatory field observation took place at 5 CSA farms and at 3 CSEs; all located in Massachusetts. Academic literature on CSA and CSE, as well as archival promotional materials from CSA pioneers was carefully reviewed. Significant Results: My research shows that CSA has been able to stimulate significant participation in diverse alternative economic activity amongst participants. A shift in attitude about the viability of alternatives to capitalism was observed in the data, showing that many CSA participants became more motivated to expand their own alternative economic practices as a result of participating in CSA. Some of the alternative/non-capitalist economic behaviors documented in this study include: barter systems and work trades, gleaning and foraging, volunteer labor, fundraising and donating to charity, community ownership and permanent preservation of farmland (removing farmland from market-valuation). The results of this research have been disseminated via the following channels: -Through paper presentations given at academic conferences -Through articles that have been accepted for publication in academic journals -Through the open online access to the completed dissertation -Through guest presentations about the research given in university classes -Through non-academic public workshop events Impacts: The impact of this project on the geography and related social sciences disciplines is that it demonstrates the ability of individual citizens to successfully organize, construct, and maintain local, community-based economies as a significant alternative to capitalist economies. Geographers and other social scientists have long debated the power and influence of global capitalism. Many critique the negative social and environmental impacts of capitalist forces such as exploitive labor systems, ecological destruction, and unequal wealth distribution but argue that there are no meaningful alternatives. A small but growing number of social scientists are focusing more specifically on identifying where alternatives to capitalism do exist and are studying how these alternatives could increase. Sharing that focus, this project contributes significantly to the academic inquiry into current alternative economic models and practices that counter some of the social and environmental problems typical of capitalist economic activity. Other Impacts: CSA and CSE continually foster alternatives to: market pricing, waged labor, and capitalist enterprise structures. Instead, the economic practices abundant at CSA and CSE prioritize community control and benefit rather than private gain. This study of CSA and CSE documents the successful efforts of citizens to self-organize community economic development projects. When community groups collaborate in these ways, local and regional government is spared the ongoing costs of managing the projects and of owning and managing the properties. Instead, communities gain direct control and autonomy over setting goals and priorities. Therefore, these research findings support the continual and increased funding of agricultural preservation both in the form of government funding and community based funding. Land preservation relieves market pressure and allows communities to use land to meet social needs, not just financial needs. CSA and CSE also demonstrate the ability to provide dynamic education and training to participants. CSA and CSE seek to bring producers and consumers into closer, more mutually beneficial relationships and this creates a fertile environment for the exchange of information and more hands-on experiential education as well. CSA does this by providing apprenticeship trainings for aspiring farmers and by hosting a variety of public workshops related to food and livestock raising, health, nutrition, energy consumption, etc. Since CSA has proven to be a successful hub for public education, this research supports increased funding for educational activities at CSA/CSE through government grants and local donations and/or sponsorships.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Thomas J. Baerwald
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University of Massachusetts Amherst
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