Above: Members of the CSA at work on one of the collective farming days. Thanks to Ciara Kelly for the photos.
Rashers Tierney talks to Seamus Bradley about a novel model of food supply that cuts out the big box retailers and puts a group of people and a local farmer into a mutually beneficial relationship.
Can you explain to our readers what a Community Supported Agriculture scheme is and how it works? How many of them exist around the country and do you see yourselves as part of a movement?
It is a system where a direct relationship is established between a grower and a group of people or members. Our scheme offers seasonal vegetables for 40 weeks – from June to February inclusive for a set weekly payment. The idea is that there is some of the risk of farming shared among a group while at the same time members benefit by getting fresh, local and seasonal food from a local grower. The grower benefits by having a ready market for their produce. Yes, i see myself as part of a greater CSA movement internationally and also as part of an alternative approach to agriculture whereby there is a direct relationship with the end consumers.
How are Community Supported Agriculture schemes different from many of the direct to door veggie box schemes that folk might be more familiar with?
CSA schemes are different in a number of respects. Firstly members cannot pick and choose what they get in the weekly box/share. This is decided by what is available for harvest and therefore is always in season. It also differs in that members commit to receiving whatever vegetables (or fruit or other produce) the farmer provides and coming direct from a local farm establishes a local connection that can be absent in other direct to door type schemes. The members are also more directly involved in decisions on what happens in the group and such decisions are not solely based on financial ends.
How did you both get into the CSA movement? Were you from farming backgrounds to begin with or did you find another route into it?
I am from a sheep farming background but came to growing vegetables through a circuitous route. I didn’t know anything about growing vegetables and began growing through community gardens in Dublin. A group of friends were interested in the idea of Community Supported Agriculture and i said i would have a go at growing for them. I’m still at it!
Are Community Supported Agriculture Schemes by their nature rather niche or have you examples of them working at a mass scale elsewhere?
We’re still finding our feet. In other places where they have been around for longer such as the UK, continental Europe and America the model is a very viable alternative to conventional agriculture. There are examples of multiple farmers providing into a single CSA scheme and others where things such as meat, fish and dairy are provided also. I see it as consumer driven and through that it can come to challenge the dominance of chain stores. It’s sort of like moving backwards to move forwards – where years ago local people bought their fresh produce locally – there is a resurgence of interest nowadays in sourcing local food with added health and social impacts.
I was surprised at the variety of produce throughout the growing season. Nuts amounts of cucumbers and then things like coriander, which I thought wouldn’t fare too well in our climes. Can ye give readers some idea of what they could expect throughout the season and some of the more unusual things that pop up?
The mix of salad will vary throughout the year. The first boxes might include broad beans, salad, scallions, radish, early turnips and through the summer there will be strawberries, tomatoes, courgettes, cucumbers. Later in the summer and into autumn there will be onions, peppers and potatoes with the winter months gearing more towards root vegetables such as carrots, beetroot, turnips and parsnips
Growing up down the country I was very familiar with the concept of the Meitheal years ago. A local farmer might donate a bit of land say, other locals would provide machinery and seeds, then whole families would show up to harvest the crop and it was shared out among the community. Potatoes predominantly! The CSA strikes me as having something of that spirit, with members gathering to help on farm days. Would you be familiar with these old Meitheal practices and would they strike a chord with you?
Yes, I remember Meitheals on my grandfather’s farm up in Tyrone – likewise for potatoes. There would be a big dinner as part of the days work and this is something we try to bring through to the CSA group. Farm days are more of a social trip to the country for many of the members than a big days work but I think everyone gets something out of it – at least a slice of cake.
Folks out there probably have some inkling of just how weighed in favour of bigger farmers financial grants and supports might be in Ireland. Are there any supports at all for getting CSAs off the ground? If not, what kind of supports could be put in place to spur them on?
There are no grants specifically for CSAs but some overlap may occur for example if a grower was organic they could avail of organic grants for horticulture, typically 40% capital costs. Apart from that CSAs often lack funds to access things such as land, tunnels, machinery (even small scale). Where groups are together for a period they can help a lot in raising funds towards these costs. Supports that might be offered could be low interest loans or seed funding to get new CSAs up and going. Training is another area where support could be hugely beneficial to widen the options available to new growers.
Are small farms and small crops less suited to heavy machinery, so does that mean it’s quite traditional and “hands on” farming in other ways? Is the work itself hard?
The work is rewarding but you do have to be cut out for it a bit – what’s not to love about planting a seed and watching it grow into a crop? I also feel the seasonal nature of the work is more in tune with how we’re meant to function – faster in the summer and slower in the winter (ideally).
Any time I mention the CSA to people, it’s the price they balk at. People are just so used to paying extremely low prices for veg in the huge chain stores. It kinda leads to an assumption that it’s only relatively well off hippy dippy types or yummy mummies that can take part in these projects. Is this an unfair description? Is it an attitude that needs to change?
Haha, yes, we’re living off your hippy dippy whims and yummy mummy fancies. Funny, the thing that makes food artificially low in cost is that there are many costs not factored in such as oil, machinery (someone has to make it), the cost to the environment etc. The way chain stores work is they ask farmers to quote a base price for say a tonne of carrots.
Bigger farmers are better able to compete in terms of the base costs and therefore produce massive quantities for relative little expense. This has typically squeezed small and medium farmers out of business. I think there needs to be a massive overhaul of the supermarket model which begins to embrace local growers and consumers have a role to play here in demanding local, fresh seasonal. Viva CSA!
Head over to the CSA website here.