Community Supported Agriculture: Ashwin Paranjpe (Gorus Organic Farming Association)

What inspired you to set up this initiative?

Towards the end of my Masters’ degree in horticulture at the University of Florida, in 2001 I met Dr. Rosalie Koenig who is one of the pioneers of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in the United States. Rosie and her family grow a huge diversity of crops on their 10-acre organic farm in Gainesville, Florida and offer a weekly basket of fresh produce to about 80 local families who purchase a ‘plough share’ from Rosie’s CSA farm. Having grown up in India, I was aware of the transformations happening in Indian society. After the Indian economy was liberalized in the 1990s, the economic growth remained confined to the urban and industrial sectors. Post liberalization, the economic and social divide between rural and urban people started increasing and not decreasing, with consumers becoming more and more oblivious of the farmers’ problems and they were getting more and more disconnected from the soil, their food, and from those who grew their food. Between 2002-2010, farmer suicides in India were at an all-time high with more than 17,000 farmer suicides being reported annually. Although this phenomenon was mostly seen in regions growing cash crops such as cotton and there were several other non-farm factors that played a role in this, the overall financial condition of smallholder farmers in India was alarming. The so-called ‘trickle-down’ effect was nowhere to be seen. So when I saw the wonderful partnership of solidarity and trust between farmers and consumers in Rosie’s CSA network, I started wondering if this model would work in India, at least for per-urban smallholder farmers. The six months I spent at Rosie’s farm made a huge impact on me, and I made up my mind: I will go back to India and start a CSA! Can you please explain the concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)? How does it work?

As the name suggests, it is a mutually beneficial relationship between a farmer and a group of local consumers, typically about 50 to 100 families, depending on the size of the farm. The concept of CSA is built on three fundamental principles: Organic, Local, and Seasonal. In a genuine CSA network, the farmer and consumers sit together at the beginning of the year and co-create a crop plan for about two to three seasons. Based on the anticipated output over this period, the consumers purchase a ‘plough share’ which is a notional share calculated by dividing the overall annual food output of that farm by the number of subscriber families. The cropping plan is decided based on what will ideally grow in the specific soil and climatic conditions, and also on the availability of farm workers or volunteers. In many CSAs the consumers also volunteer at the farm and help out in different farming activities whenever they can. Most consumers also pick up their weekly baskets directly from the farm, thus saving the farmer precious time and energy which can be better utilized in growing food rather than in logistics. This creates a personal bond between consumers and the farm, and consumers start appreciating how much effort is required to grow their food. This also inculcates respect for food amongst other family members, especially kids, ultimately leading to less wastage and greater appreciation of food at the dinner table. The monetary value of the plough share is decided by taking into consideration three main factors: the volume of fresh produce anticipated from the farm over a period of say 12 months, the annual financial needs of the farmer’s family to run the farm and pay for basic living expenses, and the consumers’ ability to pay. Plough shares are typically paid at the beginning of the year, thus providing working capital to the farmer for the entire year. If the season is not good, the deficit is shared equally by all consumers, but if the harvest is good, the extra produce is also distributed equally amongst the consumers. This demonstrates the trust in the relationship and willingness of consumers to share the benefits as well as the ‘risks’ associated with farming. Of course, it takes time and sincerity to build this trust. This collaborative process of deciding the value of food, and sharing the risks as well as benefits of farming are probably the most important aspects that distinguish CSAs from conventional markets where pricing mechanisms are purely based on supply and demand, and there is no mercy shown to the farmer if the harvest is not good due to climatic or other factors that are beyond the farmer’s control. Different CSAs might price their plough shares differently, depending on their specific context. Since the processes involved in small-scale organic farming or sustainable farming are designed to take good care of the environment or cause minimal disturbance to the environment, the value of CSA produce already factors in the cost to the environment which is generally ‘externalized’ by conventional agriculture. What most consumers don’t realize is that the conventional food they buy costs about 30%-50% less than organic produce because it does not factor in the cost to the environment, and by implication, the cost to human society that results from chemical agriculture. Chemical and water intensive agriculture based on monocropping leads to soil compaction and erosion, loss of biological fertility of soil, loss of native biodiversity, and pollution of air, water and land, not to mention the adverse impacts on the health of people who spray agrochemicals and consume food that is grown using agrochemicals.

How can initiatives such as yours help combat the threats facing the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in India today?

In my experience, the three main challenges of smallholder farmers are: quantities of saleable produce are too small due to small land holding, volatility in market prices, inability to access the best market prices due to difficulties in storing fresh produce and inability to transport small quantities of produce over long distances.

Gorus Organic Farming Association started its work in 2008 in Kolwan valley (Mulshi, Maharashtra). Over a period of 10 years, we developed a CSA network of about 30 smallholder farmers and about 250 urban families. Farmers benefited by having assured buy-back prices for their produce. Our prices were typically 50-100% higher than the market prices, and our collection center was within walking distance for most of the farmers in our network. Farmers also benefited from free organic certification through the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS), and regular meetings ensured exchange of information and experiences between farmers. We also had a small seed bank wherein farmers could borrow seeds and return twice the quantity after the crop was harvested.

Thus, CSAs have the potential to bring farmers and consumers closer to each other and create a long term mutually beneficial partnership which reduces the exposure of smallholder farmers to price volatility of conventional markets, reduces their risks, and increases their income and self-respect. On the other hand, it provides consumers with chemical-free, nutritious food and gives them an opportunity to reconnect with their ‘annadata’.

I have observed the evolution of CSAs in India over the past decade, and it is quite clear that CSAs based on the supply of fresh produce are successful mainly in peri-urban areas where the farms are located within a distance of 50-80 km from a city or town, and there is an interested group of urban people who are willing to join hands with local farmers. Beyond 50-80 km, the economics and logistics of fresh produce supply start becoming difficult, and the ability of consumers to visit the farms frequently (which is also one of the guiding principles of the PGS Organic Certification system) reduces significantly.

For smallholder farmers who are far from urban centres, I feel there is a huge potential to still benefit from a CSA kind of model if they supply non-perishable items such as cereals, pulses, and spices. In fact, most CSAs in India run a hybrid model where fresh produce as well as grains and spices are supplied to consumers. The number of CSAs or CSA-like networks is steadily increasing in India, however, I feel CSAs can provide a real solution only for a small fraction of smallholder farmers. For the large majority of smallholder farmers who are in remote or interior areas of the country, fair trade co-operatives are perhaps the best solution.

What are the main challenges you face? How do you overcome them? Small size of land (< 2 acres) owned by smallholder farmers, fairly long distances between rural areas and cities, and consumer’s expectations of a huge variety of vegetables throughout the year are factors that are unique to the Indian context, and require significant tweaking of the western CSA model. It is practically impossible for urban consumers in India to drive for an hour or more through heavy traffic and bad roads to the nearest CSA farm and pick up their produce. We tried to set up pick up points in Pune city but even that did not work so well. So the only way to make this model work was to do home deliveries, which is time consuming and costly. Gorus CSA operated non-stop for 10 years, from 2008 to 2018. During this time, last mile delivery companies such as Dunzo, Delhivery, etc. were just beginning to enter the market. Some of the main challenges we faced were: (a) farmers often did not follow the crop plan decided during our meetings, thus resulting in excess produce or deficit produce which was difficult to handle, (b) grading and quality control at farmer’s end is often not done properly, (c) last mile access for home delivery is very cumbersome, time consuming, and costly, (d) consumers were not able to visit the farms in our network and thus, the relationship remained limited to a typical vendor-customer relationship which was not our intention. (e) managing financial transactions was also challenging since UPI based payment options were not very common when we started our CSA network. Financial discipline (i.e. raising invoices on time, following-up with CSA members for delayed payments, etc.) and the lack of user friendly methods of receiving and making payments were among the significant challenges we faced.

How does Gorus Farms interact with other grassroots agricultural initiatives in and beyond your area?

Throughout our 10-year CSA journey, we have trained and hosted several citizen groups, social entrepreneurs, and NGOs who were interested in starting CSAs in their own cities or towns. We have freely and openly shared our knowledge and experience with all of them, and many have started their own CSA networks now. We regularly procured spices, millets, jaggery powder, honey, natural balms, bees-wax candles, handmade bamboo soaps, etc. from various small rural enterprises or social enterprises such as Last Forest (Tamil Nadu), Alexander Mahagreen Producer Company (Aurangabad), Auroville Bamboo Center (Tamil Nadu), Srishti Honey Collective (Gadchiroli), Earth 360 (Andhra Pradesh) and Timbaktu Collective (Andhra Pradesh) to name a few. It was a beautiful experience working with these organizations because there was a common thread running through all of us – the desire for mainstreaming products that are native, nutritive, natural, non-violent, and non-conventional with the ultimate objective of nurturing sustainable livelihoods in rural areas while preserving ecosystems and cultures of our amazingly diverse country.

What are the main ways in which people, especially those in urban areas, can be a part of/contribute to community supported agriculture?

Urban people can contribute to and participate in CSAs in several ways:

  1. become a CSA member - start purchasing fresh produce, grains, cold-pressed oil, etc. from a genuine CSA in your city/ town,

  2. volunteer your time say once a week in one of the CSA farms and get to know the farmers in your CSA network,

  3. help out on packing days, or help out with taking weekly inventory of products,

  4. if you have space in your house you can host a pick-up point for your local CSA network – besides being immensely helpful to the CSA, this also is a good way to make new acquaintances and new friends,

  5. software professionals can help CSAs to create a website or link existing websites to a shopping cart/ payment gateway or even develop an App,

  6. finance professionals, chartered accountants, etc. can help out in streamlining financial transactions, making smart investments, maintaining financial records, computation of taxes, etc.

  7. raise funds to create seed banks for the farmers in your CSA network, raise funds to provide interest-free loans to CSAs if they need to invest in any equipment, etc.

  8. get to know the farmers and CSA facilitators and give them moral support,

  9. spread awareness about chemical-free food and eco-friendly products amongst your friends and family,

  10. organize and participate in farm days when consumers get together, harvest farm produce, cook it together and eat it together,

  11. involve kids and youth in the farm activities from a young age because this creates a strong bond with soil, nature, and food. It also creates a sense of respect for those who grow food, and inculcates a habit of not wasting food.

  12. organize small food festivals to showcase traditional Indian food, especially millets, old varieties of rice, native varieties of vegetables and fruits, etc. that may disappear in a few years,

  13. spread awareness about the importance of sustainable agriculture and CSAs among politicians and policy makers.

What advice would you give to others who would try to build something like this?

To run a successful CSA, you need people with diverse skill sets but who share a common vision. You need at least 5-6 people who are fully committed, and have the time as well as enthusiasm for running the CSA. CSAs where only one or two people were running the entire show may not last very long as these people get tired after some time. Inducting dedicated youngsters into the CSA would really help spread out the workload and also bring in new energy and enthusiasm.

People who initiate a CSA need to have clarity of purpose, and need to have their priorities right. Writing a constitution which contains the vision, mission, and objectives is very important. One must not forget that at the end of the day, a CSA is an enterprise. A successful enterprise can sustain itself for a reasonable amount of time only if it has the ability to change, adapt, and respond appropriately to changing circumstances. However, understanding which aspects of the CSA’s vision, mission, and objectives are negotiable and which ones are non-negotiable is equally important. The role of each stakeholder, i.e. farmers, consumers, CSA staff, and CSA volunteers must be very clear. Ideally, everyone who’s part of the CSA should sign off on and agree to a common pledge, a common set of guiding principles, and a long term vision. Mechanisms deciding prices, conflict resolution, making major changes in the mode of functioning, etc. should be clearly defined right at the beginning. Quality standards, organic standards, and conformity with basic food safety laws needs to be understood by all stakeholders.

CSA is a two-way street. It works only if there is a group of urban consumers who really want to eat healthy food and support sustainable livelihoods on one hand, on the other hand, a group of farmers who are genuinely interested in growing chemical-free, non-violent food as a lifestyle choice with lifelong commitment to chemical-free agriculture. Both sides have to be on the same page, build trust, and share a long term vision. CSAs need a lot of patience and hard work, and they don’t work if the consumers or farmers have short-term financial goals or commitment.

Financial discipline, equity, and transparency are the backbone of a CSA. Sound financial planning, fair pricing of products, ethical treatment of staff, and efficient systems and processes are absolutely necessary for sustaining CSA networks.

Today, CSAs have to compete in a market which is full of low-cost home delivery options. Building a solid base of farmers, consumers, staff, and volunteers who demonstrate long-term commitment and understand the value of good food, sustainable food production practices, and ethical business is the true wealth of a good CSA network.

Ashwin Paranjpe is founder of Gorus Organic Farming Association and also an ecology and water researcher.