In the short lull between seasons that we get at the top of the year, my mind is sometimes directed toward the wider landscape in which our CSA and others operate.
Generally unseen by CSA customers are the support organizations that provide help with visibility, marketing, professional development and skill-sharing necessary to the farms which grow their food. Fair-Share, the organization that provides these services in much of southern Wisconsin, is probably familiar to eaters as the sponsor of the annual open-house at which CSA farms advertise their wares to potential clientele. In its earlier years the organization was known as MACSAC (Madison Area CSA Coalition), a group of eaters as well as farmers who came together with a mission to educate the public about sustainable farming issues in order to help kickstart the CSA movement in Madison during the early 1990s. Given the solidarity and general bon ami that exists within the community of CSA practitioners, it might seem hard to imagine that there was a brief period of schism and dissension back in the first decade of the millennium.
As a member of MACSAC in 2007, Hilltop was notified that the organization's board of directors was considering making organic certification – optional for member farms until that point – mandatory. Shortly after 2000, the USDA – largely at the behest of organic growers – had promulgated rules requiring anyone labeling agricultural products as organic meet certain criteria and be certified by an independent body. The move was meant to stem the rapid devaluation of the term “organic” as larger and less scrupulous players entered what was an increasingly lucrative market. The aim was laudatory but also rendered the produce of non-certified organic farms no longer, technically, organic.
Rumors of a possible switch in policy to mandatory certification had circulated among MACSAC farms for a number of months by 2007, so a more formal change to the rules was not unexpected. MACSAC was, and always had been, an association of farmers using organic methodology, so there was no particular reason to expect that requiring certification would be controversial, except perhaps for the costs it would impose on the individual farms. The MACSAC Board perspicuously headed-off this objection by offering financial assistance to growers for whom certification would pose an undue financial stress. To allay any additional concerns, MACSAC called a special round-table meeting for member farms to express their views on the policy change before taking any formal action.
Farmers can be a squirrly lot, even when – as in this case -- many had been recently-minted from urbane professional-types and other city slickers (like myself). Through several weeks of email exchange, farms aired their perspectives on mandatory certification and it gradually became clear that opinions were sharply divided.
So, when the day of the round-table arrived in the Spring of 2008, contention was anticipated. I took my seat wondering just how my fellow farmers would express their reactions to what many perceived as a sudden sea-change to their professional standing, both in the eyes of MACSAC and, by extension, the general public to which MACSAC was an essential conduit. For the next two hours I sat transfixed as my 30-odd colleagues – ringed round in a talking-circle – passionately declaimed their views.
Many ripostes were made to the proposed policy. No where in MACSAC's founding charter, for example, was the word “organic” to be found – “sustainable” was the language in the mission statement. That left some smaller producers wondering aloud which system seemed more sustainable in the long-term – one in which a significant amount of money and time were annually diverted from soil-care to obtaining the stamp of a certifier, or one in which eaters simply knew their farmers face-to-face, visited their farm, and trusted them; this, after all, had been the promise of CSA. At least one farmer pointed out that if the mission of the organization was to educate the public about agricultural sustainability issues, then the very division we were experiencing – between those choosing and eschewing certification – served as a perfect point of departure to engage the eating public about why certification might be useful for farmers in some contexts but not in others. Requiring certification, in a sense, papered-over the issue, one which was in need of public understanding and debate.
Others bridled at the idea that the National Organic Standards – which permit the use of a sizable list of non-toxic control substances for pests – should provide any sort of proper metric for truly organic methodology. Some found insulting, if not preposterous, the idea that after, in some cases, 20 or 30 years of growing organically, their produce would suddenly cease to “be” organic. And many simply had libertarian streaks, reacting allergically to the prospect of government reaching into yet one more realm of their business.
In the end, a broader theme also emerged. Many MACSAC members, myself included, had been happy to avail themselves of the services and camaraderie the organization afforded without ever comprehending that it was not structured democratically. The self-appointing board provided continuity and stability, and was arguably part of the reason the small non-profit was able to boost a tiny handful of farms into a multi-million dollar economic-sector over the course of just 10 or 15 years. That so many of its farmers never paid attention to the need for formal enfranchisement speaks to the enthusiasm and authenticity with which the organization attended to the interests of its members. MACSAC's discontents might rightly have been accused of coming to the religion of democracy rather late and suddenly. But, democracy holds a certain sway with us, even if it is sometimes more notional than practical.
In the days following the round-table, email debate about the mandatory certification policy continued, though increasingly sparsely as planting season commenced. In May, a post came through from Middlebury Hills, one of the dissenting farms, which contained a link to a pledge used by the Northeast Organic Farming Association. The pledge obliged NOFA's members to follow a number of sustainable farming practices which essentially mirrored those required under the National Organic Program. The NOFA pledge was a way for farmers to publicly declare their adherence to organic methodology by effectively putting their good name and reputation on the line in place of becoming certified.
Middlebury Hills had been the source of a number of insightful and and nuanced articulations against mandatory certification during the online exchanges, often with an eye to finding an alternative solution; NOFA's pledge seemed to be one such. Middlebury had also made an impression during the round-table discussion – they were one of a handful of already certified farms which nevertheless stood in opposition to the Board's proposal as a matter of principle. So, in a note of thanks to them I proffered the thought that a pledge such as NOFA's might serve as the basis of an alternative, democratically organized farmer's group and wondered if they had any possible energy to help make such a thing come about.
Despite a newborn and the advent of a new growing season, their tentative but positive reply a few days later put wheels on the idea.
I had taken notes during the round-table in an attempt to capture the sentiments of the various farms. About a dozen had spoken against the policy with varying degrees of vigor; a handful more had expressed enough ambivalence that I thought they might be interested. And so we set about gauging the possibilities for a new group.
Though I had assumed convening would need to wait until winter, enthusiasm for the project soon overwhelmed that prospect. On the 5th of July the interested farms met in Spring Green and from there the thing went forward, eventually taking on the labored, but catchy, acronym FRESH – Farmers Raising Ecological, Sustainable, Healthy Food (officially “FRESH Food Connection Cooperative”).
I should have anticipated the challenge on which we were embarking, since all the farmers involved – simply by showing up – had demonstrated their contrarian tendencies. We managed to confine the initial meeting to less than three hours only because most of the participants were exhausted from toiling at Saturday markets.
As a measure of what lay ahead, it turned out that simply naming the group would involve a spirited and lengthy debate over how the meaning of our proposed name would change if we swapped-out the slightly clunky first two adjectives for the smoother adverbial clause “Ecologically Sustainable...” The patience of a number of members was tested by the time the thing was hashed-out. Finer syntactic hairs were never split.
Over the course of the ensuing years, epic contestations over policy became the expected fare when meetings convened. Would we take political stances? Should we engage the public more directly about the meaning of “sustainability?” Should we require higher standards than the National Organic Protocols, or keep FRESH a home for the widest range of farms practicing organically? Should we require a commitment to whole-farm practices, not just on lands being cultivated? Animal welfare was its own entire universe of policy choices, engendering some particularly torrid exchanges, few of them ever resolved. Through it all, members showed admirable discipline, both in their sparring and in their willingness to sit through the debate after they'd lost patience with its extent.
For many years, large and small farms hung together, with a fair number of those who were certified remaining members of MACSAC as well. But FRESH - as the newer, much smaller, and much less-resourced of the two groups - was never able to match the number of useful services that MACSAC provided, especially since it was run entirely by farmers with little time of any kind to spare. As the years went by, the prospect of attending two sets of meetings simply put-off the farms who were certified and members of both organizations, even if they appreciated the structural importance and satisfaction of helming their own ship, at it were.
So, FRESH gradually found itself aimed at smaller CSAs, many of which were happy never to have contemplated certification. We provided a welcome home to these farms for a number of years but it turned out this was a shrinking corner of a market that – despite the cooperative instincts of even its largest practitioners – was becoming increasingly competitive as newer entrants pushed-in on the supply-side. Some FRESH farms, like many small businesses, crashed and burned after just a year or two. Others branched into new avenues of agriculture, scaling-back or abandoning entirely the CSA component which had helped them start. And those that grew successfully often found themselves certifying to accommodate wider markets, leading them eventually toward MACSAC. After 10 years, more than 25 farms had come and gone from FRESH.
When I closed the group's bank account at the end of January, I wondered just how many other tiny experiments in democracy had flashed into existence and back out again over the course of human endeavor, occupying so much of their participants time with so little or nothing to show for it in the end. The instinct to self-governance is strong with us, and sometimes it's OK to give-in to instinct. And like farming, the exercise required is always good for the participant even if the ostensible end-product proves to be transitory.