The CSA farmer-member relationship: a precious vegetable!

Earlier this year we had the privilege of hosting young lass Mariarosaria for a week as part of her research project on CSA's in New Zealand. It was a great experience for all of us on the farm as growers, packers, consumers, and lovers of life, to show and discuss our ideas and beliefs with her.  What moves us, through thick and thin, to keep us wanting to grow this concept, but also, what does make you as our CSA member tick?  Last week Mariarosaria shared with us her "first reflections" on her journey down under.  Here it is.  

Producer-consumer networks: the case of CSA farms in New Zealand

When I first decided the title of this research project, I tried to find a short, incisive and captivating sentence to express my ideas. That’s what a good title must do, explain briefly the contents the author will tell in the text. Indeed, as the title announces, the purpose of my research was to explore the dynamics behind the producer and consumer relationship in the particular context of CSA farms in New Zealand. Then, when I started my project and I visited the farms, I realized day by day that no title could be more inspired to describe all the world behind the simple acronym CSA. That’s why I would like to retrace with you this journey using this title as a guideline to go deeper into some of the key concepts I explored with this research project.

The consumers’ sovereignty of the market reign is a well-established concept in the economic literature. Nowadays customers are always recognized as active participants in the marketing processes, and they participate, together with the producer, to the generation, delivery and assessment of value. From this perspective, some authors introduced the concept of value co-creation, defined as the process by which value is co-created within the relationship between the production and the consumption of a product or service (Echeverri and Ska°le´n, 2011). In addition, value is ultimately determined through an experience created in conjunction with the use of the product itself in a particular context (Gro”nroos, 2011; Vargo and Lusch, 2008).

How it works in the case of CSA farms in New Zealand?

The CSA farm is born as an attempt to come back to a genuine and authentic way to produce food, closely connected with the land and the community around it. The same definition of Community Supported Agriculture outlines the importance given to the relation between farmer and members, who share together all the aspects related to the farm’s care and growth. The contract is signed in the name of a strong sense of mutual commitment and trust. Both farmers and members are “shareholders” of this activity: they share the responsibility of the farm and, at the same time, they are ready to benefit from its produces. They are also ready to share the same mission: to build a community that is able to sustain itself in a way that is respectful of people and places. The word local expresses this duality perfectly. On one hand, local means that the farm is geographically close to its members. That underlines the importance of a “few km food” and the necessity to economically support local businesses as an important link in the economic chain. On the other hand, local means to involve the people around. These people share the life ideal that something has to be done in order to guarantee a healthier future. Being completely involved in the farm during my research allowed me not only to better understand this relationship and the key role it has in all the farm’s processes, but also allowed me to give this relationship a stage on which to act. The first time the farmers asked me to stay in the garden I was concerned about my position: I had never had direct experience with a garden before, nor with the management of vegetables. The only plant I decided to grow on my balcony failed resoundingly. In addition, I was worried about being able to retain a focus on my data collection while working in the garden. But after the first day I realized that the farmers were giving me a privileged position to understand their world and the key to give sense to all my work. The garden is the metaphoric representation of the relationship between farmer and members and it is in the garden that the CSA co-creation of value takes place. First of all, the garden is where the vegetables are planted and grown and, for that reason, it is the key economic resource for the farm. But it is also the place where exchange and meetings with the members takes place, making the garden a social and cultural round table. And, last but not least, it is an important example of environmental preservation.

In more detail, as you can see in the figure, from the social point of view, the garden allows the farmers and the members to have a point of meeting and exchange. That happens, for example, in the pickup moments, when the members have an occasion to discuss with the farmers about the vegetables and the garden developments, to share some critical aspects regarding the management of the weekly vegetable box, and to chat about their daily life. This is an occasion for the members to meet each other and share their experiences, creating a vibrant and multifaceted community. The garden is also the stage for educational events. Knowledge, in the form of events, conferences, newsletters and social networking is broadly recognized as the most efficient way to inform and engage the members in the life of the farms. Also the economic value created through the relationship is directly related to the garden: this is the direct source of investment and income for the farmers. The same soil indeed, if cultivated in the proper way, can sustain the farm in everything it needs to grow enough produce, without resorting to artificial input. However the CSA plan doesn’t stop here: as a local activity it becomes fundamental to create a CSA network in order to remain aligned with what local properly means. This is strongly connected with the environmental impact of this process: to preserve and guarantee the sustainability of resources is the central point for the farms, especially the soil, pursuing a “give and take” logic. It is not viable? to overuse the land and the soil, thinking just about immediate needs. It is necessary instead to take care of the soil as a live collaborator of the farm. Only by doing so, it is possible to make from the CSA concept a real long-term investment.

The more I became involved in the farm’s activities, met and talked with its people and got used to its spaces, the more I had the impression of becoming a real member of it. It was like I lived a kind of parallel journey that all the members live when they approach this type of farm.

But who are the members of the CSA farm?

The answer to this question is not so simple, because of the complexity of the phenomenon we are talking about. However I tried to identified from my research four stereotypical (and funny caricatured) profiles of typical CSA farm members, that correspond to four clusters of main motivations to become a member.

These four profiles probably represent an exaggerated version of the typical CSA members, but they surely hide a complexity and ambiguity of choice that involves many representational levels of people’s lives. Nowadays, more and more consumers decide to drive their consumption choices to more sustainable and responsible directions, and every time?? In doing so, they try to find a compromise between daily constraints and abstract values.  Also, in the case of food choice in particular the choice to join a CSA farm, people seem to place themselves on a continuum where poles are represented by the concepts of private and public engagement. The private sphere involves members' personal experiences, memories and stories, through which they give sense to their everyday choices. That pushes people to become a member of a CSA farm to pursue a healthy and ethical lifestyle in a way that is reasonable for their personal situation and resources. The idea is to find an affordable and simple way to take care about themselves, and their own and their family's health, and meanwhile to do something for the community. The domestic, local and genuine atmosphere around the concept of CSA makes them feel comfortable to express themselves in a way that suits them. In addition, they can find in the CSA farm a place to share daily and practical issues with other members. The public sphere in contrast, is driven more by a sense of global responsibility for the future of the world. These members consider the global picture and they are ready to sacrifice? their personal interest or autonomy for the common good. They are driven by a strong sense of citizenship that pushes them to apply this philosophy to most of their consumption choices, including food. To become a CSA farm member means to have a place to express this philosophy, to connect with similar others, and sustain what they believe in.

This analysis outlines the complexity of the CSA concept and that reflects also the complexity of the engagement process, for both farmers and members. The process to become a CSA farm member is articulated and it overlaps ideal principles and philosophies with the everyday life situation, context and culture. Joining a CSA farm? represents not only an ethical and healthy food choice, but also a deep change in everyday food practices. It’s a significant turnaround in the way people consider the role of food and the way to organize their meals. In practice, people pass from the fully-equipped supermarket benches to the mysterious veggie box. In reality there is a lot? more behind that simple passage. People pass from free choice and directing their food consumption as driven by immediate preferences and tastes to adapting their habits to something that they can’t control directly. Considering food consumption as not only a survival and primordial need but also as a fundamental way for people to express their identities and the place they have in the society, it becomes important to consider this delicate passage of the process. That’s why continued assistance and support from the farm is a key tool to guarantee members a successful involvement and to limit the dropout. A long and continuous work of education and working together in this process seems to be a good key.

The farmer-members relationship belongs to the garden and it needs to be sown and cultivated as the most precious among the vegetables.

To read more about value co-creation:

Gro¨nroos, C. (2011) ‘Value Co-Creation in Service Logic. A Critical Analysis’, Marketing Theory 11: 279–301.

Vargo, S.L. and Lusch, R.F. (2008) ‘Service-Dominant Logic: Continuing the Evolution’, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 36: 1–10.

Echeverri, P. and Ska°le´n, P. (2011) ‘Co-Creation and Co-Destruction. A Practice-Theory Based Study of Interactive Value Formation’, Marketing Theory 11: 351–73.