I spend some of my Saturdays helping out on a local farm. A group of us go and lend a hand with the sowing, planting, harvesting or weeding that needs doing that particular week. In return, we take home seasonal veg, as well as joining in on a big, shared lunch where everyone brings a dish and sits around drinking tea and chatting. The fresh air and exercise and chance to do something practical are a very welcome change from my desk-based job, and I’ve also appreciated the chance to learn something about what farming involves.
The scheme is organised through CropShare, a project of the Cambridge Transition food group. It’s been an arrangement with the owners of Cambridgeshire’s Willow Farm, Paul and Doreen, since 2011. Until recently, however, I hadn’t thought much more about how the whole thing works. When I’ve described it to other people, I’ve said it’s ‘like a Community Supported Agriculture scheme’. But I realised recently that I wasn’t entirely sure how Community Supported Agriculture is defined, how it really works, or what the idea behind it is.
Sharing the risks and rewards of farming
The short definition of Community Supported Agriculture is: a deal between a farmer and a group of local people in which everyone shares responsibility for the risks and rewards of farming. The longer answer is: this partnership comes in lots of shapes and sizes. In some cases, the commitment is quite informal; members of the community offer their time and muscle-power during farm workdays in return for taking home fresh produce. In other cases, community members invest more formally by buying shares. They pay for these early in the season, which provides the farmer with some money up-front to buy seed or compost or equipment for that year’s production. In return, shareholders receive a regular delivery of fresh produce throughout the year.
In the case of Willow Farm, it’s a little bit between the two. Us CropSharers lend our seed-planting, weed-pulling capabilities in return for fresh veg to cycle home with. However, in doing so, we also support Paul and Doreen in running an organic veg box scheme around Cambridgeshire (Waterland Organics), for which customers pay a price per box.
Who benefits, and how?
Community Supported Agriculture is designed to benefit both the farmer and the community; farmers get an expanded workforce and, where shares are bought, some guaranteed income at the start of the year. Meanwhile, community members get a supply of fresh produce direct from a local farm.
However, there is more to it than a simple transaction. When the Community Supported Agriculture movement developed in the 70s and 80s, it was from a desire to create community and to reconnect people to the way their food is produced and to the people producing it.
At the launch of the CropShare 2014 season last week, it was clear that these were some of the main reasons for CropSharers coming to the farm. Several people said that the chance to meet new people and have a chat over a weeding session or the shared lunch was the thing they enjoyed the most. I particularly identified with one person who said that, as part of Cambridge University, they’d really appreciated the chance to meet people from the town and get outside the University setting. Working at the university, I’ve definitely found that it can be pretty overwhelmingly…Cambridgey. In fact, after moving from London, and finding myself feeling pretty fazed by how model village-esque and insular Cambridge can sometimes be, it was my first CropShare day, and the people I met during it, that suddenly made it seem like somewhere I could imagine myself living for a while.
Others sharing their experiences said that the chance to learn more about farming and growing food was a major draw. In some cases, people were applying the things they learned in their own allotments, whilst others wanted to re-connect with farming because it was something they remember from their childhood on family farms.
A model for more environmentally sustainable farming?
Community Supported Agriculture can also have significant environmental benefits. Produce is supplied to customers in the local area, resulting in very low food miles. There is also minimal packaging, limiting waste. Additionally, it’s been suggested that such schemes allow farmers to use lower intensity, ecologically-sensitive production methods.
At the CropShare launch, Farmer Paul gave some support to this idea. “The farm is quite ecologically stable, and that’s due to the variety of things we grow”, he explained. As a result, the farm has very few problems with pests, meaning that Willow Farm doesn’t need to rely on chemical pesticides. This link between diversity and pest regulation is something that has also been indicated by scientific research. However, although box scheme customers appreciate the variety of veg they receive, growing such a range of produce presents challenges. “It means we can’t benefit from economies of scale that make larger producers economically competitive”, Paul explained. Different veg have to be grown and harvested in different ways, meaning that uniform harvesting with big machines isn’t an option. Similarly, weeds can’t be sprayed, so must be taken out manually.
This is where CropSharers come in. For approximately 15 Saturdays of the year, Farmer Paul benefits from several pairs of hands to help with planting on the tractor-pulled planter or weeding using hoes or the lay-down weeder. This extra person-power helps keep production economical, meaning Willow Farm can continue to produce organically and deliver local veg to residents of Cambridgeshire.
CropShare’s always looking for more keen people to come and lend a hand. There are loads of benefits, but above all, it’s great fun. I’d highly recommend it as a way to spend a Saturday. And last time, I came away with kale, beetroot, leeks and sprouts, all fresh from the field, which fed me for a week. More details are available on the CropShare website.