Fresh, Local, and Financially Sound: Community Supported Agriculture in Canada

by Krista McCracken on July 30, 2012

One weekly share of produce from a CSA

By Krista McCracken

In recent years Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations in Canada have increased dramatically in number and their popularity continues to grow.  The state of CSAs in my area speaks to the rising success of the CSA movement; all of the established CSAs in my area are no longer taking members or have a waiting list.  Across the country CSAs have become an increasingly popular way to obtain local, seasonal, or organic produce.

So how does as CSA work? Typically a CSA operates by having consumers provide farmers with a set fee prior to the growing season.  In return for this fee, the consumers receive weekly shares of vegetables throughout the harvest season. Typically, no farm work is required by the shareholders and their financial contribution helps support the farm and local agricultural community. Some CSAs also include dairy or meat products.  Variations of this CSA model, with different levels of participation can now be found in both rural and urban centers across the country.

There are a number of advantages to the CSA setup, for both farmers and community members.  Farmers receive payment early in the season which helps with cash flow and they know they have an established set of consumers prior to the growing season.  CSAs also create a level of shared risk for farmers.   Under the CSA structure farmers are no longer solely responsible for funding the growth of their produce, potentially making a poor harvest less financially devastating.  On the flip side of the relationship, community members receive fresh food that hasn’t been mass produced and is grown locally.  The financial gain for farmers and the increasing consumer desire for local and organic food are some of the reasons why CSAs have been so successful in Canada.   Additionally, CSAs support local economies, help develop a local food supply system, and help protect the environment.

The CSA movement started in earnest in the 1980s in Canada and the United States.  Many of the early CSAs were influenced by the economic and social philosophies of Rudolf Steiner.  Steiner suggested that the ideal economic situation is achieved when the consumer and producer are linked by mutual interest.  The mutual interest of local fresh food has been the driving force behind CSAs.   Agriculture Canada does not currently keep records on CSA production, numbers, or members.  However, the Ontario CSA Farm Directorylists over 200 farms, and the Quebec CSA network has more than 100 participating farms and over 8,500 participating households.

CPR Gardens, ca. 1894. City of Regina Archives Photograph Collection, CORA-B-774

CSA operations are not the first version of community based farming in Canada.  Early pioneers and settlers often worked together to establish farms and support networks.  More formal community gardens existed in Canada from 1890-1930, in the form of the Railway Gardens. The Railway Gardens were maintained by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), were located at town CPR stations across Canada and contained both vegetables and flowers.  An interesting look at the rise of Railway Gardens in Western Canada has been produced by the Manitoba Historical Society and can be seen here.

Small community gardens also received a significant boost in the 1930s.  During the depression era local governments encouraged the development of ‘vacant lot’ gardens to help people through the economic downturn.  As the name suggests community members were encouraged to turn vacant land into vegetable and flower gardens.  The idea being that greenery would help beautify the community and the food from the garden could be given to those less fortunate.

In addition to this type of community gardens, co-operative agriculture has a long history in Canada.  Farmers were the first Canadian group to create longstanding successful community co-operatives.  From 1880-1900, many Eastern Canadian farmers developed agricultural co-operatives to support the growth of the dairy industry.  These early farming co-operatives were often started to fund the creation and operation of creameries and cheese factories.  From 1906-1911 prairie farmers followed suit and developed co-operatives to market grain sales and set up grain elevators.  The majority of these early agriculture co-operatives were need based (eg. no single farmer could afford to fund the construction of a creamery) or marketing based.

The histories of co-operative agriculture, community gardens, the Canadian environmental movement, and the local food movement all have ties to the history and rise of the CSA movement.  Community based agriculture has an extensive past in Canada and continues to evolve with the growing prevalence of CSAs. Like the co-operative agriculture movement, CSAs help ease the financial burden of agriculture on farmers and allow for local consumer specific marketing. CSAs also build on the concept of community garden spaces, while emphasizing a sense of community ownership and participation in the local food supply.  The organization and structure of CSAs draw on Canada’s rich agricultural past and are the modern verion of community based farming in Canada.

Krista McCracken is an editor at Activehistory.ca and an Archives Technician at Algoma University’s Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.

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