Government policy should actively promote community-supported agriculture (CSA) given the economic, social and environmental benefits it provides, according to speakers at the CSA Network UK Annual Conference earlier this month.
Network secretary and active campaigner for the movement Tony Little said: "What would make an enormous difference is the way the Government chooses to support farming. CSA is a very small movement at the moment but we say if you invest in enlarging it you soon get that back in benefits to the rural economy, to health and in other ways.
"I work a 40ha hill farm in Wales that turns over maybe £18-19,000, half of which is subsidy through direct payments. A three-acre (1.2ha) market garden will turnover twice that and is doing at least as much good but gets nothing. Eligibility shouldn't depend on size. CSA should be stated in policy documents as a model of achieving policy aims. I would like local authorities to be more aware of its contribution."
But while a highly standardised format for agreements between growers and customers has helped grow the movement significantly in France: "The downside is you have no flexibility - it wouldn't work here," he said. "But politically it's good because it provides a common understanding. Here it's hard to explain what CSA even is."
Nigel Baker, who has completed an MSc on the subject at Coventry University's Centre for Agroecology, Water & Resilience, added: "The more land you have the more subsidy you get, regardless of what are you growing, what you do with it, what is your effect on ecosystem services or how many people are you employing. But large corporations will never make money out of CSA and it's they who have the ear of the Government."
Based on a six-week study of the event's host Canalside Community Food (see box) and its customers, Baker said CSA "is the most efficient form of agriculture", not in terms of yield efficiency but in avoidance of waste. He found that less than 10 per cent of produce supplied was wasted, while the on-farm waste was "tiny" compared with an overall waste figure of around 50 per cent for the supermarket food chain.
"Most pre-consumer waste in produce is down to supermarket specifications," he said, adding that around 25 per cent of waste also occurs after selling. "That's 25 per cent of their profits - waste is built into the supermarket system." CSA "is miles more efficient than what these huge organisations are doing", he concluded. "We need to make that case to local authorities and others."
Soil Association head of horticulture and CSA Network UK board member Ben Raskin said: "Around 70 per cent of CSA members say it has also improved their mental health." He added: "Growing can be lonely and many future growers see CSA as more sociable."
Becca Stevenson, head grower at Five Acre Community Farm, based at Garden Organic's Ryton Gardens near Coventry, said: "Five acres (2ha) and 50 members is about the minimum you need to make it financially sustainable. I'd love to have 10, which would give us a production surplus to bolster finances. It is the biggest problem. You need a business head on your shoulders. But it gives me a decent wage."
Customer shares - Weekly seasonal produce
Canalside Community Food began production in spring 2007 on formerly arable land.
It now supplies weekly "shares" of seasonal produce to around 135 customers who are encouraged to collect from the farm, a short distance from Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, although around 20 are distributed via a shop in the town that will also sell on any surplus.
"Members are welcome to participate when they stop by, on jobs like transplanting leeks," said head grower Will Johnson.
As well as six polytunnels and 4ha of fields, the Soil Association-certified farm has recently planted nearly a hectare of orchards, has its own propagation glasshouse and "is experimenting with a pick-your-own model for soft fruit", Johnson added.
CSA aims to share the risks, rewards and responsibilities of food production, according to
This can take a range of forms, from the producer-led format of Canalside, where the grower gives consumers a share of production for a fixed subscription; community-led initiatives, where a local group takes responsibility for the enterprise, buying in expertise and labour where necessary; partnerships between producers and community groups; and wholly-owned community farms.
Launched in December 2013, CSA Network UK says there are "around 80" but currently only 26 are listed on its recently relaunched website. Board member Ben Raskin admits "no one really knows" how many CSA schemes currently operate because "they spring up and then disappear without ever announcing themselves".
"Almost all" grow organically but few are certified because "all the members already know how you grow". Overall though, he said: "The ones that have succeeded, such as Canalside, have a skilled farmer or grower at the heart of the operation."