The FairShare Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Coalition first began to coalesce in the autumn of 1992 in the living room of “the Big Pink.” The Big Pink—a large, flesh-tone farmhouse on the outskirts of Madison—was then home to Rob Summerbell who had recently spent a summer interning on the very first CSA farm in Wisconsin. The philosophy, spirit, and practicalities of CSA seemed a natural fit for progressive-leaning Madison…a town with thriving natural food co-ops and one of the largest and finest farmers’ markets in the country. Rob took what he learned at Springdale Community Farm north of Milwaukee and shared it with fellow sustainable agriculture promoters and friends, including myself while we stocked produce at the Williamson Street Grocery Cooperative. Eventually, a meeting was called at the Big Pink and eight or so individuals gathered to begin scheming how to bring CSA to Madison.
That original group, made up of would-be farmers, sustainable agriculture activists, and community organizers—all passionate about food and farming—continued to meet often over the ensuing winter. We called ourselves MERF in those days: the Madison Eaters Revolutionary Front. In the northeast, CSA first took shape when a community of folks learned about CSA, and then they took the logical step of seeking to start a CSA project to serve themselves and their immediate community. MERF had much bigger plans, plotting a campaign that would result in not one, but eight CSA farms in the next growing season.
Of the eight farms that slogged through the wet, wet spring of 1993 and delivered the first CSA boxes and bags to Madison, two are still operating as “traditional” CSA farms. A third that ended as a result of farmer health issues (bad back), has since emerged as a cooperative effort in which 20 families share equally in growing and harvesting crops such as canning tomatoes, garlic, winter squash, beans and potatoes. Many others have emerged to fill the ground-breaking shoes of those that have found CSA not their cup of tea or have retired from farming. All told, over 90 farms have at one time or another joined the coalition as CSA farms, serving memberships as small as 4 and as large as over 1000 households. Currently, there are 44 farms in the coalition. The group adopted the more benign name of Madison Area CSA Coalition (MACSAC) soon after, while still chanting “MERF, MERF, MERF” at closed meetings.
The non-farmer members of MACSAC helped those eight farms launch their CSA memberships by serving as “ombudsmen” that first year. In essence, we divided ourselves up and served as 1 or 2 member “core groups”–consulting and encouraging the growers as they found members, organized delivery-sites, and began the growing season. We also worked together with the growers to organize the first MACSAC Spring Event. This was an open-house style gathering that featured presentations that explained the basics of CSA and allowed the public to stroll from table-to-table, farmers’ market style, and meet all the growers and learn about their farms. The event was a huge success and has become an annual affair.
That was how MACSAC began 26 years ago. When we celebrated our tenth year of existence the coalition took a major step in its evolution. For the first 10 years, MACSAC had no legal standing and ran all its finances through a non-profit fiscal sponsor. That organization closed shop, however, and in 2002 MACSAC filed for 501c3 status, writing bylaws and electing a board. That year we were awarded 501c4 status. In 2010, we applied for 501c3 status again. Anyone who has been involved in non-profits knows about the energy and time this requires. Most often, this hard work is done in the early stages of a group’s life when there are lots of spirited volunteers. Our hope was that MACSAC’s relative maturity and focused sense of purpose would carry the day and allow for a smooth transition through incorporation. Then, in 2012, the coalition changed its name to FairShare CSA Coalition to encompass its wider reach across the Midwest.
Most of the volunteer activists who put in long hours to launch FairShare have moved on to other projects. A dedicated Board made up of growers and local food activists advise the direction of the Coalition and four employees run the office. The staff produce a monthly newsletter, coordinate the annual CSA Open House and annual Bike the Barns fundraising event, sell the Coalition’s cookbooks (From Asparagus to Zucchini and Farm-Fresh & Fast), organize farmer training and resource sharing, and conduct outreach in the community. If the CSA Open House is the activity that brings the farms together in a collective effort to reach the Madison community with the CSA message, the cookbook is what has made it possible to sustain the coalition as non-farmer volunteers left the group. Proceeds from sales of the book fund the staff positions and provide a budget for the organization. From Asparagus to Zucchini was launched to help local CSA members cope with all the fresh food they received from their farm but the book is now sold across the nation, mostly to CSA farms who pass them along to their members.
The overarching goal within FairShare is to foster cooperation among those farms serving Wisconsin. From the beginning, when the group decided to help launch eight CSA efforts at the same time, there was recognition that the growers needed to be united toward a common cause—promoting and advancing local, community-based food systems—rather than pitted against each other in competition for would-be CSA shareholders. Meetings, events and projects (like creating the cookbook) where growers share information, ideas, and outreach have helped build camaraderie within the group. There have been differences of opinion at times, but the group has always been a strong support network for growers as they share both the grind and the grace of growing food for their members. Particularly instrumental in developing community have been winter “grower gatherings” (with focused talk about specific production and organizational challenges) and summer farm tours.
With more than 90 farms testing the CSA waters and 44 farms in the coalition today, that might sound like a poor track record. Did some farms “fail” in some way? Several farms realized after one or two seasons that CSA was not for them and have pursued other farm ventures and markets. Several were forced to retire from farming for health reasons. Still other farmers are currently taking a sabbatical from farming while they pursue a degree or build a home. The CSA at a local intentional community ended when the resident farmer left and no one stepped in to take his place. Two of the early FairShare farms have morphed into alternative versions of CSA. One is a you-pick only CSA and the other (mentioned above) has become perhaps the epitome of a community-based farm. Twenty families work together to plan, grow, and harvest food. While the original farmers are allowing the use of their land for the community, there is no one “farmer” in this particular CSA effort.
The number of CSA members in the Madison area has expanded steadily over the years. In 1993, there were about 275 CSA shares sold in the Madison area; today there are over 9000. The bulk of the increase has been due to the growth of two large CSA farms in the coalition. Many FairShare farms have either chosen to remain small or have grown more slowly. Nearly all the FairShare farms follow a diversified marketing scheme, maintaining a CSA membership base while also selling at farmers’ markets and to retail stores and restaurants. Share prices have gone up from around $375 for a large share in 1993 to $600 on average today. Interestingly, many growers have found that the conventional, large share (meant to feed two adults plus children) as conceived in the beginning, is beyond what most households can handle. A smaller share (priced at around $375) is becoming the standard. Part of this is due to the smaller size of many households but it also relates to the inability of many households to set aside time for cooking and family meals.
One of the original goals of the original MERF group was to work to make CSA in Madison accessible to all and not only a privilege for the well-to-do. These goals lay somewhat dormant for many years as the farms worked through the bugs of their first several seasons. Eventually the Partner Shares Program was launched. This program channels grants and fundraising contributions to help offset the cost of CSA membership for needy households. In 2002, 38 individual households and five organizations serving low-income communities were a part of this program. In 2018, the Partner Shares Program assisted over 175 individual households and several organizations in receiving CSA vegetable shares.
FairShare continues to work on innovative ways to connect more families with CSA shares. In 2005 this desire lead to the creation of the HMO rebate program. This program, which rewards families and individuals for making proactive health decisions and supporting local farms is the first of its kind in the country and continues to bring in new CSA members each year.
Wisconsin CSA farms face many of the same challenges seen elsewhere: long hard hours while operating on the fringes of financial sustainability; trying to grow an incredible array of vegetables and berries; and educating members about how to use and enjoy fennel and parsnips. Within FairShare, the group faces common organizational challenges such as financial stability, finding volunteers for standing and ad hoc committees, and setting priorities. As the coalition looks ahead (and past the immediate tasks associated with incorporation) it sees the need for more diversified funding, a push to reach a broader range of eaters, and the ever present need for grower and consumer education. It also sees a need for reflection on the health of CSA, CSA farms, and CSA farmers.
The large lot at the Big Pink is now home to Drumlin Community Farm, a smallish CSA project that, given its proximity to Madison, has made delivery of its weekly harvest shares as sustainable as it gets. Boxes of fresh produce are delivered by bicycle! Whenever I visit Drumlin I always think back to that evening in 1992 when folks began dreaming and scheming about CSA…and the revolution started.
— John Hendrickson, one of FairShare’s founders, is often found chanting “MERF MERF MERF” while picking a vast array of cherry tomato varieties on his farm, Stone Circle Farm.