Community supported agriculture -- a very different way to farm
It is often said that many ideas start in the US, then come to Britain and eventually end up in Ireland. If that is the case, it's no wonder community supported agriculture, a very different way for farmers to interact with their customers, has started to appear here. In the US, there are over 12,500 CSAs and around 100 in Britain. There is a handful in Ireland and Peter Young went to visit the biggest -- Cloughjordan Community farm in Co Tipperary -- to explore the concept to see if it was suitable for more Irish farmers.
Cloughjordan model reaping rewards
Pat Malone is one of the three farmers now involved in growing food for members of the Cloughjordan CSA. Pat grew vegetables commercially in Rathdowney, Co Laois in the past.
''I grew up to 14 different crops at one stage supplying local shops and customers. The supermarket I supplied pushed to make growers more specialised and I ended up focusing on just lettuce and scallions,'' he said.
He employed one full-time and five part-time workers in the operation at one stage. However, while the one-crop, one-suppliers strategy initially worked, after a few bad weather years and pressure on prices from the supermarket, he just had to walk away.
He then worked with Irish Seed Savers growing and collecting seeds around the country.
''I was interested in the idea of it and had tried to set up a community supported agriculture farm in Rathdowney as part of a plan to develop an environmental centre there,'' he told me.
Then he found out about the ecovillage in Cloughjordan and realised they were doing just that.
Pat bought a site in the eco village, built a house and moved in. He has worked closely with the Cloughjordan CSA from the start.
''Our aim is to grow the highest quality produce for members,'' said Pat. A board was set up and a 28 acre farm close to the Ecovillage was identified.
''We were lucky to get two five year leases. Even with the land, the biggest challenge was to get capital for machinery and the other costs in setting it up.'' They were able to secure an €80,000 loan from the ethical investing company Hermes at an interest rate of 4%. It had to be repaid over 10 years.
The economics of a CSA aims to give a good return to the farmer for his labour. Most CSA systems in the US are farmer-driven ones.
The farmer who wants a steady income looks for a group of customers who will buy the produce. In Cloughjordan, the consumers have led the initiative looking for the land to lease and installing a farmer to grow their food.
They have tried different models -- initially hiring farmers to come in, grow and manage the farm. As the farm developed, they decided to remodel the system to a stage where three different people are involved.
Pat looks after the field scale vegetables, Bruce Darrell, a Canadian who has been in Ireland for 12 years and now lives in the ecovillage, is overseeing the crops grown in the pollytunnels.
''My biggest challenge is to have greens available every week of the year,'' he said. Owen Crawford, the son of the land owner who leased the farm, now looks after the stock.
''We have three Kerry cows that are hand milked to produce milk and have produced beef, pigs and chickens for the members,'' said Pat.
The CSA currently has 50 members, half of which live in the ecovillage. The remainder are from the local area. They pay a weekly fee for vegetables and milk. The fee ranges from €12 a week to €30 depending on the size of the family but most members pay on average €20 a week.
The milk and vegetables harvested are left in a central point and the members come and take what they need each week.
Fifty members averaging €20 a week adds up to €50,000 a year.
''We also produce pigs and chickens but members buy separate shares in these when they become available,'' said Pat.
Of the €50,000, the farmer gets €25,000 for the year and also gets food from the farm. ''We have €10,000 to make repayments and the remainder is the cost of growing and reinvesting,'' said Pat.
The aim is to grow the membership ideally getting up to 130-150 members.
At this stage they can employ more farmers, take on more land and produce a wider range of produce. There is a board of directors who regularly meet to review what needs to be done.
Members of the CSA have a say in what is grown and can also volunteer to do work. They are looking at a system where members can gain credits. They also use WOOFERS (people who work for board and lodging on organic farms) and some members give them accommodation as part of the CSA.