Thousands now fed by community farming schemes, study finds

Innovative farmers are working with local people to create a sustainable system of agriculture that provides fresh, local food while providing a huge range of benefits to local people, economies and the environment, research has found

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes in England now include more than 5,000 members and feed more than 12,500 people each year, according to a report by the Soil Association. The aim of the initiatives is to help reconnect people with their food and build strong partnerships between communities and farmers.

There are 200 CSA enterprises trading or developing in the UK, which follow a range of models from producer-led schemes, where members pay a subscription to receive regular produce, to community-owned farms and co-operatives.

The schemes help empower communities to take control of their food supply by providing their members with a variety of local and often organically produced food, from vegetables and meat to milk, bread and honey. Consumers also benefit from receiving their food from a known source.

Overall, two thirds of members are supplied with all, or nearly all, of their vegetables from the CSA schemes they are involved with.

Farmers meanwhile, can receive a more secure income, increased involvement in the local community, and help with labour and planning.

The Soil Association report found that 75% of participants have increased and improved their skills through being involved in CSA schemes, thanks to the training the initiatives provide. Furthermore, almost half of CSA members feel their scheme has had a positive impact on the wider community, with 70% agreeing that their quality of life and cooking and eating habits have improved. Nearly half (46%) say their health has improved.

Bonnie Hewson, CSA project manager at the Soil Association, said the report confirms how powerful CSA schemes are: “The initiatives provide a logical step for consumers towards reclaiming sovereignty over the way their food is grown, processed and traded.”

CSA members are motivated by an awareness of global environmental issues but the schemes operate at a very local scale, added Hewson.

The report found that the initiatives were helping to reach out to their local communities, with nearly 40% of schemes offering a service for those at risk of social exclusion and over a third of members getting involved as volunteers.

According to the Soil Association, community supported agriculture is also providing a lifeline for many farmers across the country, with turnover from schemes representing 0.2% of total farm income in England. The schemes show high levels of employment relative to the land available.

Over two thirds of CSA schemes have increased the amount of land farmers manage to organic principles while the majority have also planted more hedges and trees, introduced new wildlife areas and made land more accessible to the public.

Gerald Miles, farmer at Caerhys Farm in Pembrokeshire, said: “CSA is the best thing I’ve ever done as it has connected the farm with the local community.”