Putting the “Community” in CSA
CSA stands for “community supported agriculture.” This unique trade model encourages consumers to take a vital and active part in the process of getting the product (fiber) directly to harvest, by investing up front, and by staying involved throughout the fiber year. In a fiber CSA, the shepherd sells shares of her yearly fiber harvest at the beginning of the year, and distributes the fiber among the shareholders once it comes back from processing. We do some of our own cleaning and preparation of the fiber, but we appreciate the help of cottage mill processors to help bring our fiber to a pristine finish.
We launched our own fiber CSA in January of 2009, with a small flock of Jacob sheep, Gulf Coast Native sheep, and a handful of alpacas—the first program of its kind in the southwest. We had already been selling our processed rovings, and had developed a small customer base among local spinners. But over time, our farm evolved naturally into a model that welcomed the fiber consumers into the life of the farm. Our shareholders are much more than customers – they are our friends.
To earn shareholders’ trust, we have pledged to operate in a transparent and straightforward way. Shareholders are invited to participate in any aspect of farm life that they desire—or none at all. We provide the daily photo-packed blog updates to keep shareholders abreast of all the goings-on at the farm, even if the readers live far from Jacob’s Reward.
No Ordinary Fiber
With wool and alpaca yarn showing up almost everywhere, from big box craft stores, elite local yarn stores (LYS), and online discount yarn shops, why should a spinner or knitter invest in a local farm’s fiber harvest? At our farm, she knows the fiber animal’s name, personality, and history. She may have even fed him and stroked that fiber on the hoof. Wide-open spaces, crisp barn-smelling air, the doe-eyes of our fiber animals, and the synergy of other artists all bring a sense of peace and tranquility to hectic lives. This is not usually available at a chain store.
All for One, and One for All
Community grows from shared experience and interdependence. Our local shareholders have the opportunity to meet together regularly to spin and knit, eat together and share their lives. We organize opportunities to learn about each other’s talents and vocations. As shareholders get to know each other more deeply, their bond with the farm grows deeper as well.
And this brings us to a facet of CSA workings that seems to vary from CSA to CSA. Here at Jacob’s Reward Farm, our shareholders divide ALL the fiber at the end of the harvest. We don’t hold any fiber back as a retail product—100% of the fiber grown here goes out in shares. If we have a “crop failure” the shareholders shoulder that loss. If we have an unexpected windfall, the shareholders reap those rewards directly.
Many “CSA’s” will tell people up front exactly how much fiber or yarn they’ll receive for their share price. In my book, that model has another name. It’s called “retail.” Other “CSA” farmers will decide arbitrarily how much of their fiber clip goes to shareholders and how much is retailed to the public. There’s no one right answer, but it’s important to know what to expect as a shareholder going into one of these programs.
Growing the Community; Sharing the Wealth
Our farm has a finite amount of acreage to support our fiber animals. This means that there is a finite number of shareholders our farm can responsibly take on, in order for the shares and the intangible benefits to be worth the price. This could have been a severely limiting factor for the farm. But instead, it’s a blessing in disguise. There are a lot more fiber consumers interested in our CSA model than we can accommodate alone. And there are dozens of hard-working local shepherds and ranchers with fiber harvests going to waste because they don’t have the resources to connect with consumers.
The obvious answer is to partner with these “associate” shepherds to provide the extra fiber for additional shareholders. In the spirit of supporting fellow local farmers and “sharing the wealth,” we buy their raw fiber at a fair market price, and pass the once-wasted resource on to our growing community of shareholders who appreciates it.
The CSA model encourages us to value each other as human beings and friends, not merely participants in a business transaction. It reminds us of the incredible value of each person in our farm family, and also the people outside of our community. For these reasons, giving is a core CSA value for us. My goal each week is to find a new way to give: to the shareholders, to the friends of the farm, to our larger community. We give personal encouragement, recognition, and opportunities to learn and develop through classes and workshops. We give money and goods to local charities and people in need through local food banks, and by making knitted items for newborns. We collect money to provide flocks of sheep to third world families through international humanitarian relief agencies. We’ve taught over a hundred people to spin this year, many at no cost. We’ve spotlighted the businesses of many of our shareholders and friends, and encouraged others to support them. We’ve hosted Girl Scout troops and home school groups and individual families to come learn about where fiber and eggs come from. All these efforts spring from the development of deep relationships here on the farm. Giving to others is an important part of what we need to do to be authentic stewards of this land.