CSA has its origins in the 1960s in various countries. Its common objective is to unite producers and eaters (Int1). Today, CSA is found worldwide and the initiatives vary according to the local political-economic and cultural context (Urgenci n.d.).
Austria’s first initiative, GeLa Ochsenherz, was started in Lower Austria in Gänserndorf near Vienna in 2011. ‘GeLa’ stands for ‘Gemeinsam Landwirtschaften’, translated as collective farming. After the establishment of GeLa Ochsenherz, about 30 CSA initiatives started and spread primarily in the east of the country. Recently, CSA initiatives have sprung up especially near Graz (Styria) (Ernährungssouveränität Wiki 2018). In addition to their own produce, some initiatives expand their range of goods through cooperation with other farms (Int8, Int10).
Similar to other countries, the concrete arrangement of CSA in Austria varies from initiative to initiative (Urgenci n.d.). Depending on the fact whether the CSA was launched by eaters or producers, the reshaping of producer-consumer relations differs greatly. CSA initiatives initiated by eaters have more common structures on the decision-making process (Int9). In contrast, CSA initiatives founded by producers maintain rather separate producer-consumer relations, where they merely get in contact via the pick-up point or joint field walks (Int2). Yet all investigated CSA initiatives share their non-subordination to the paradigm of economic growth (Int1). In other words, CSA farms are not under the same economic pressure as conventional farms because they are financed by their members who guarantee their survival, altering institutional frameworks towards the inclusion of alternative values (Int6). Ideally, within CSA initiatives, the production has a price and not the product (Int1, Int5). The process becomes key, also alleviating the risks that encompass the materiality of food growing.
We now focus on the analysis of the three dimensions: institutions, values and materiality, and concentrate on how CSA farms are ideally perceived, what challenges they encounter and how these challenges could possibly be overcome.
Austria’s current institutional setting
While there exists a vibrant network of institutions supporting CSA, political-institutional structures linked to Austria’s conservative People’s Party and the main representative organization of Austria’s farmers, the Chamber of Agriculture, dominate the socio-economic and political-institutional setting of the agricultural sector. Even though Austria’s joining the EU and opening towards the world market pushed these social forces to engage in direct marketing and organic agriculture, these strategies barely cover the fundamental problems of today’s food regime. Consequently, the marginalization of small-scale farmers continues (Möhrs et al. 2013; Schermer 2015).
Fig. 2 shows two trends in the Austrian agricultural business structure. The number of farms is declining constantly, while the average agricultural area is growing. Consequently, from 1990 to 2018, the number of farms smaller than 50 ha fell (most affected are small farms up to 5 ha, where only 30% of those in 1990 still exist), while farms larger than 50 ha are booming (Statistik Austria 2018). The motto ‘up or out’ stands for a structural change that is accompanied by a generation change in the Austrian agricultural system. As one representative of the organic farming association points out, the farmers’ representative organization—the chamber of agriculture—does not take this development seriously enough: “Structures in the countryside are maybe irreversibly destroyed, or it is very difficult to repair them. This is known, but not enough is done against this” (Int3). Rather, the dominant political and economic forces declare this process of change inevitable. Moreover, even today, agriculture remains a very closed sector and a closed society (Int7), “protecting itself fiercely against career changers” (Int3). This complicates the involvement of newcomers in the sector (Int7).
The Nyéléni food sovereignty movement addresses these disadvantageous conditions in the agricultural and food system (Nyéléni Austria 2017). Several national forums and the European Forum on Food Sovereignty have taken place since 2011, supported by institutions such as ÖBV-Via Campesina Austria, FIAN (Food First Information and Action Network) or AgrarAttac (the agricultural subgroup of Attac). Groundbreaking for the dissemination of CSA initiatives was the European project ‘CSA for Europe’ in 2013, carried out by AgrarAttac. Further support for CSA has been under discussion by creating a national CSA network (Int5) and a position within the organization supporting organic agriculture in Styria, Austria’s ‘hot spot’ for CSA (Int8).
Against this background, CSA represents an opportunity for people who want to foster a change of practice and become farmers engaging in small-scale and organic agriculture. The CSA model can serve as a kind of start-up initiative for this group (Int5, Int7). Altering institutional settings, CSA is “one of the few possibilities, where one can support smallholder farmers directly, without being suffocated by the pressure of the market, the industry or the agricultural lobby” (Int8). Furthermore, since autumn 2016, concrete plans exist between the CSA ‘GeLa Ochsenherz’ and the foundation ‘Rasenna’ to establish a common foundation that would guarantee land for organic agriculture via re-structuring property relations (Nyéléni Austria 2017). This re-structuring of property relations regarding land as well as initiatives supporting the extra-familiar succession of farms (Perspektive Landwirtschaft 2018) are underpinned by the wish to support small-scale, organic farming (Int3, Int5).
Solidarity and connection to community as guiding values
While CSA initiatives greatly differ in their underlying ideological system (permaculture, Catholicism, organic vegan cultivation, or political leftist thinking; Int2, Int6, Int9, Int10)—they share common values, which is best reflected in their understanding of solidarity and the connection to community.
The members of CSA farms emphasize the importance of a community of solidarity, understood as inclusive, universal solidarity in an emancipatory way. For example, a prospective CSA producer defined solidarity as a common mechanism where “not only I am well off, but all the others are well off, too” (Int6a). Another definition was “that one looks around what can be done in the local community and that one takes care of humans in the local community” (Int6b). An eater expressed the meaning of solidarity as “sharing, even though one has little” (Int4). Showing solidarity with the farm and creating a deep attachment to the farm was also often mentioned. Yet this solidarity is universal and goes beyond agriculture, as highlighted by another eater: “You are more and more aware of what the consequences of your actions are or what refraining from them would mean. (…) Where does solidarity end? Where does sustainability end? Where does respect end? (…) If one gets involved, then one cannot close one’s eyes any longer and ignore things” (Int11).
Four spheres of solidarity can be differentiated within CSA: solidarity (i) between producers and eaters, (ii) amongst eaters, (iii) amongst producers, and (iv) within society, understood in a wider transnational and universal context.
The main solidary principle of CSA in Austria is risk sharing between producers and eaters. By eaters’ pre-financing the farm and its activities on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis, the risks and benefits are divided among both groups. In addition, some CSA farms offer the option of co-working in the fields as a contribution to the initiative (Int6, Int10). Thus, eaters enable producers to farm and, at the same time, they engage in agriculture. “Consumers are released from their passive role and can take over greater responsibility for agriculture” (Int1). Risk sharing means that, for instance, in case of bad weather conditions, the harvest loss is covered by both groups. Also, political support structures that tend to favour large-scale agricultural enterprises can be circumvented to a certain extent via this form of direct support (Int5, Int7, Int10). There exists an “economic dependence in the best sense of the word, because as long as this is not hierarchical, it is good and reasonable” (Int5). Solidarity between producers and eaters thus enables the production of organic, locally produced high-quality food that equally benefits eaters and producers.
Solidarity amongst eaters is created, in particular, via the paid shares that are oriented towards an indicative value. Every eater contributes as much as he or she can afford, either financially or through participation on the field, to provide in total the sum and workload that is needed to run the farm (Int1). The eaters receive their share of produce either at a distribution point or they take it as ready-made portions in boxes. The first option again creates great opportunities for solidary sharing and exchange among eaters: taking as much as one needs for the week while leaving enough for the others (Int4). Solidarity amongst producers, in turn, is expressed via passing on information and experience, sharing best practices, or networking (Int8), “because there is no competition (…) and everybody is ready to introduce everybody to CSA who would like to get involved in it” (Int2).
Ultimately, solidarity can be understood within society, on a transnational level and in a universal sense. Even if there are only 3.9% of the workforce active in Austria’s current agricultural sector (WKO 2018), food concerns everybody. However, “agriculture is very dependent on factors which it cannot influence (…) but society can—as the example of climate change shows” (Int5). In turn, rural infrastructure and rural life depends on the existence of smallholder farmers, who are supported via the CSA model (Int3). CSA and the realm of agriculture is one learning field where experiences can be made and transferred to other fields (Int4). By drawing on these experiences, living “a different form of social system” (Int4) should be enabled. Thus, practicing CSA is seen as a way of creating spillover effects for society (Int4).
Another key point is the connection to the community that creates close relationships and commitment. New qualitative in-depth links between producers and eaters arise by “growing together” (Int1) and enable the appreciation for the work of the producers. Receiving direct feedback from the eaters supports the farmer and is motivating for his work as expressed by one former CSA producer: “It’s not like on the market, but we know the people, we see them every week and we get feedback like ‘hey, the carrots were great’ (…). This is much better for the self-affirmation and self-assessment of our work because one has direct contact to the people and gets recognition for one’s work” (Int9). The community can empower people and make them confident to engage in agriculture (Int6a, d). Ideally, in the community everybody can do what s/he is good at (Int4), which is underpinned by negotiation processes, as an eater explains:
How do we handle this that we should agree together on what shall happen? How do we coordinate? How do we organize the common days at the farm? How do we get the food? How do we distribute it? Who takes care of this? Who is reliable, who is not? Or let’s put it like this: we have areas that we are not good at. It’s great then, when there is a constellation that is balanced, that some are better doing construction work and others are better at organizing. (Int4)
Eaters value food differently. They consume it in a more conscious way when they know where their food comes from, who produced it and how much work was put into the production (Int4). “You know this rhythm—gone after breakfast and back home at midnight. This is a challenge because it is a shame if the food goes bad. I would not say that this is even more of a problem with CSA food, but I feel closer to it. And I know how much work this meant for [the producer]” (Int4). Thanks to more conscious food consumption, CSA eaters could even save money compared to what they had spent before in the supermarket (Int10).
The connection to nature and its materiality is explicit within CSA for producers and eaters alike. In CSA eaters get to know how vegetables can look in reality, unlike the homogeneous shapes of the vegetables sold in supermarkets (Int8). Producers let themselves “be surprised by nature” (Int8), asking “what is nature giving me today?” (Int8). This connection reinforces the ecological dimension of production as well as social-ecological interpretations of materiality. Producers do not have to throw away food, as they have to when selling produce on the market, because they know how much they need to harvest for their delivery. Furthermore, crop rotation is not only ecological and creates fewer problems with pests, it is also less capital intensive. It creates more security for the producer in case some seeds or plants do not grow (Int2). The use of pollinating varieties is widespread on CSA farms (Int2, Int8) and many aim to keep old varieties (Int4, Int8) and to use organic seeds (Int8).
Taking care of the land and understanding nature is another common feature among CSA producers and eaters even though different ideological systems exist among them. Whereas producers who are involved in organic vegan agriculture refrain from using anything of farmed animal origin, considering them independent creatures with the right to a self-determined life (Int2), others aim for complementing vegetable production with sustainable egg production (Int6). All appreciate nature, which is an important driver for their commitment to CSA. “Being amazed or overjoyed about the very little things in the process of creation. (…) I am happy about every seedling (…) if this were not the case I could not run the farm (…), because there are enough adverse circumstances” (Int10).
Tensions between practices, values, materiality and institutions
The challenges for the daily practice of CSA in Austria and how they are met will be explained below in terms of institutional barriers, tensions between practices and values, and material constraints.
When CSA is put into practice, there are difficulties that are inscribed in the institutional system, i.e. the state, which poses barriers to the rise of CSA in Austria. Whereas some of these barriers specifically challenge CSA, others apply to small-scale agriculture and other types of collective farming as well.
First, the legal form holds difficulties for adequately capturing the structure of CSA initiatives. The majority of the CSA farms are still run as flat-rate individual enterprises (Int2, Int10), which simplifies taxation for the producer but does not incorporate more people in the management. Others have chosen the legal form of an association (Int6a) or a combination of both, which allows for integrating all CSA members. Since CSA challenges the capitalist system (oriented towards profit maximization), problems arise: “If you want to explain this [note: CSA] to a tax advisor, you need to take your time. He does not want to understand it because this is leading somewhere else. However, not everything needs to be directed towards profit, I do not know, maximizing profits. The system, however, does not understand this” (Int10).
Second, the question of the legal organization of work remains controversial. One major concern is that voluntary co-work on a CSA farm could be interpreted as illicit work. To counter this perception, it needs to be framed and highlighted as educational training. A further challenge for collectively managed farms is the social security and pension system, the costs for which form a large part of the expenses for CSA producers because, unlike for traditional family farms, there are no reductions available (Int2, Int7). The concerns about the legal insecurity for alternative initiatives within the third food regime were substantiated in a conflict concerning food co-ops in Upper Austria in 2016. The Austrian chamber of commerce accused food co-ops of not having a business license and of tax evasion (DerStandard 2016). The CSA network can help here by providing a platform for exchanging information, also on legal support (Int5).
A third key challenge is state funding. Not only subsidies per hectare benefit mainly large-scale enterprises (Int4, Int10), grant applications are also rather orientated towards large-scale infrastructure with high investment sums (Int9). Small-scale investments for devices such as a milling machine are not supported. “One fits a bit into here and a bit into there, but truly one doesn’t fit anywhere” (Int6b). To counter this pressure on land, the municipality could provide land (Int7). In particular, for vegetable production, less land and investment is needed than for arable or dairy farming (Int5).
Finally, dominant agricultural institutions frame CSA as another instrument of direct marketing (Jungbauern 2016), rather than as initiatives that fundamentally re-structure our dominant mode of production and consumption. A major concern for the majority of CSA members interviewed is that a further dissemination of the CSA model might dilute it and its values-based approach (Int1). Most people engaged in CSA consider the CSA model as a true alternative to the capitalist system. CSA is appreciated as an experimental ground for new relations with society and nature, as a learning process of self-organization and negotiations, which can spill over to other societal fields (Int1, Int4).
Four points of tension between practices and values of CSA in Austria are identified.
First, CSA is a niche in Austria’s agricultural system. The majority of CSA members have a higher than average level of education and income. Many initiatives are situated near cities in peri-urban areas and wealthier regions, where the predominantly middle-class CSA eaters live (Int9, Int11). This proximity to potential collaborators also means higher land prices for CSA farms. This begs the question whether the model could be spread to other regions and classes, as one producer said who had stopped CSA: “What we noticed is that in rural areas it is more difficult to ask for the same financial contributions as in Vienna or Graz. (…) So I wonder how the model can spread if it’s only the middle class who can afford it” (Int9). One way to involve financially weak CSA members is to include them through a stronger engagement via co-working in CSA (Ouvertura n.d.).
A second challenge is the principle of risk sharing (c.f. Brown and Miller 2008; Galt et al. 2011; Hinrichs 2000; Ostrom 2007; Russell and Zepeda 2008; Lass et al. 2003). The CSA farmers interviewed did not pass on the full costs for the loss of the harvests. They either compensated the loss of vegetables with other kinds of produce available at that time (Int10), or reduced the share paid by the eaters (Int2). With the exception of one starting CSA initiative (Int6), producers were not willing to openly deal with the social pressure not to disappoint eaters. The starting initiative, however, communicated the intensified risk sharing component in the first year very openly by offering so-called “pioneer” shares (Int6). Another CSA farm changed strategy and currently—two years after the interview was carried out—stresses that, next to the share paid for the harvest, there is a share to be paid for investments to keep the farm running (Jaklhof n.d.). Providing a substantial basic income would counter this challenge (Int4).
Third, even though economic pressure from the corporate food regime is reduced via consumers’ pre-financing the production, social pressure is passed on to the producers who need to stand up for their needs and rights to leisure time or vacation (Int4). This kind of self-exploitation is also known from CSA farms in the USA (Ostrom 2007). As an agricultural lobby representative puts it: “From a social perspective, CSA is not thought through” (Int3). People that are well off pay producers in advance, but the risk sharing does not fully cover their share of other expenses like pension provision or social security. One activist has suggested reforming the social security system to counter institutional restrictions (Int7).
Fourth, time restrictions are present in everyday life in a negative way and effect the engagement of eaters in CSA initiatives. If there is no time for cooking, for processing the food, it goes bad (Int4, Int11). In a positive way, different levels of consciousness can change among CSA members over time. In particular, CSA farms initiated by producers need more time to engage the eaters as active CSA members (Int8, Int10). “The members do not take over responsibility immediately in the first two or three years” (Int1). For overcoming time constraints, the reduction of working hours from the 40-hour-week would help. This, however, is connected to the political-institutional setting (Int4). In addition, CSA producers know from experience that it is not the consumers that engage in direct marketing, e.g. customers of a farmer’s market, who become active members of CSA. This means that even if an existing farm establishes CSA, new eaters are needed to run a CSA initiative (Int5, Int10).
Material constraints like severe weather conditions (Int1) or climate change (Int5) affect CSA farms like any other farm. Ideally, they can be better handled by the CSA risk sharing mechanism. However, there are limits to risk sharing connected to materiality, which were especially mentioned by the CSA farm that has withdrawn from production. Soil fertility influences the amount of work that needs to be dedicated to grow vegetables. Loamy soils and hillside locations do not provide ideal conditions for cultivating vegetables. Also, the availability of water is essential for cultivating vegetables. If the work invested cannot produce a sufficient amount of food to cover the shares (smaller amounts would make them too expensive), it can form a major barrier for continuing the farm (Int9).
One way to counter material challenges and to complement the intensive manual work is the use of specially designed tools, such as a ridge plough, which was created for one CSA farm (Int10). Other difficulties, such as vegetables going off during storage for the winter during the first year, were met by improving storage methods (Int2).
Producers and eaters interviewed both underlined that through CSA it becomes clear that we need to accept our dependence on nature and our limits of control over it. This becomes obvious, for instance, when CSA farms harvest wild plants (Int6d) or when plum trees have a bumper crop one year and none the following year (Int4). The eaters interviewed stressed that it is good that they cannot control everything. A certain material restriction has the advantage that they do not need to choose between a seemingly unlimited variety of products in the supermarket (Int4, Int11):
Because some things do not grow how you have planned them. Some grow much faster than you have planned. Then I go around and look what is ripe. Sometimes these are not the things that I thought of. Sometimes nature gives me completely different things. But there is always enough of it. And this is exciting. (Int8)
Starting CSA producers and organizers also highlighted that it is important to communicate what is possible and what is not feasible. For instance, even if eaters would prefer receiving less wheat products, the CSA farm might have to offer wheat in the beginning because this is the only plant suitable for their soil (Int6c). Creating awareness and understanding for different climatic zones and different production conditions and their effect on the agricultural and food system is therefore a crucial process (Int4).