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Back to the future

Oleg Ködding-Zurmühlen, Bonn, GermanyJune 28, 2016

Conventional agriculture in Europe is facing problems. But in Germany, an old solution is again coming to the fore: community-supported agriculture. It brings together producers and consumers, enabling organic farming.

Field of the Community Supported Agriculture in Bonn (Photo: Oleg Ködding-Zurmühlen / DW)
Image: DW/O. Ködding-Zurmühlen

Lisa Schaefer beams with a certain pride: "A farmer couldn't have done all this in the course of his regular work." Standing in front of a massive pile of compost in Bonn, Germany, the gardener speaks with infectious enthusiasm about this natural heat station.

It shall protect farmed peppers against frost - and it was made possible by the community: "We've got a lot of helping hands. If we manage it to bring them together, we can move mountains."

And a mountain of problems, it seems, are piling up for conventional agriculture in Europe. The controversial weed killer glyphosate could potentially be banned, and milk prices continue to be at rock bottom.

Small farms can hardly compete, with production costs often higher than market prices. And aside from farmers, the environment also suffers: monoculture-crop farming and the use of pesticides create pollution problems and threaten biodiversity.

Lisa Schäfer in front of the paprika greenhouse of the Community Supported Agriculture in Bonn (Photo: Oleg Ködding-Zurmühlen / DW)
Bonn CSA's fields boast great biodiversity: Gardener Lisa Schäfer in front of the "pepper tunnel"Image: DW/O. Ködding-Zurmühlen

But potential solutions are possible, as community-supported agriculture (CSA) shows: When consumers and farmers team up to produce groceries collaboratively, this liberates farmers from the mass market, spreads the risk of crop shortfalls over many shoulders, and enables organic farming.

What's a CSA?

Through monthly dues, members fund the work behind the vegetables - and then receive a share of the harvest.

"The vegetables from the farm are collected by members once a week and distributed to the urban depots. Helping on the fields is voluntary," says Sara Fassbender, an undergraduate student and member of the Bonn CSA.

She adds: "The system is also in solidarity, because the membership fee is not set. In the bidding at the beginning of the year, everyone contributes as much as he or she can."

According to a study by the University of Frankfurt, the CSA model is a "social innovation." However, solidarity between farmer and consumer is anything but new: Until even in the 19th century, it was commonplace among peasant families to secure livelihoods collaboratively.

Everyone knew the dairy farmer, because they all came around to collect their milk every Monday morning. But after machines revolutionized agriculture at the end of the 19th century, solidarity is the innovation today.

Biomeiler built by the Community Supported Agriculture in Bonn (Photo: Oleg Ködding-Zurmühlen / DW)
The compost pile provides heat for two winter seasons - and a bunch of humus, thanks to the composting actionImage: DW/O. Ködding-Zurmühlen

The CSA story started in the 1960s: A community of women in Japan established "teikeis" - partnerships between organic farmers and private households. In the 80s, this idea also spread in the United States, where the concept finally got its label "Community Supported Agriculture."

CSAs in Europe began in Switzerland - and have spread to France, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany over the past decades.

And the number of CSAs is increasing: "Currently there are 100 CSA farms in Germany and 80 are under development. This concept is getting more and more popular," Schaefer told DW.

Tapping collective know-how

The Bonn CSA gardener knows precisely when the kohlrabies are ready for harvesting, and how best to combat ravenous mice in the parsnips field - that's also why her mobile phone is constantly ringing.

Collective exchange is the CSA recipe for success. Farmers are not in competition, but rather in contact - the consumers don't just help themselves at the supermarket shelf, but also help with problem solving.

"It is often a member who brings in a fresh perspective and solves the problem," says Schaefer. Thanks to community-based know-how, a mobile henhouse emerged alongside the compost heating system.

Such dedication allows dairy farmer Bernd Schmitz - as well as Werner Grüsgen, who previously farmed conventionally - with organic farming. Instead of environmentally hazardous pesticides, handiwork is called for.

Case in point: the annoying potato beetle. Schäfer reaches for the gloves without hesitation, getting up close and personal in picking off the pests herself.

An henhouse of the Community Supported Agriculture in Bonn (Photo: Oleg Ködding-Zurmühlen / DW)
Members of the Bonn's CSA built this mobile henhouse with the help of a carpenter in the communityImage: DW/O. Ködding-Zurmühlen

Environmental benefits

So much dedication requires diversity in the field. Directly beside the potatoes are cauliflowers, leeks and kohlrabies. "A great variety is important to us. This takes relatively large amount of work, but is good for the environment," explains Gesa Maschkowski.

The food scientist at Bonn University is a core team member of the Bonn CSA, and reports to the members in a newsletter about new developments concerning the fields.

That organic farming is the future, illustrates Schaefer while overlooking the compost pile, which is used for its humus as well: "The soil of conventional fields is so compressed by machines that the water doesn't run off, causing far more erosion than on the organic field."

"Our humus-rich soil can cushion this considerably, in the case of an extreme downpour," she adds.

In that sense, community-supported agriculture acts not only as a cushion for the farmer, but also protects against extreme weather induced by climate change.

So the CSA path leads back to the future: Once again, it's time to think solidarity.