It is exceedingly difficult to make farming sustainable as a livelihood both for workers and for farm owners, and this problem is rooted in our society’s devaluation of good food and manual production labor. When small scale organic farms have been able to beat the market and provide dignified working conditions and fair compensation to those working the land, they’ve had to develop strategies to raise revenues and lower costs beyond market limitations. This is the key to compensating yourself and your workers well.
Community relationships are fundamental for these strategies to succeed. Some farmers develop favorable relationships with customers who can share access to resources, such as land or infrastructure, that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive–this has been a common strategy in places with high land values, such as areas outside of large cities. Another strategy is to create options for higher income customers to pay more for farm produce: Pie Ranch, a Food Justice Certified Farm in California, educates their farm stand customers on their food justice principles and invites them to pay a voluntary “food justice tax,” a premium beyond the marked price of their products that helps them pay higher wages and offer other benefits. CSAs often implement a sliding scale for share prices, allowing higher income members to subsidize others and make sure the farm makes enough to be sustainable. A few CSAS (Temple-Wilton Community Farm, Kimberton) even hold annual member meetings where the farmers present the farm’s annual budget, members bid on their shares, and if the bids add up to the budget, that is the end of the meeting. If not, members are asked to pay a bit more. As a result, members may be paying very different amounts for their shares.
These examples are inspiring, yet the reality is that customer relationships are always unique, require significant investment of time to develop, and are deeply shaped by the communities where they form. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Nevertheless, in an age of increasing distrust of corporations, concern for social justice, and climate instability, we believe that there is growing opportunity and necessity for connecting with customers around stewardship of the earth and support for the people who feed us. Of all farm business models, CSA and market farms are in a better position to leverage these relationships. There is also opportunity to make connections through marketing agreements with wholesale buyers, as well, particularly mission-aligned food co-ops and distributors.
We share the CSA Charter, which is intended as a pact between farm and community and can be shared with customers. The goal of such resources is to improve and support values-based communication with customers as a way to strengthen relationships and develop community buy-in. The CSA Charter may help you develop the language and principles for your own community agreements. Much of Part IV of the toolkit is devoted to resources on negotiating with wholesale buyers, especially those that require contracts. In both these cases, Food Justice Certification offers farmers ways to verify the premium and ethical qualities of their production for potential buyers and appeal for support in providing fair and dignified work on their farms. For Food Justice Certified farms we also have materials to help with communication and public relations about FJC.