Last spring, farms across the country saw a surge in demand for their CSA programs, with signups and waitlists that flourished at rates not seen before. As families sheltered in place at home and farmers’ markets either closed or ran under tight restrictions, more people turned directly to local farms to guarantee food for the months ahead. Some farmers even introduced home delivery options to bring the boxes directly to consumers’ doors.
Yet, even with all the attention surrounding Community Supported Agriculture programs, coupled with the national reckoning following the murder of George Floyd last year, little space has been given to telling the full story of the CSA model. How deeply rooted the CSA is in Black history is rarely discussed—let alone properly attributed—by those who offer one.
Two New England farms, Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts and Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire, have widely been credited with starting the CSA movement in America, said to have been inspired by European agricultural traditions. The farms—one white-owned and one member-owned—implemented their first farm share programs in 1986.
But the story of the CSA model actually begins decades earlier, in the 1960s and ‘70s, with a man named Booker T. Whatley. A Black horticulturist and agricultural professor at Tuskegee University in Alabama (where he followed in the footsteps of George Washington Carver), Whatley was an advocate for regenerative agriculture, among other environmentalist practices. At the height of the civil rights movement, Whatley began counseling the Black farmers who were deeply engaged in that struggle.
“The ideas that [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] and others stood for, first and foremost, came from the importance of land and farming for Black communities in the South,” says Clyde Ford, a corporate trainer on racial justice and author of Think Black, as well as the forthcoming Freedom Dues, the story of how Black labor built America.
The popular narrative about the civil rights movement is largely focused on presidential elections, but Ford explains that there were equally as—if not more—important elected positions for Black landowners to vote for, ones that directly impacted their businesses and livelihood. The local farm service committees that determined how federal programs and loans were distributed consisted of elected members, meaning Black landowners could finally have the opportunity to vote for them. “That was critically important to how they received loans, received economic support and essentially received information that would help them as farmers,” says Ford.
Black farmers were routinely denied loans and grants by the federal government, costing them land, money and agency. As a way to help them keep their land while also supporting their local Black communities, Whatley advocated for pick-your-own farms and what he called clientele membership clubs, which entailed customers paying up front for a season of food as a way of guaranteeing business.
“The clientele membership club is the lifeblood of the whole setup. It enables the farmer to plan production, anticipate demand, and, of course, have a guaranteed market,” Whatley told Mother Earth News during an interview in 1982. “However, that means the grower had better work just as diligently at establishing and maintaining the club as at producing the crops. Put it this way: If you fail to promote your club, something terrible happens—nothing!”
Whatley eventually published these and other ideas in his 1987 handbook How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres, a guide still embraced by small farmers today. The principles it contained were targeted as solutions for farmers with limited resources, such as the African American farmers suffering neglect at the hands of the USDA, according to Ford.
“The whole CSA movement grows out of this recognition that there’s not going to be support from above from the government, that you have to find the support within the community,” says Ford, who delved into the origins of the CSA movement while researching for his contribution to We Are Each Other’s Harvest, a new book from Natalie Baszile that celebrates the stories of Black farmers in America. “[The concept of] ‘buy local’ wasn’t just to support your community; ‘buy local’ was survival for Black folks. It was the only way, in many instances, that they were able to survive.”
For several decades, CSAs have remained a bit of a niche market, and the “eat and buy local” movement has struggled to expand into the larger mainstream. The pandemic has helped change that, showcasing the model’s importance to the future of our food system. Black farmers are part of that future, too.
“The CSA has basically been co-opted by co-ops and buying co-operatives who somehow mistakenly traced the roots of CSAs back to Europe, which has nothing to do with it in this country, and conveniently forget the role that Booker T. Whatley served,” says Ford, whose own family has deep agricultural roots.
In Seattle, the Black Farmers Collective is working to reestablish that connection. The project began in 2016, with an idea to transform a wild blackberry field perched above the interstate into an urban teaching farm. Now called Yes Farm, the two-acre farm is located near Yesler Terrace, a public housing development in Seattle’s Central District. “We’re in the city, trying to offer this opportunity and turn this blighted land into this beautiful thing,” says managing director Ray Williams.
The Black Farmers Collective also has two other farm locations, and it offers a CSA program. The goal is to not only grow produce but to grow the next generation of young farmers. “I would like to see young farmers that got their start here and then went on to grow elsewhere,” says Williams.
Out of the 3.4 million farmers in the US today, only 45,000 are Black, with white farmers accounting for 98 percent of the acres being farmed. Meanwhile, Black farmers such as Travis Cleaver, owner of Cleav’s Family Market in central Kentucky, are fighting to reclaim their agricultural heritage while also supporting their local communities, following a path for which Whatley helped pave the way.
Travis Cleaver, right, stands with His father, Kenny Cleaver, his mother, Debra Dorsey-Jones, and his daughters are Trinity and Tahlia Cleaver. Photo courtesy of Travis Cleaver.
Cleaver runs his livestock and vegetable farm, through which he offers a weekly CSA—although you won’t hear him calling it that. “The term CSA has a bad stigma now, because so many people have been burnt by giving up this money and not getting back what they wanted,” says Cleaver, who believes the pay-ahead CSA model fails to be inclusive and accessible to many. “I was raised by a single mother, so I know it’s hard to come up with $600 when the rent’s due.”
Instead, Cleav’s Family Market offers something it calls a vegetable box. Priced at around $40 for a family of four, the boxes are offered weekly for an 18-to-20-week period. “We base ours after what Booker T. Whatley did,” but with a slight twist, he says. Subscribers confirm their box weekly, on Wednesday, which is distributed at various locations on Saturday. This format enables families to buy the fresh produce when they can afford to, with no penalties if they skip a week or two, allowing customers grace during times like back-to-school, when money is tight in many households in his community.
Farming has been passed down from generation to generation in the Cleaver family. His father grew tobacco, but Cleaver’s own passion is raising livestock, something he didn’t come around to until he was older. “Some people like to hunt, some people like to go to sporting events. Farming is my safe haven; farming is my happy place,” he says.
He still keeps his full-time job as a railroad conductor as he works to grow his farm from the ground up. The farm pays for itself, but it doesn’t make enough for Cleaver to do it full time at the moment. His goal is to pass the legacy on to his two daughters, who are 11 and 17 years old, and work their own farm stand. While only a small part of the farm’s initiatives, Cleaver says the vegetable boxes have allowed him to steadily grow his practices and customer base without needing to rely on outside investment or loans. “What the CSA model does is that it makes you able to learn your craft as you go,” he says.
Perhaps fittingly, the concept could yet again help lift up Black farmers during a time of racial reckoning, just as Whatley designed.