Case Studies, Systems Thinking

Urgenci: An agricultural model built around shared responsibility, risk, and reward

After Marcel lost his job in Arad, Romania, he wasn’t sure what would come next. He had five children to support and little farming experience other than a few seasons spent working as a farmhand on larger plots of land.

Moving to the countryside to pursue subsistence agriculture, in 2011 Marcel established an ASAT, the Romanian name for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative. Partnering with 25 households from a nearby town, Marcel provides locally-grown organic vegetables, straight from his field to their tables. Consumer partners pay a subscription fee in advance of the farming season which enables him to plan his crops, make necessary investments, and better estimate demand, which in turn reduces food waste.

As of last count in 2015, Marcel is one of nearly 3,000 farmers practising CSA in Europe. His story was one of 14 shared in 2017 by the European Access to Land network and Urgenci, the International Network for Community Supported Agriculture.

Though CSA looks differently worldwide, Urgenci and others across Europe define it as a direct partnership between consumers (or “eaters”) and producers. Together, these partners share the cost and risk of the farming season, including land rental, seeds, tools, and farmers’ salaries. Then, they all reap the benefits—a nutritious, fresh harvest!

“So there is an overall benefit of social reconnection, and [CSA] ensures the real implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 8 (decent livelihoods) for the producer,” explains Judith Hitchman, President of Urgenci. “For the consumer, [CSA] works on aspects of nutrition and health because we know we can trust our family farmers.”

In fostering these dynamic connections between farmers, fishers, and eaters, CSA builds local food sovereignty and preserves sustainable, small-scale farming practices. As an organization, Urgenci is there to support from a network level.

A global network of CSA initiatives

Headquartered in France, Urgenci is both a community of practice and a network of partners affiliated with CSA and fisheries initiatives.

With members around the world, Urgenci is well placed to make connections between existing national and local CSA networks—while also providing resources and support for those wanting to start a network of their own.

By joining Urgenci, members collectively advocate for small-scale organic farming at a local, European, and international scale, and share ideas, knowledge, and evidence with one another. Though its efforts are wide-reaching, Urgenci is run almost entirely by passionate volunteers.

One of the ways in which Urgenci brings citizens, small farmers, consumers, activists, and political actors together is by mapping what it calls “Local Solidarity Partnerships” around the world. This is what Urgenci calls the CSA relationships between consumers and producers.

To date, Urgenci has mapped these solidarity partnerships in Europe, the Mediterranean Basin, and West Africa. These activities have enabled network members to identify common trends and challenges across the regions.

“In areas where we have war, migration, or increased economic difficulties of all kinds, it is essential to build direct relations between producers and consumers to ensure that people have the right to access local, healthy, nutritious food,” says Hitchman, reflecting on the experience-sharing event that took place for Mediterranean Basin members. “It’s important that we relocalize an alternative economy […] and that we rebuild our local food systems.”

Solidarity and systems change

Part of Urgenci’s work involves implementing policy instruments that already exist—for instance, connecting smallholder farmers to market and ensuring family farm produce is included in school feeding programs.

But Hitchman says the goals of Urgenci and CSA go well-beyond working within established systems. “The answers that we believe in are based on a system that needs to be changed,” she says in a video interview. “We need a more socially inclusive system which is something that we work on deeply within community supported agriculture. We also need to work collectively with other social movements.”

She notes that the majority of Urgenci’s network is young producers and those who identify as female. These members, as well as other social movements, come together as part of international symposiums, action plans, and working groups established between local, regional, national, and international actors.

In addition to building social inclusion, Urgenci and CSA initiatives utilize low-impact agroecological farming practices. In doing so, most CSA producers have 50 or 60 different varieties of crops growing on their farms, and are protecting biodiversity and restoring soil health. This is significant, Hitchman says, as the world faces challenges such as biodiversity loss, climate change, and agribusinesses that are increasingly jeopardizing small-scale family farms.

Stories like the one of Marcel, the farmer in Romania, offer just a small taste of an alternative, more sustainable future. In Marcel’s first five years of farming, he nearly doubled his customer base, increased the variety of produce grown, and expanded his cultivation area.

Even when he had a bad growing season or lost crops, he could rest easy each day, assured by his long-term agreement with his consumer partners. By creating an alternative value chain based on direct relationships, the risks of farming were lifted from his shoulders alone. These are the benefits of CSA that Urgenci champions.