A scheme aimed at achieving fairer returns for producers by strengthening the link between producers and consumers has found that there is a high level of demand for local chicken reared to welfare friendly standards, for which which some members of the public are prepared to pay a premium.

Community Supported Agriculture is based on the principle of both partners taking a share in the responsibilities, risks and rewards of farming, says Kirstin Glendinning of the Soil Association. The SA supports the establishment of CSAs in England, as part of the Making Local Food Work partnership.

There is no set formula to the way CSA operates, with scheme members deciding on their own structure and set of rules, she says. But consumer members often commit to buying their food in advance. Payment can either be in cash or exchanged for a set number of hours working on the farm. Typically, a small, one-off fee is also requested, to cover administration.

Ms Glendinning says both the producer and the consumer benefit from participating in CSA schemes.

chikens-free-range-Swillington

“The producer generally enjoys a more predictable income and higher returns. Retail prices can remain competitive, because the structure cuts out the middleman and the supermarket.

“Meanwhile, the consumers who join a livestock scheme have access to good quality meat, reared and killed to high welfare standards. Knowing the provenance in this way helps them understand that their participation goes towards providing a decent living for the farmer.”

Having overseen the launch of a CSA scheme at Jo Cartwright’s Swillington Organic Farm near Leeds, Ms Glendinning says the key to the long-term success is to establish arrangements that are fair to both parties. A set plan to cover all eventualities should also be thrashed out in advance, she advises.

“At Swillington, it has been agreed that in the event of a major catastrophe, such as avian flu, members will have to accept some responsibility for the losses. The farm is unable to insure against this type of event and, therefore, members cannot expect Ms Cartwright to bear all the costs. She has agreed that if avian flu was to affect supply, she would refund 50% of the payment. We all thought this was a very fair solution.”

Case Study: Jo Cartwright, Swillington Organic Farm, Leeds

In total, Jo Cartwright slaughters 200-300 organic free-range chickens a month, most of which are sold at farmers’ markets and through the farm shop on the premises. From May to October, more than 30 chickens a month are marketed through the CSA scheme, along with home-produced pork, beef and vegetables.

The chicken CSA scheme at Swillington Organic Farm was initially launched as a six-month pilot project in May 2008. But members have recently agreed to secure its future for a third term, with the likelihood of the project continuing to run indefinitely.

Jo-Cartwright-of-Swillington

Jo Cartwright: “This scheme has worked much better than I imagined”

Each member pays £54, for which they receive one free-range organic bird (average weight 1.5 kg) a month for the six months ahead. This amounts to £9 a bird, which is significantly cheaper than Mrs Cartwright’s standard retail price. She says members have no problem in accepting that bird weights may vary fractionally. They also pay £5 a month, to cover administration.

Until quite recently, the price of dressed birds to CSA scheme members was £8. But Jo decided on the £1 a bird price rise, largely because of the increased cost of organic poultry feed. In March this year, Mrs Cartwright’s was paying £478/t for chick starter, and £446/t for the grower ration. No one has complained at the price increase, and the economic downturn has had little effect on the business, she says.

“Our members have a very good level of understanding about the way we farm, and that makes all the difference. They realise that we can’t compete with a supermarket, which is offering two birds for £5, for example.”

Members, or their representatives, collect their birds from Mrs Cartwright’s stall at local farmers’ markets. Any birds that have not been picked up are taken back to the farm, where they must be collected by the following day. Mrs Cartwright says the fact that there is no delivery involved is a big advantage, leaving her with more time to spend with her livestock.

Mrs Cartwright successfully applied for a derogation to buy non-organic day-old chicks, due to a lack of supply in the area. She has also obtained a slaughterman’s licence, because the nearest organic-approved abattoir is more than 100 miles away in Cheshire. A spare outbuilding has been converted into a poultry slaughtering facility, and kitted out with a range of second-hand equipment. A part-time butcher is employed, to prepare the meat for sale.

It seems that the only limiting factor to the number of birds Mrs Cartwright can sell through the CSA scheme is whether she would have enough room in the van that she takes to the farmers’ market. If more members sign up to the scheme, and are prepared to collect their produce from the farm shop, it would be relatively easy to expand, she says.

Future plans include adding further value to the chicken, by making soups and pies.

“This scheme has worked much better than I had imagined,” says Mrs Cartwright. “It’s very good for cash-flow, and I enjoy the contact with the members. I wouldn’t mind selling all my produce through CSA.”

Swillington Organic Farm is a 65ha (160-acre) owner-occupied, mixed farm, on the outskirts of Leeds. It converted to organic production in 1999.

History of CSA schemes

There are an estimated 100 initiatives based on CSA-type partnerships in the UK. The concept began in the early 1960s in Germany, Switzerland and Japan, as a response to concerns about food safety and the urbanisation of agricultural land. There are now CSA farms and organisations in many countries.
In Japan, there are thought to be 500-1000 consumer groups connected with organic producers. Millions of Japanese consumers participate, accounting for a big share of fresh produce consumption.

Want to know more?

Community Supported Agriculture (Soil Association website)

Making Local Food Work

Swillington Organic Farm