Today, people want to know more about the environmental and ethical standards behind the production of what they consume. Simultaneously, for small producers, agriculture is becoming a very volatile area with tiny profit margins and rapidly fluctuating prices. Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) is an innovative model which offers a solution to both of these problems. As an alternative socioeconomic model of agriculture and food distribution, CSA allows the producer and consumer to share the risks of farming. It also provides transparency around production processes and higher-quality food for consumers, as well as increased financial stability for producers.
We caught up with Alice Planel, who runs the Stroud Micro Dairy together with her partner, Kees. In this interview, she opens up about the ups and downs of building a project based on the CSA model, and how the sunrises, wildlife and happy cows make the early mornings and endless days of labour worthwhile.
What motivated you to take the plunge and start the dairy?
We were tired of thinking about our negative impact on the planet and when we heard of regenerative farming ideas – how farming can be used to regenerate the soils and heal the land – we realized that this was a way of actively doing GOOD rather than just less bad. Kees comes from a Dutch dairy farming background, my family has herded goats in the Alps for generations but we met in London where we worked in the creative industries and grass roots organisations. I handed in my PhD, Kees quit his job and we left for India and New Zealand where we learned a LOT about cow shit and complex ecosystems and hatched a life plan. After a 2 year stint in Ireland we moved to Stroud to farm land that the Biodynamic Land Trust had bought with the help of the community to support starter farms. In February 2017 we were up and running with 50 members registered on a waiting list and 7 cows in calf. They calved a few weeks later and we had fresh raw milk available for pick up! I still lecture, which pays many of our personal bills, but one year in we have 155 members, 8 cows in milk and 15 others from the ages of 4months to 2.5 years and we are breaking even.
What have you most enjoyed about the project?
Selling direct. Our members are a source of great joy, and it seems that the feeling is mutual. We are “their farmer’s” and they LOVE our milk. It’s also been a pleasure to see our cows express individuality so soon after arriving. The milkers are on grass year round and they are milked outside in the open so their life is pretty stress-free. One thing we did not expect is how satistifying it is to create a position for someone and see them gain more and more confidence in their work: Laura, our part-time employee, is a gem and we are so lucky to have her. The sunsets and sunrises, the wildlife that we see daily, those are also things that make the early mornings and endless days of labour seem worthwhile.
What would success for Stroud Micro Dairy look like?
To see the trees that were planted grow tall, the soil that we are caring for get thick and dark and sprout diverse tall grasses. See more wildlife settle in the hedgerows and in the pastures. Also, to produce enough to be able to employ one more person so that we can take weekends off and go on holiday more often.
What would you do differently if you were to start again? And what would you have liked to know before starting out?
We would perhaps start even smaller and dedicate more time to design. We would also set our prices higher. We didn’t want our milk to be expensive but in hindsight we realise that it is better to set prices high and then lower them.
We would also hire help immediately. It seems like a big investment at the time but with any business, even very small, you need to reserve time for the business and management side. This falls by the wayside if you are doing all the manual work too. When our volunteer, Sue, came on board things got a lot easier. We paid her to milk one day a week which is no mean feat with mobile milking.
Additionally, we've had to learn a wide variety of new practical skills, such as wiring, plumbing, soldering and building on the job. If we had taken a basic electrician and plumber course before starting we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and therefore money.
What benefits does a CSA model bring to you as a producer? And to the wider society as a whole?
Community-supported agriculture is a system in which risk is shared between producers and consumers. Our main customers are members who sign up for a year. This business model affords us stability, in contrast to the dairy industry that is a volatile commodity market subject to price fluctuations. Our members have essentially pledged to stick with us and weather any storm. We pledge to prioritise them. To secure the future of farming and therefore food security and justice, it is crucial that a larger number of young people turn to farming. However, young people or other new entrants typically lack the financial capacity to enter a high-input, large capital investment system. The benefit for the customer is that they are in direct contact with the producer and they have influence. They know EXACTLY what goes into their food. Food transparency is key to our health and to that of our planet.
What are the main challenges associated with using a CSA model?
A CSA model requires people to be regular and committed which is no longer what we are used to. Of course, there’s also a lot more admin involved than if you were to sell your milk in bulk.
Are there other steps consumers can take to support sustainable and fair farming practices?
Buy local direct from the farmer or from a local food hub or CSA, you’d be surprised how much more you get out of it. If there are none of the above in your vicinity then maybe consider starting a buying group. Certainly, put pressure on distributors to tell you where ingredients come from and how much they pay producers. Farming CAN be a useful tool to heal our planet but farmers CANNOT do it without support. Doing better for the environment does not pay more so please show them some love.
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