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Individual Paper: Tackling Conventional Agriculture: The Institutionalization of Community Supported Agriculture’s (CSA) Principles

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A growing distrust of the conventional agricultural system is apparent in the growing public awareness of such issues as deforestation due to palm oil production, emissions from raising livestock, or big business organic certification. Alternatives are needed to counteract and prevent further exploitation, and they currently exist. Community supported agriculture (CSA) is an alternative agriculture system that tackles many of the economic, ecological, and social challenges that are created by conventional agriculture (Cone and Myhre 2000; Galt 2013) . Its core principles of community building, risk sharing, and ecological sustainability help contribute to the foundation that produces a more sustainable food system (Schnell 2007) . The combination of these principles are what sets CSA apart from other alternative food initiatives such as farmers markets, co-operatives, or community gardens. However, studies have shown that in reality these principles are not always practiced (Brehm and Eisenhauer 2008; DeLind 1999; Pole and Gray 2013). This discrepancy should not be taken lightly. Studies have shown that community building and environmental awareness leads to member retention (Cone and Myhre 2000; Goland 2002), which has been proven to lead to a deeper appreciation of the CSA philosophy (Sumner et al. 2010). Furthermore, as the core principles address many problems created by the agri-food business it is important that they remain. One way to ensure their permanence is through their institutionalization within the field. As institutions the principles would be “enduring rules, practices, and structures that set conditions on action” (Lawrence and Shadnam 2008, p.2289). Therefore, it is important to understand the actions that allow for institutionalization to occur. Just as important, it is necessary to understand which actions work against the institutionalization of CSAs principles. To do so, this paper will investigate the institutionalization of community building, risk sharing, and ecological sustainability within the field of CSA by using Lawrence and Suddaby’s (2006) concept of institutional work to identify the actions that create, maintain, and disrupt the principles. This research is not meant to be a comprehensive investigation of these actions, but rather as a way to gain a better understanding of some of the forces that affect CSA.
The data was collected by completing a literature review on CSA comprised of 67 articles. By investigating CSA through the concept of institutional work it identifies the actions that institutionalize CSA principles, the actions that maintain these principles, and the actions that disrupt them. Our results are discussed hereafter.
The apprenticeship programs at the original CSAs were an effective means of spreading the principles as they provided a template for new farmers to reproduce. Lawrence and Suddaby (2006) warn against assuming institutions are permanent however, and the absence of community is often mentioned within CSA literature (DeLind 1999; Lang 2010; Pole and Gray 2013). Creating a community is sensitive work as it needs to be genuine in order to prevent creating an artificial or insincere community. The examples presented here show actions whose side effects allow for a community to be built. For example, CSA organizers cannot make a rule stating a sense of community must be built. Instead the examples here show CSA organizers implementing rules that create the opportunity for a sense of community to be built, such as setting a maximum number of members or requiring members to complete work on the farm. Nevertheless, allowing members to buy their way out of providing labour has disrupted the institution. It can be assumed that this action is not intentionally done as CSA organizers are concerned with making the experience more convenient for members (Cappellano 2011). Risk sharing is also undermined by trying to make the CSA experience more convenient by allowing members to select the produce they want and buy it online. The finding that some actions by actors from within the field disrupt the principles may be surprising. This shows the importance of unintended consequences, because of their potential negative impacts. As well, this highlights the irrelevance of intent within institutional work as these actors are not intentionally trying to undermine community building or risk sharing, but their actions have that effect.

Furthermore, this disruption is being done by mimicry, which Lawrence and Suddaby (2006) categorized as creative. This change of category also happened in the examples of farmers making deals without contracts and purposely bundling produce that was different shapes and sizes. These actions created community building and ecological sustainability, respectively, but meet the criteria of the disruptive work disassociating moral foundations. These examples show how the forms of work provided by Lawrence and Suddaby can have multi-purposes, and perhaps should not be limited to a specific type, eg. creative, maintenance, or disruptive, of work.

CSA shows examples of a reluctance to ensure adherence to rules, which could mean that such a practice does not align with the beliefs of CSA actors. At first, this could appear to be a weak point of the CSA movement for this form of action would lead to the maintenance of the institution. Growing In Place and Temple-Wilton both implemented work requirements and consciously did not enforce them, but Growing In Place lacked a sense of community while Temple-Wilton seemed to thrive as a community. Temple-Wilton’s manifesto explicitly stated no work would be done to monitor or enforce rules, so it is the responsibility of all members to ensure the budget is met and to complete any unfinished work. This has had the effect of spreading all the risk and responsibility amongst all members. This was further done by calling all participants farmers and active-farmers to impart a sense of responsibility, and the participants show many examples of accepting it (Wodraska 2008). Temple-Wilton did have one rule that they ensured adherence to. If members did not attend the pledge meeting, the one meeting that allows for risk sharing to be practiced, they would lose their share. Lawrence and Suddaby (2006) characterize this type of work as visible as they cause the actors to be conscious of their actions. Despite completing one form of maintenance work aimed at ensuring adherence to rules, Temple-Wilton generally does not monitor their participant’s responsibilities, and it is a CSA with a strong sense of community that successfully practices risk sharing for over 30 years (Temple-Wilton Farm n.d. a). This shows the importance of completing multiple forms of institutional work.

The influence of conventional thinking and practices has implications for CSA. Ecological sustainability is institutionalized at some CSAs by disrupting the practice of standardization within conventional agriculture by bundling produce of different shapes and sizes together. However, some members complain of dirty or scarred produce showing how their perceptions are shaped by conventional practices. Risk sharing is also negatively impacted by conventional thinking. The tendency to want the most goods for the cheapest price prevents some CSA organizers from setting accurate share prices, which can result in the farmer not receiving a proper wage. Furthermore, replicating online shopping practices can also lead to the loss of upfront capital or guaranteed wage for the farmer.

Who is performing the institutional work is an important aspect considering the importance of the actor within the concept (Lawrence and Suddaby 2006). In the examples presented here it is mostly the CSA organizer, ie. the farmer or core group, completing the work. The members play a role of course and there is also evidence of external groups, e.g. NGOs, farmer associations, participating, however it is the organizers who lead the actions and are thus the most important actor when considering institutionalization within CSA.

This research found that the CSA organizers are the relevant actors when considering the institutionalization of CSA principles. It also found there is a reluctance to ensure adherence to rules within CSA, but this can be seen as a stance for individual responsibility within the collective. As this places the power within the hands of each member it could create a strong group of members who are accountable and committed thus contributing to the institutionalization of the principles. Nevertheless, as ensuring adherence to rules is important it is beneficial to complete multiple forms of work.

Lawrence and Suddaby’s (2006) taxonomy of institutional work was not intended to be exhaustive, however we conclude that the 18 forms of work were sufficient to investigate the institutionalization of CSA principles within the field. No new forms of work were discovered. However, this research did show some actions that challenged the categorization. Some forms of work that Lawrence and Suddaby originally labelled as creative were disruptive or vice versa.
The institutionalization of CSAs principles institutional work reminds us that the work is never done. CSA actors will need to continue working to ensure the principles remain intact.


Day: 2018-08-22
Start time: 14:30
Duration: 00:15
Room: ABF (206)
Track: Organisational and Organising Practices



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