The Branding of Community Supported Agriculture: Collective Myths and Opportunities
AbstractSince the mid-1980s, participants in community supported agriculture (CSA) have promoted, proliferated, and adapted the CSA model, resulting in CSAs gaining popularity as a trusted "brand." They have developed and expanded CSA by pursuing common branding strategies, such as building name recognition, differentiating the brand from other farm and food producers, and developing CSA narratives and mythologies with positive associations that attract advocates. However, CSA has not been branded via a typical centralized, hierarchical process, but rather through the independent, informally organized collective efforts of its farmers and members. With no standardized licensing or certification process (unlike "organic"), CSAs remain liberated from a strict set of allowed practices, yet debates still occur about what constitutes a "real" CSA. Despite the fact that many idealistic promotional claims of CSA have been validated, one glaring weakness is that many CSA farmers still struggle to achieve financial security. The positive brand mythology surrounding CSA has made it difficult for participants to acknowledge and confront this shortcoming. Drawing on qualitative field research and review of archival CSA materials, this paper examines the identity making and branding of CSA. I constructively critique some of the most fundamental aspects of CSA: its constructed image and its actual practice. Through this lens, I ask how the independent, open-source branding has helped or hindered CSA proponents in achieving goals. By focusing on these aspects my hope is that a variety of advocates, academics, farmers, CSA members, and others, can collaborate on developing a positive next era for CSA and its offshoots both within and beyond agriculture and food—projects aimed at strengthening consumer/producer alliances, cooperative practices, and ethically based community economies.
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