by Jan VanderTuin
The early 1980’s were inspiring years for Swiss activists. The youth were rebellious, and citizens at large asked questions of the nation that epitomizes capitalism. I saw many evolving solutions to problems that I, coming from the States, had written off as unsolvable.
I was working part-time on an organic farm outside Zürich when I heard of an organic agriculture research institute in Basle. I went there with an eye open for alternatives to market agriculture, having felt burned economically as an agricultural worker and farmer in the States. The institute director sent me to Geneva, to a successful project that addressed almost every problem I’d encountered in modern farming.
This producer-consumer food co-op in Geneva was founded by a man inspired by the co-op movement in Chile during Allende’s administration. The basic idea, that consumers personally cooperate with producers to fund farming in advance, makes for more efficient use of land, since you know how much to grow, and much less stress for farmers, since you already have money to live for the year.
The Geneva group had been running for nearly a decade on this principle, with 180 families getting their produce from a small farm outside of the city. They began with small plots around town, producing somewhat haphazardly what they could with what money they got from people in advance. Although the harvests were small, the original investing consumers trusted that the growers were doing their best and would improve over time.
This was the most radical Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group I have ever encountered. They actually sent out questionnaires asking their consumers how much money they made, in the hope that they would pay a share proportional to their income. They were very brazen, but I think this made them successful. If they wanted you to become a shareholder, they'd offer the idea to you without compromise. If you didn't “get it”, they left you alone, and maybe you’d discover on your own or from your neighbor why CSA’s were such a good idea.
The share-holders included committed families who worked for international development organizations and were looking for ways to live sensibly at home. The project wasn’t perfect: they didn’t have enough land to keep animals, so they imported manure, and they were always struggling with high land rents. Finding farmland is much harder in Switzerland than in the States. On the other hand this makes it easier to find good farmers, because in Switzerland they work hard to keep their limited amount of land healthy.
I went to two other CSA’s, one in Basle and one in Liechtenstein, both associated with Anthroposophy, the movement that created Waldorf schools, Camp Hill Villages for the developmentally disabled, etc. Most of their share-holders came from this movement. The European Anthroposophics didn’t really promote CSA’s, however, as their counterparts in the States later would.
Back in Zürich I was introduced to Christophe, a rather philosophical vendor of organic produce, nuts, cheese and raw milk. He went from quartier to quartier selling on the street out of a cute little French step-van. We collected a small core group, and I organized a meeting of local farmers, organizers from the CSA’s I’d visited, and others who showed interest in starting a producer-consumer food co-op in Zürich. I was encouraged by Swiss interest in ideas that were unusual, especially since they came from someone who spoke no German. If only all of us could be so open as to accept outside perspectives that willingly.
We used the garden at an ancient Swiss farm that was extremely diverse and which had never switched to using chemicals. We set up a storefront in town for the project, which we called Topinambur, French for Jerusalem artichoke. At the storefront shareholders could pick up their share of vegetables twice a week, along with foods like olive oil and citrus fruits from various Italian co-ops we knew.
A friend of mine was a doctor for SSR, the big European student travel cooperative, and she sparked off a wave of interest in the Zürich CSA among SSR people. This brought one man, who had been involved in the movement to make Swiss banks more responsible, into the core group, and he managed to bring the project into the ‘mainstream’ of the alternative movement in the city. For me, this success became a problem in some ways as people were no longer joining for philosophical reasons, but because it was a fad. I think this left the project ideologically vulnerable to the ‘free’ market mindset and all it’s subtle accompanying problems.
But at the outset, the way the Swiss approached this project was significantly different than CSA's I later worked with in the States. In the States I often felt very frustrated, and embarrassed of my own culture’s barriers to what was common sense thought and behavior in Switzerland. If I could make a few observations I would say:
• In Switzerland there is no stigma against thinking for the long-term. In many day to day situations it was apparent that this was a culture where people were concerned about their effect on the community.
• The average Swiss has more experience with cooperation in general. In the States people can cooperate, but for most of the population it’s an unusual experience.
• The Swiss were interested in the history of the CSA project. In the States it often seems that history bores everyone, so people don’t care to learn from it.
• The Swiss paid their annual shares in advance, allowing for almost no bookkeeping and no chasing down of late payments. This isn’t because they all have big bucks: they have a higher rate of savings and a better appreciation of long-term costs. In the States payment plans always creep in, adding to accounting costs and hassles.
• The most striking thing in Switzerland was the social commitment to these projects: both farmers and shareholders were sure of each other. In every group in the States that I have seen, the core group seems to lack faith in the consumer’s willingness to pay true costs such as overruns. In Switzerland the organizers and farmers would rather be in another profession than continue to be martyrs and take personal losses while producing for the community. They initiate CSA’s to create sustainability in human resources, not to push farmers to the breaking point.
After two years at Topinambur Christophe and I organized another project: a food delivery system based on human power. The result was trailers , and the beginnings of my present work.
Switzerland has many problems that I wished to help solve, many of them international. The level of energy and commitment among activists there was something I have rarely experienced in the States. Whether I like it or not though, the States are what I know best, and the time came when it seemed impossible to get involved in Swiss change as deeply as I would like. I never doubted that I could start a CSA in the States, and I wanted to introduce the idea through a working example. After returning to the States it took about a year and a half before I found people to start the experiment with. As it turned out it wasn’t in a large city but in the small community of Great Barrington, Massachusetts.