Image Source: NYTimes Zoe Prinds-Flash
But before there was Kickstarter, there were CSA's. CSA's are "Community Supported Agriculture" in which, at the beginning of the season, you buy a share in the production of a farm and receive weekly baskets throughout the summer/fall as things come into season. Kind of like a "cake-of-the-month" club, but healthier. Or like having someone do your farmer's market shopping for you every week and load it all up in a box for you to conveniently pick up (or have delivered). Like a real investor though, you also assume some of the risk - you might sign up for a CSA hoping you'll get a steady supply of your favorite tomatoes, only to be hit by a year with a June snowstorm or vampire rabbit infestation and no tomatoes. Usually you'll get something else instead, but it may be a whole bunch of something you don't particularly love. And after a few months of nothing but onions and chard, there's a chance you may find yourself wondering why you got yourself into this in the first place and looking around for a bacon-and-hops based CSA instead (if anyone knows of one of these, please let me know).
A brief recap of my sister-in-law's summer Facebook feed, for example:
6/4/13 - First CSA! Lots of greens this week and we're already wondering what to do with it all.
7/9 - This week in the CSA: you guessed it....Onions! Also: green beans, heirloom lettuce, beets, cabbage, cucumber, zucchini, chard, Asian greens.
7/16 - This week, from the CSA: potatoes, cucumber, yellow squash, basil, heirloom lettuce, green beans, rainbow chard, cauliflower. Notice what I did not mention-- spring onions! This is the first time we have not gotten spring onions. It's a miracle! We did, however, get scallions. So there's that.
VolumeOne picked up a neat story from the NYTimes yesterday about a movement that is a twist on this idea - Community Supported Art (also, confusingly, "CSA's"). The idea here is to buy into a share of art from local artists and basically get a mystery art box back in return. It could be some sort of abstract modernist piece, a sculpture, or a photo print, but a group of local artists all come together to contribute to the boxes. It's an interesting model, and again shifts some of the risk from the producers to the consumers in a way that is very different from your standard intro econ model of a competitive market.
In the last few years, there has been an explosion of interest in co-ops (like our fabulous Menomonie Market Food Co-op), bartering (including a reality TV show), and direct exchanges at places like farmer's markets, ebay, and craigslist as well as CSA's. These are not new market forms - in fact they are much closer to the very first exchange markets humans ever knew. It's more of a renaissance of these older forms of exchange, perhaps made somewhat more possible as our connected-ness online begins to allow for more personal communities again. But they all have aspects that make them different from a that typical textbook competitive market model - either an emphasis on goals other than profits, aspects of personal interactions and social capital and community externalities, or unique goods and services that don't scale well to competitive markets. The movement to "Community Supported ______" implicitly suggests that traditional markets aren't capable of supporting these business models, and yet the community finds enough value in them to support them in alternative ways. In some sense it's a fairly standard "bundling" model, but the community aspect makes it different than the type of bundling firms do when they include a keyboard with a new computer or shampoo with conditioner. There is something fundamentally different in "Buy Local" movements that is missing from many of our standard econ models and needs to be brought back to the forefront of how we're thinking about modern exchange.
In a few weeks school will be starting up again and it will be time for me to once again impart my knowledge of how markets work to another class of unsuspecting econ students. And yet, each year it also seems like real-world markets are getting more and more dissimilar to the ones in the textbooks I'm teaching from (and yes, I'm already in mid-semester form with confusing econ terminology by not just saying "less similar").
In the meantime, I'm trying to envision how we can start a CSSS (Community Supported Social Science) - maybe people will pay us to have monthly talks on random subjects ... come to think of it, I guess that's also basically the TED talk model? Or just fund a set of random research articles on assorted topics? I'm pretty sure Dr. Lee, Dr. Paulson, and I (and I'm sure others) would be very happy to deliver a box of social science research to anyone who wants to fund our new CSSS next summer - come to think of it, I guess that's pretty much exactly what we're trying to sell to the NSF right now! ;)