Amy Willoughby harvesting 2020 (Source: Jason Taylor)

CSAs as spaces of care and self-exploitation: a feminist perspective from the UK

In Agroecology and Feminism, Long Read by Amy Willoughby

I have worked in Community Supported Agriculture for the last 15 years in the UK. Over the last year, I have combined this activity with CAWR’s MSc Programme in Agroecology, Water and Food Sovereignty.  The gender module has allowed me to piece together new narratives through which to explore and contextualise my personal experiences of working in CSA.  In this blog, I explore some of the frustrations and barriers, questions that have lingered at the back of my mind, and the joys and freedoms that I have found working in CSA. All of these have found a voice here, through connecting with research, the wider context and ultimately, the stories of others.

A rising number of women are entering farming in the UK, especially through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and specialist horticulture sectors. These spaces offer opportunities to reimagine gender identities in agriculture, which have been dominated by the enduring ideology of famer and spouse within the family farm. Through situating CSA within a moral economy, where issues of social and environmental justice are given high priority, I’m interested in why the sector is attracting new women farmers, and the apparent contradiction with high levels of self-exploitation in CSA.  How can this be understood?  What are the motivations of individuals, and the wider economic and social pressures at play? 

Through a feminist political ecology perspective, this blog explores why the sector is still appealing to women farmers and what it offers.  There is little specific research in this area, so I have pulled together threads from different areas of study, geographic locations, and from my own experiences, to weave possible narratives that makes sense of, and further questions the relationship between women, CSA and their food work.

Women in farming and Community Supported Agriculture in the UK: a comparison

A 2020 article in The Guardian states that, “According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2018 about 17% of farmers were women, up from 7% in 2007-2008”. However, women have been largely invisible in the sector due to their inclusion as “spouses.” There appears to be increasing recognition of women’s work contribution to the sector; for example, DEFRA’s survey data on the Agricultural workforce in England at 1 June 2022 defines the people working in agriculture as, “Farmers, business partners, directors and spouses”. However, the dominant agrarian ideology of the family farm, still sees women’s work as auxiliary to men’s and renders it invisible.

Locating the number of women working in CSA in the UK is equally difficult to establish, although primarily due to resources available within the sector for data gathering.  The CSA Network’s annual survey 2022, reported that of 72 grower/ farmer respondents from UK based CSAs, 35 were male (48.6%), 35 were female (48.6%) and 2 identified as non-binary (2.8%)  This indicates a much higher percentage of women in CSA than are represented in the wider agricultural sector, although specific data on the number and gender of all employees would be more revealing.  This picture is backed up by my own experience of CSA gatherings where I meet a lot of women. So how can we explain the high numbers of women growers?

Dunne et al. provide a comprehensive, interdisciplinary literature review with the aim of describing and making visible the economic role of women in the UK farming sector. The authors compare the economic characteristics of male and female run farms, with some generalisations emerging: women’s farms tend to be smaller with greater diversification; they tend to be more concerned with environmental activities and are more likely to be organic and speciality horticultural farms; they have lower farm incomes, but also lower levels of debt.  Women farmers tend to be highly educated, but also lack access to specific agricultural training and access to land .

These findings are consistent with many characteristics of CSA and provide insight into the features that are important in understanding accessibility. The authors also suggest that further research is needed “to establish if observed differences in economic contributions between male and female farmers in-fact arise from gender-specific differences between males and females, rather than as a result of gender inequalities, such as access to land and other resources” (Dunne, 2020, p. 17).  Through exploring these inequalities and barriers, we can see why CSA might be a more accessible route into farming for women. 

The UK has a well-documented and enduring tradition of family farms, which has survived the trend towards large, industrialised farm holdings. 39% of farms are still based on land holdings under 20 HA according to the Defra 2020 annual report.  Patrilineal succession is the norm and women’s labour vitally contributes to the sustainability of family farms, with unpaid labour on the farm, and off-farm employment contributing significantly to income and resilience.  We can also see that the gender identities, “of farming men and women (are built) around the dominant gender coding of farmer/helper that has been shown to pervade the culture across and within generations” as examined by Price, 2012.

These traditions represent significant barriers to women accessing and owning land, and the preparation of male offspring as inheritors excludes women’s access to training, both formal and informal, specifically geared towards farming practise (Dunne, 2020).  These dynamics are performed and recreated daily in their social reproduction.

CSAs as new agricultural spaces for women and non-binary people

This leads us to question how CSA opens up new agricultural spaces that are more accessible to women and non-binary people, where dominant agrarian identities are challenged.  For example, the relatively small land areas required for horticultural enterprises (and CSAs) make them more accessible; horticultural skills could be more accessible/ familiar to women through traditions of allotments and family self-provisioning.

My personal experience, whilst aligned with these ideas, also highlights other factors that do not appear in the literature.  I started working on a CSA as a Saturday volunteer, taking home a box of fresh veg at lunchtime.  The culture of volunteering embedded in CSA allowed me to dip my toes into the farming world, which otherwise felt closed to me.  The physicality of the work, and the simple exchange were mentally and physically enriching, also giving me access to a non-monetised form of exchange.

The Land Workers’ Alliance (LWA) conducted a New entrants survey of 156 new farmers in 2020.  80% of enterprises occupy land holdings of less than 5 hectares, “The most popular enterprises were those that provide a high turnover from a small area”  .  76% including vegetable production (although many are diverse enterprises).  54% of new entrants surveyed were female, and 61% had no family connection to farming.  These findings support the idea that specialist horticultural businesses are more accessible to women, although access to land was still cited as the most significant barrier.

In 2015, my partner and I moved to Somerset from Warwickshire to start our CSA, lured by a land trust and a secure lease on a 9-acre site. With no capital, this was our best option for accessing land and having security of tenure; these opportunities are rare. We teamed up with local community grower, and a local councillor to form our Board of Directors.  Personally, I lacked many of the skills needed for the endeavour, but by working collaboratively and learning from each other, we have established a CSA the supports three individuals with a part-time income, and allows many volunteers (currently around fifteen each week) to be part of the production.

Volunteer at Plotgate CSA (Source: Jason Taylor)

Self-exploitation in CSAs: a critical perspective

Before we celebrate CSA for its capacity to support new farming identities however, it is important to explore another prevailing feature of CSA; self-exploitation, and to question whether feminist perspectives can contribute to our understanding of this.  Having worked in CSA, I have witnessed and contributed much unpaid labour, and I’m aware of how frequently this is raised as an issue at forums and training events.  It has been difficult to find specific research, so I have draw on literature from the USA (regarding CSA specifically) and from economic thinking,  with the assumption that findings are mostly relevant to CSA in the UK context. 

Much research on self-exploitation examines alternative working practices such as entrepreneurship, flexible working, and co-operative structures, where individuals are frequently found to work longer hours, and / or for less pay than they would in equivalent employed roles, but with the assumed benefits of greater flexibility, control over their working lives etc. Chung  situates this “flexibility paradox” within a “work-centric” society where the precariousness of contracts and a culture of “passion” at work lead to employment insecurities (Chung, 2022). This phenomenon is widespread, but prevails in entrepreneurial and self-employment situation that ironically, seek to move away from exploitative, capitalist structures.  Through this lens, self-exploitation is understood as a value choice.

However, as Galt notes, “Self-exploitation is a key concept of agrarian political economy that is used to explain why simple commodity producers can outcompete capitalist firms in agricultural production” (Galt, 2013, p. 346) which suggests it is a necessary condition of small-scale producers who are often working with fewer efficiencies.  However, the CSA model, by having short supply chains that enable retail prices to be achieved for produce, and by asking for a commitment from members, in theory, enables producers to compensate for their scale and achieve reasonable incomes.  Galt (2013) examines 54 CSAs in California specifically to explore the issue of self-exploitation, as it contradicts CSA’s fundamental concern with social justice.

The CSA Network depicted as “a partnership between farmers and consumers in which the responsibilities, risks and rewards of farming are shared” or an “equity investment relationship” (Galt, 2013) which situates them within a long history of investments in enterprises which aim to achieve common benefit.  The benefit to the farmer are: freedom from the precarity of commodity markets and price fluctuations; short supply chains that allow producers to benefit financially from the “economic rents” or added value attributed to ecological stewardship or organic status, and “community economic rents” associated with transparency, and social embeddedness. There is, however, a tension here between the equity model, and market valuations, or the “commodity exchange relation”, which often sees growers setting prices in line with market valuations, and below levels which would see a fair price attached to their labour, out of an obligation to deliver value to customers, who are viewed as part of their communities.

Packing veg shares at Plotgate CSA (Source: Joseph Hunwick)

Galt’s study found that half of CSA farmers were categorised as “super-self-exploiters” indicating earnings below the level of an average farm labourer.  However, some CSA farmers were earning good salaries, with a huge range identified.  So, if high earnings are possible, why are so many CSA farmers super-self-exploiting?  Galt identifies several persistently reported motivations around lifestyle benefits including autonomy; community and relationships; self-provisioning; consistent, year-round incomes that are rare in agricultural work; and ecological stewardship. None of the farmers reported being primarily motivated by profit.

This suggests that many do not have high earnings, because they are not motivated by earning money, and their ability to self-provision allows farmers to live, in part, outside of the capitalist market economy.  Another relevant finding is the capacity of CSA communities to buy land, which is important to the capital accumulation of businesses, but also in allowing access for farmers who are otherwise excluded.  The study also reported landowner subsidies, with 35% of CSAs able to access below market tenancies which is particularly important for new businesses, and I would suggest, for women.

However, the author also argues that, especially in the USA, “entitlements, such as health insurance, retirement, and sending children to college, are not well provisioned by a social safety net and are therefore expensive” (Galt, 2013, p. 353) which indicate that farmers’ lives are necessarily enmeshed in market economies and failure to meet these costs has consequences for the wellbeing of farming families; a situation that differs slightly in the UK which has universal healthcare.  Concern for these provisions was seen to increase as farmers age. In most CSA farmers’ reasoning, personal sacrifice was reported to be preferable to personal gain through exploitation of the environment and others.

It would be wrong to assume that conventional working practices do not involve exploitation and that this is purely a phenomenon of alternative sectors. Carter reminds us of the Marxist view that exploitation is the extraction of surplus labour (or product) from the worker within a capitalist society; he also describes the inherent “market exploitation” that exists in moving labour and products around the world from global south to global north and the role that power relations within global markets have in exploiting the labour of others (Carter, 1989). 

I would add to this, the inherent exploitation of the natural world in extractivist practices upon which much of the world’s consumption is based. My motivations for continuing to work in CSA are strongly driven by a desire to avoid harm to the natural world and to humans in other parts of the world; or at least to make visible and transparent the processes that underpin my food, as the basis for my existence.  Am I, as a woman in agriculture, simply transferring that exploitation onto myself?  And do I accept that more readily because it is paralleled with my own sense of empowerment, or because women’s contribution to food work is universally undervalued?

CSAs through a feminist lens

In applying a feminist lens to these findings, research is difficult to find, and I am drawing upon personal reflections as a woman working in CSA, which tie in with other findings. CSA offered me access to land in community ownership, through the recognised community benefit of the enterprise; a theme that has recurred throughout this research.  It also gave me the opportunity to engage in physical, outdoor work that contributed greatly to my sense of wellbeing and is a rarity in women’s traditional work, contesting dominant gendered roles and identities. 

It has also offered a space where the deeply damaging culture of environmental exploitation are countered, and experimentation in alternative practices can take place.  This experimental space is possible through the CSAs capacity to meet my basic needs of fresh healthy food and basic accommodation that have situated many of my transactions outside of capitalist market economies.  It has also allowed me to express, and have recognised and made visible, a dedication to care for the environment and a community.  But low earnings are an issue in CSA, and I question if this is more widely accepted by women, whose unpaid and unseen work is so prevalent in other areas of society.

However, I also know, that as I age, CSA will struggle to provide me with access to healthcare, and secure housing in the long term. I would agree with Galt’s findings therefore, that, “Society needs CSA farmers to have decent earnings, since these earnings contribute to the longer-term viability for their farms and their farming livelihoods,” (Galt, 2013, p. 361) and for women especially, that these spaces remain open for contesting gender identities of women and non-binary farmers. I would also agree that CSAs should encourage dialogue around farmer’s earnings, as “Doing anything less allows economic rationality—exchange based on a self-regulating market that is apathetic to questions of justice—to trump the other kinds of rationalities and values that CSA farmers, and many members, hold so dear” (Galt, 2013, p. 361).

In conclusion, we can say that the number of women farmers in the UK is rising especially in CSA and smaller-scale horticultural businesses, which create liminal spaces between domestic self-provisioning, and large scale, industrial agriculture; spaces where the barriers of access to land and training can be overcome, and gendered identities can be reimagined, outside of traditional farming  and those of women in a capitalist society where their reproductive and food work is made invisible.  CSAs also create spaces where concern for others, and care for the natural world are embedded in people’s lives. However, CSAs must also acknowledge their connection to wider, capitalist societies, and ensure their continuation and longevity by tackling low earnings by adopting more efficient practices and creating dialogue around workers’ wages, that would allow them to be truly embedded in a moral economy.

This blog is written by Amy Willoughby, CSA farmer and student in the MSc Programme in Agroecology, Water and Food Sovereignty at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience.

Additional resources

Study ‘Navigating Dreams and Precarity: Working and Learning Conditions of Young Agricultural Workers, Interns and Volunteers in Europe‘ (2022) by Priscilla Claeys and Barbara Van Dyck from AgroecologyNow and Coventry University (UK) in collaboration with the Youth Articulation of European Coordination Via Campesina.

The report looks at a wide range of issues including working hours, fees, contracts, negotiation power, food and housing, and gender discrimination, including with regard to intersectionality. Issues such as finding a farm that is best suited for learning, difficulties and dreams for the future are also assessed.