It was a great holiday even if it meant heaving hay across fields under the Polish sun.
Paulina Olszewska is an art critic but she recently spent a week working on a farm near Szczecin, a town along the German border on the Baltic Coast.
She came back home with a bag of small apples and a large jar of pickles that she stows in her fridge in Berlin to eat during the coming weeks.
She gathered them on the farm where she worked. “I think they went easy on me. I was up at 5 a.m. every day, but they kept saying no, go back to sleep.” The farmers themselves were working round the clock, she said.
“It was more fun than I expected,” Ms. Olszewska recalled. She cleared fields, pickled cucumbers and cleaned vegetables into boxes that go to 20 people each week.
The 20 people are part of a group living near Szczecin who are supporting the farm and the farmer for a year. They sign up and pay about €60 ($78) each month, plus a couple of days’ labor. In return, they receive a box of vegetables from the farm each week.
The farm Ms. Olszewska went to belongs to a network across Europe that is part of the Community-Supported Agriculture movement known as CSA. The set-up of farms and communities circumvents supermarkets and large-scale food middlemen. And it is increasingly popular with people who live in cities in Germany, where access to agriculture and nature is often kilometers away.
Ms. Olszewska was disappointed with the produce she found when she moved to Berlin from her native Poland three years ago. “The vegetables didn’t taste good and I missed the variety back home.” She also missed the local contact to the farmers and countryside she had growing up.
“With every food scandal, more people join us.”
Also, food scandals in Europe over the past years ranging from horse meat labeled as beef to a food poisoning outbreak in Germany in 2011 also reduced her trust in large-scale agriculture. “I think most people suddenly realized how hard it is to work out where food actually comes from and how and where it is processed,” she said.
“With every food scandal, more people join us,” said Katharina Kraiss, a coordinator at Solidarische Landwirtschaft, Germany’s community-supported agriculture network.
The movement took off in Germany after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine when people stopped buying produce and farms went bankrupt, she said. “People realized farming is important to society and that more people should get involved and share the risk.”
CSA sometimes works differently in the United States, Ms. Kraiss said.
“There, the boxes for people sometimes contain goods that aren’t from the farm,” she said. “And sometimes people pay per box. Here, the idea is to share the risk with the farmer.” For example, Ms. Kraiss explains, those supporting a farmer who has a bad harvest have to accept they won’t get what they had originally expected.
Ms. Kraiss’ network provides guidance about community-supported agriculture to 80 farmers in Germany. There are many questions to consider: What to grow, how to work with communities and how to distribute the food?
The largest farms provide meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables.
“Everything except salt, pepper and oil,” said Wolfgang Stränz of Buschberghof, a farm near Hamburg. His operation can provide supply 600 people with food.
At the other end of the scale is a publicity-shy collective of fly-by-night squatters who grow produce on unused plots in eastern Germany.
Each farmer determines how to run the cooperative together with the participants. At the beginning of the year, the farmer plans their work to match the number of people who are helping out. And of course they have to budget so that they and any workers are paid too.
“The logic of the way the land is used under community-supported agriculture is different.”
“The social and economic aspect is even more interesting than the agricultural details,” said Diego Maronese, a farmer who started growing vegetables in a community-supported agriculture project this year. “Our project is as much about togetherness as anything else.”
He works his land, smaller than a hectare (2.5 acres), together with another farmer to support 30 people. Anyone who joins his group pays €260, or $334, a year and works four days on the farm each year, and receives vegetables and fruit in boxes once a week.
He calculated who should pay what, and provides a discount to single parents. He spent some time working out how to proceed with his farm. In the end he decided to plant using permaculture principles, eschewing tractors and heavy machinery, and to dig and harvest by hand. He is also eager to grow older varieties of plants and vegetables.
His group all own and work the land together. As Mr. Maronese and a colleague work together full-time but they also need the help of volunteers. “Last week the group worked together and managed to do in one long day what otherwise would have taken a week,” he said.
The next task ahead is harvesting 700 kilograms of pumpkins before the night frost.
Proportionally, one person can grow food for 30 people, Mr. Maronese explains. In Berlin, he said, 100,000 farmers would be needed to grow enough food to feed 3.5 million people using natural farming principles.
“The logic of the way the land is used under community-supported agriculture is different,” Mr. Stränz said. A management consultant might look at a farm differently. “But for us, the cow is for milk and meat but also manure. The wheat is for bread and also provides straw for animals. The milk is for cheese and its byproducts can also feed the pigs. It’s a different way of calculating and understanding economy.”
The farmers seek to address imbalances they perceive in conventional farming. Some resent the support for industrial farming rather than more traditional farming methods. Others are angered by the mass planting of corn for biogas, or the mislabeling of conventional produce as organic. And a few seek more radical changes in the way land is used, and call for a different understanding and respect for animals, plants and soil.
Either way, the movement is gaining popularity, Mr. Stränz said. “City people lack a connection to the land and they value the social aspect too. And farmers need people, so this will continue to grow.”
“It is also really fun,” Ms. Olszewska said. She is looking forward to returning to the farm and raking some more hay.
Allison Williams is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. She is a member of an alternative gardening collective in Berlin. To contact the author: email@example.com