Wait! Something’s pulling on the line! Could it finally be a fish? Filled with hope, we reel in the line. Yes! We’ve caught two fish with five hooks. Well, “fish” may be something of an exaggeration. These are more like small fry. Our excitement quickly turns to disappointment and pity. We throw our catch back into the water – these little guys still need some time to grow. As for our food, so far we’ve failed miserably in our attempts to be as self-sufficient as possible. So it’s back to the local supermarket to do some shopping.

Everything is coordinated and interconnected: the animals live off the land, providing just enough fertiliser to ensure that the soil remains rich in nutrients. Ivar Smits Skipper

But there, too, we try to make informed, careful choices. Our aim is to find out how the stable-to-table chain works here. So how do you go about learning where your food comes from, how it’s produced and how it ended up here in the supermarket? Community-supported agriculture (CSA) may well be the answer.

Kattendorfer Hof: a fairy-tale farm

The biggest farming company in Europe to have embraced the principles of CSA is located between the German cities of Kiel and Hamburg. We take the train and then walk the rest of the way to the tiny village which is home to this very special farm. Between the houses, we spy a sign telling us we’ve arrived at Kattendorfer Hof. Mathias von Mirndorf, the owner of the farm, is waiting for us in front of the barn to give us a tour. Also a yachtsman, Mathias enthusiastically agreed when we wrote to ask him if we could stop in.

Mathias shows us the grounds, which consist of a number of buildings, big and small. At the centre is a spacious house where we’ll be having lunch later with Mathias, his family and his staff. There’s also a big barn, complete with stalls for the pigs and goats, and where a cow has just gone into labour. Spread out over the estate are several houses that look like English country cottages and are inhabited by the staff who work here. The outlying fields of grass, clover, spelt, potatoes, vegetables and fruit surround the farm. Everything here is coordinated and interconnected: the animals live off the land, providing just enough fertiliser to ensure that the soil remains rich in nutrients.

Indeed, the animals are an integral part of the family, as becomes clear when we’re given a detailed introduction to the pigs, a rare breed which Mathias is helping to save from extinction. They’re lovingly cared for and have plenty of space to run around and play together. A little later, we also see how emotionally attached the staff are to the animals. There’s unfortunately nothing more to be done for a cow who has developed an infection, and everyone is visibly upset, some even to the point of tears.

A funding model based on produce shares

Mathias explains that a farmer who wants his business to be economically viable has two choices: he can either exploit himself or exploit nature. Farmers are at the mercy of volatile market prices over which they have no control. It’s far from an ideal business model, so Mathias went in search of an alternative. And he succeeded. Central to the farm’s philosophy are a respect for nature and fair working conditions. Consumers are also very involved with the farm. Not so much with the production side of things, as most are residents of nearby Hamburg, but certainly with the financial aspects – mainly through the produce distribution process.

Here’s how it works. The farm divides its produce into 450 shares. One share is more or less equal to the number of products needed by one adult. Each customer receives a weekly share of the seasonal produce: lettuce and herbs, one and a half to three kilos of vegetables, one kilo of potatoes, just under one kilo of meat, and a range of dairy products made from 8.75 litres of milk. This costs €182 a month. The proceeds cover nearly all Kattendorfer Hof’s expenses. For those who want an even more sustainable menu, there’s also a vegetarian option.

In our opinion, the prices are very reasonable, especially since they include distribution. Kattendorfer Hof’s customers are organised into cooperatives of eight to thirty members each. Each cooperative decides where the shares are delivered – to a member’s home or to the basement of a block of flats, for instance. The members then divide the delivery among themselves. This means it’s economically viable for the farm to deliver directly to consumers, sidestepping wholesale and retail distributors. The margins that would normally be paid to an intermediary can thus be put towards small-scale, sustainable production.

Consumers are pitching in

The system works a little bit like a weekly fruit and veg box, but with key differences. Sharing of the produce is of primary importance because it ensures that the farmer will always have enough customers. It also means he’s guaranteed a fixed income all year round, and therefore isn’t at the mercy of world food prices or the pricing and purchasing policies of supermarkets. Accordingly, it’s much easier for him to plan ahead.

Each year, members are given the chance to examine the budget, on which the price of one produce share is based. The budget also shows them exactly where their money is going. Members are given the opportunity to discuss and vote on these things at specially organised members’ meetings. If they so wish, they can even help out on the farm – on special days organised for harvesting strawberries, onions or carrots, for example – thereby increasing their overall sense of involvement.

Tackling the global crisis head-on – at the local level

It comes as no surprise to us that some 600 households are involved, making Kattendorfer Hof a real success. But it didn’t happen overnight, Mathias says. Indeed, it took a lot of time and hard work before CSA caught on in and around Hamburg. Good communication was key because the concept was new and different. The reality is that harvests fluctuate, so members may receive lots of vegetables one week, and fewer the next. For that reason, all the members receive a weekly overview of what they can expect their upcoming delivery to contain. And the system works: the members now take these fluctuations for granted.

Mathias believes that CSA could go a long way to solving the global agricultural crisis. After all, each one of us needs a certain amount of food every day. To save on raw materials and energy, it’s essential that that food be produced locally and sustainably. Mathias says this is possible only if producers and consumers are connected and have open and honest dealings with each other. A local approach makes a global difference, he believes.

We’ll be taking that message back with us to the ship. On the lookout for local food supplies, we’re excited about sampling the German and Scandinavian cuisines over the coming months. Unless those fish start biting, of course…