CSAs & the Community: a Contextual Inquiry

In the past few weeks, we’ve begun our design research process, looking into the overarching topic of food as a social issue. For the contextual inquiry phase of our research, Ben and I chose to look at trends in locally-grown food, and within that topic, we established as our specific research focus the goal of exploring the role that CSAs play in the food culture of the community, and vice versa, the role that the community plays in the operation of CSAs. By observing community relations and outreach at various CSAs, we hoped to discover why people are drawn to engage in local agriculture practices and how the CSA facilitates that engagement.

We chose to seek farm operators as the participants in our contextual inquiry in order to learn about the different methods and avenues they use to engage members and volunteers. We contacted various CSAs in the community and arranged visits to three farms; Natural Springs Garden, near Lake Travis, Tecolote Farms in Webberville, and Springdale Farms in East Austin.

By going through these contextual inquiries, we discovered that it’s important to be flexible and not carry too many expectations into the process. While we had told the participants that our focus was around their community relations, it was hard for them to grasp what exactly we wanted to see. The challenge for us was to convince the farm operators that it was interesting and worthwhile for us to actually watch them, for example, go through the process of writing a tweet or posting to facebook or their blogs. It took a lot of gentle persistence to get them to show us their computers and office spaces at all. It took a few tries for us to learn the art of said persistence, requiring a trial and error process of asking, rephrasing, and asking again to be shown what we were interested in seeing. On the other hand, we learned that by asking open questions we could learn a lot; people love to share their story and what they’re passionate about.

Although we both went into the contextual inquiry phase with minor trepidations, we found that it was not as intimidating as we’d imagined. The process was both interesting and exciting for its opportunities to get a glimpse into people’s lives and livelihoods, particularly since the farmers we spoke with were generous with their time and knowledge, and passionate in communicating their experiences and values. We’re looking forward to the chance to continue our research and refine our interviewing skills during the next phase of our research.