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Is the pandemic CSA boom here to stay?

This story was originally published on Civil Eats.

It’s not uncommon for Vera Fabian and Gordon Jenkins to sell shares in their community-sponsored agricultural farm (CSA) in Cedar Grove, North Carolina. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit Ten mothers farm, like many CSA programs across the country, saw a Increase in demandand they started a long waiting list. When they opened that waiting list for the 2021 season, they were sold out within a few hours.

“The demand has not decreased at all. This year we sold out even faster, ”said Fabin. „I think part of it is that people are more at home, cooking more and caring more about where their food is coming from.”

At the heart of a CSA program is a partnership between a farm and the local community. CSA members pay an upfront fee for a portion of what the farm grows during a set harvest season. CSA programs come from the 1970s, as black farmers in the south began what was called „Customer membership clubs“Although the agricultural share did not establish itself as a business model for smallholders and as a way for consumers to buy products until the mid-1980s. There is no official count of how many farms offer CSAs in the US, despite LocalHarvest lists more than 7,600 CSAs across the country.

Every CSA offer is different. At Ten Mothers Farm, which is already in its sixth year, members have the option of paying their share every month or more in advance. In 2019, the CSA program made up around 80 percent of Ten Mothers Farm’s revenues. In 2021, 100 percent of their income should come from the CSA.

At the start of the pandemic, people across the country stormed into CSA programs, sending registrations skyrocketing and waiting lists to grow. Many farmers whose businesses were restaurants, supermarkets and wholesaling had to quickly switch to CSAs and other forms of direct sales to consumers. CSAs of all strips showed significant increases, including Meat CSAs. Now, a year after the pandemic, farms across the country continue to see increased demand for CSAs and are adjusting their business models to meet that demand – although questions remain as to how long that demand will slow as COVID-19 vaccines pause will bring life to a semblance of a new normal.

„I feel a sense of loyalty to the people who signed up for our CSA, and I look forward to continuing to grow food for these people,” said Marsha Habib, who heads the company Oya Organics, a 20 acre farm in Hollister, California.

Habib launched the CSA program practically overnight in 2020 in response to the pandemic. Prior to 2020, most of the farm’s sales were to restaurants, campus restaurants, and farmers markets. The CSA program, which reached around 200 members at one point in 2020, was able to make up for this loss of revenue – but it wasn’t easy. Habib had to figure out the logistics of the CSA program, take orders and make deliveries – all while managing the farm.

To make things more hectic, she said the program had a high turnover rate and a lot of people tried and then dropped out. The farm eventually reached about 80 consistent and consistent hpy members. Habib hopes the farm can see other sources of income in addition to the CSA program this year.

The market average for The CSA retention is only 45 percentbut no one is sure what to expect in the second year of the pandemic. The farm with ten mothers, which normally has a retention rate between 70 and 75 percent, had the highest retention rate this year at 80 percent. Other farms like Honoré Millsthat turned from sale CSA flour shares in churches To start selling direct to consumers for the first time in 2020, they’re just beginning their sign-up process and waiting to see what happens.

“When we created a CSA for people in May, it was sold out straight away. After the grain harvest came in we opened it again and it was sold out again; It was very popular, ”said founder Elizabeth DeRuff. „We’re expanding the program this year, but it’s still limited by the local grain industry and grain infrastructure.”

She hopes the continued interest in flour CSAs across the county will help grow the local grain industry.

„The more we can determine how much there is demand, the more farmers and millers know that they can sell their grains and flour predictably, the more planning they can do,” DeRuff said. „CSAs can help the small-grain economy grow.”

Debra Tropp, the former US Department Deputy Director of Agricultural marketing services Division believes there is a reason to see continued demand for CSAs.

„Interest in CSAs is not going to wane anytime soon for a number of reasons,” said Tropp. Beyond the pandemic, she expects that continued flexibility from home and people’s continued desire to buy groceries direct will keep CSA programs on people’s radar.

She led Civil Eats through the typical eater’s decision-making process: “What are my choices? Well, I can order a CSA – I’ll be there, I don’t travel – I can use that, ”said Tropp. „It’s the usual ease of use that has made CSAs so successful, along with the quality.”

Train newcomers

At the Stone Acres Farm In Stonington, Connecticut, farm manager Andy Meek expects his CSA to see steady demand for the 2021 season after seeing significant growth in 2020. Stone Acres Farm has been operating and supplying products continuously since the 18th century Restaurants and the community through their court and CSA.

„Wholesale is a significant part of what we do, and we’ve seen it go down significantly over the past year,” said Meek. „Fortunately, that was reflected in an increase in retail demand. We made up for that at the end of the year, but this on-the-fly transition has been challenging.”

These challenges included staffing their court estates, training first-time members, especially when many were nervous about finding groceries, and creating a checkout system. The CSA program makes up about 20 percent of the farm’s total membership, but Meek is quick to point out that the benefits to the farm go beyond the CSA program.

“When we have 200 people visiting the farm every week [to pick up CSA shares]It gives us the opportunity to sell them other things – products like bread or peanut butter from local producers. It’s not part of the CSA, but having these members makes a huge difference in how many third-party items we can sell, which helps our overall sales, ”said Meek.

In 2020, these sales were equally helpful to Stone Acres Farm’s farm stand partners – producers who had also lost outlets.

Other small and medium-sized enterprises have taken a similar approach to collaboration. „I was so impressed with companies that could spin and I would attribute it to having the right partnerships,” said Tropp. „I’ve seen farmers reach out to other farmers, consolidate their offerings, and find so many ways to deliver food.”

Ten Mothers Farms also hopes to work with other producers in the future. It doesn’t make sense for their little no-till crops to grow everything, but Fabin said that knowing that there is a constant demand for certain plants that they don’t grow – like potatoes – means they can buy them from someone else.

“There is just so much demand! If we can move more food through us, that’s great, ”said Fabin.

• • Will the CSA boom survive beyond the pandemic? [Civil Eats]