Two years ago, shares in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs at local farms were on a sharp decline. This year, CSA shares at Vitruvian Farms in McFarland are completely sold out.
Originally developed in 1960s Japan, CSA is a subscription-based program where people can pay an upfront lump sum to a local farm at the beginning of the growing season, also known as buying a share.
In return, shareholders receive a monthly, weekly or quarterly box of freshly-picked produce directly from the farm.
CSA shares typically cost several hundred dollars, which gives local farms the investment they need to cover expenses like seeds, soil improvements and labor.
Tommy Stauffer, co-owner of McFarland’s Vitruvian Farms, said that the upfront investment helps farmers get a much-needed boost before the growing season.
“It’s really hard for farmers at the beginning of the season, because so much of your actual growth and being able to sell products doesn’t happen until weeks, if not months, after you start paying for all of that,” said Stauffer.
Researchers at North Carolina State University reported that data collected in January 2021 showed roughly 2,500 CSAs existing across the United States, a number that was steadily on the decline until a shake-up in early 2020.
Stauffer said he credits that downward trend to changes in how consumers purchase and interact with food.
“CSAs prior to 2020 were really on the decline,” Stauffer said. “10 to 20 years ago, CSAs made more sense because it was harder to get those fresh local products... there wasn’t that same access we have now to farmer’s markets, and grocery stores weren’t big on buying local yet.”
When COVID-19 arrived stateside in early 2020, though, the pandemic brought a new sense of caution and uncertainty surrounding public, in-person shopping, and a renewed commitment to supporting local businesses.
Stauffer said it set the stage for a CSA comeback.
“Coming into 2020, CSAs made sense again because there was a lot of ambition to support local businesses as well as, early on, an opportunity to secure a safe food source when there was an uncertainty of grocery store shopping and going out in public,” said Stauffer. “So, with the pandemic, CSAs really provided a commitment all season to some fresh local products, but also being able to get those products in a safe way.”
Stauffer said staff at Vitruvian weren’t sure if they could expect their CSA share success to continue into 2021. With grocery stores and farmer’s markets rapidly filling back up again in late 2020, local farms couldn’t be certain.
“In 2021, we didn’t know what to expect… we kind of were wondering if it would go back to that downward trend,” Stauffer said.
Those worries were quickly put to rest when CSA shares for the 2021 season at Vitruvian swiftly sold out. Stauffer said he attributes that to two things: a persistent cautiousness surrounding the long-term impacts of the coronavirus, and a desire to continue that joy of buying local.
“Leading into this new year, it’s proven that there is still some uncertainty of where food will come from,” said Stauffer. “For me, there’s also a chance that [the CSA comeback] was an opportunity for people to reconnect with their local market and their local farmer, and find that enjoyment of buying direct from farms instead of getting everything from a store.”
Looking ahead into 2022 and beyond, the question now becomes: will the CSA boom continue? Stauffer said he’s not so sure.
“I think buying local will continue to grow, but I’m not sure if the traditional CSA will continue to grow, mainly because it was already on an overall national decline prior to 2020,” he said.
CSA popularity wasn’t just on the decline nationally, but locally as well.
Randy Kohn of West Star Organics in rural Cottage Grove said the family farm discontinued its CSA program in 2010.
Kohn said the organic farm was initially doing well with its CSA shares, with peak membership sitting at around 125 shareholders. After a while, though, the farm had to reevaluate the overall efficiency of the program.
“With CSAs, you have to be really small or really big, and if you try to be in between, it can be a challenge,” Kohn said. “We weren’t having problems filling it or anything, but at that time, CSA was a popular thing, whereas now, people can order food and have entire meals delivered to their doorstep, ready to eat.”
He also said an increasing lack of variety in what the farm was able to deliver to shareholders was one of the farm’s biggest challenges.
“There’s certain things that grow better and easier than other things, so you might get a lot of kale in your boxes,” Kohn said. “A lot of customers would say, ‘well that’s great, but it tends to be too much,’ and there’s only so much a person can eat for veggies.”
In a transition away from the traditional CSA model, West Star Organics is now focused more on helping community members grow their own food, instead of boxed delivery.
“We think people having the capability to grow their own plants and produce their own food is a better route for us personally, so that’s what we’re excited about,” said Kohn. “We’re a greenhouse operation, meaning we do bedding for garden plants, and that’s our sole focus now.”
In McFarland, Stauffer said Vitruvian doesn’t plan on doing away with CSA just yet, but he does envision a change in what that will look like going forward.
“I hope people know that CSA stands for community supported agriculture, and in a broad sense, all that means is finding ways to support your local farming community,” said Stauffer. “A willingness to make that commitment to a farm, or several farms, in your area is really what CSA stands for, and not that traditional, ‘I get a box of goods each week,’ but more so supporting local farms by shopping weekly at the farmer’s market or buying on their online store... really any of those methods are CSA in my mind.”
“I really think buying local is going to continue to grow, and if anything, this just opened the door for more people to realize they can get food from farmers right around them,” Stauffer went on to say. “I think there will continue to be that growth, but it might just take on other forms.”