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Can COVID-19 save community supported agriculture?

Despite all the headlines, consumers have been slow to sign on to community supported agriculture. Now, COVID-19 is giving it fresh life, but farmers will still need a dose of business smarts

"I’ve always struggled to keep people interested and keep the CSA going,” Graham Sparrow admits.

Every spring, Graham Sparrow asks the same question: Should I continue offering CSA shares?

Sparrow has been selling shares of organic produce through the community supported agriculture (CSA) model since he started Sparrow’s Nest Organics more than 20 years ago. He admits, though, “I’ve always struggled to keep people interested and keep the CSA going.”

Sparrow is not alone. Though Canadian data is scant, several studies in the United States have found that demand for CSAs is waning.

The number of farms operating CSAs dropped from 12,617 in 2012 to 7,398 in 2015, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census of Agriculture. Some small farms have seen such dramatic drops in membership that farmers stopped offering CSA shares and focused on selling produce and proteins through other channels.

“Over the years, the CSA movement in Canada has not lost ground but it’s not increasing in demand either,” says Stuart Oke, a member of the board of directors of Canadian Organic Growers and founder of Rooted Oak Farm in St-Andre-Avellin, Que. “We’re having a problem moving past the same percentage of the population in local cities.”

Essentially, CSA is like a spinoff of the local-food trend, but in this case it’s coupled to a partnership concept that brings the farmer and consumer even closer. Farmers sell CSA memberships in the winter, which means they get money when they need it to put crops in the ground in the spring. Then the farm shares the harvest as it comes in, usually by putting together a box of vegetables for the consumer each week.

Photo: Sparrows Nest Organics.

For consumers, however, the need to pay upfront for the seasonal shares, the lack of choice in what comes in each produce box, and sometimes annoyingly narrow pickup windows have long been big challenges of the model — but that might be changing.

COVID-19 has reinvigorated interest in seasonal produce shares and farmers are seeing unprecedented demand for CSA subscriptions. The global health pandemic (and almost-bare supermarket shelves) created concerns about food shortages and led shoppers to seek out fresh produce, meat and eggs from local farms and introduced them to the concept of community supported agriculture.

“The pandemic has really put (a spotlight) on how fragile our food system is,” Oke says. “Despite all of the negative things that have come from the pandemic, it’s positive to have people thinking about their food and wanting to support local.”

Rising demand for local food

Thanks to the pandemic, Sparrow doubled his CSA subscriptions in 2020, selling 70 shares — up from 35 in 2019 — and most of the customers who pick up produce boxes have never purchased produce from Sparrow’s Nest Organics before.

Fresh Roots Farm in Cartwright, Man., also experienced a huge uptick in demand when COVID-19 made it harder to find meat at the supermarket. Faced with uncertain access to their favourite cuts, shoppers started searching out local options, so farmers Troy Stozek and Michelle Schram sold 28 subscriptions to their monthly beef and lamb boxes — almost triple the number of shares sold last year. Several customers have already confirmed their subscriptions for 2021.

“COVID has strengthened the resolve of people to support local (and) demand has grown in a big way,” Schram says. “Our prices aren’t going to change but people are seeing grocery store prices (for meat) are going up.”

"Demand has grown in a big way,” says Michelle Schram of Manitoba’s Fresh Roots Farm. photo: Katherine McInnes

Stozek admits that some customers signed up for a CSA share “in a panic” because there was less meat available in grocery stores but the couple hopes receiving regular beef or lamb boxes will convince them to continue supporting local farms instead of going back to the supermarket meat counter.

The demand is good news for farmers. The influx of cash at the beginning of the season (when there is often nothing to sell) helps fund the purchase of seeds and other inputs until crops are ready for harvest. The model also helps farmers diversify their operations, minimizing the risk of depending too much on a single sales channel.

The approach proved especially beneficial during COVID-19 when restaurants shut down, chefs cancelled orders and farmers markets closed or operated at reduced capacities. Sparrow, who sits on the board of the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market in Edmonton, estimates that attendance dropped from 10,000 shoppers per day last season to 1,000 per day during the pandemic; his sales dropped an estimated 50 percent.

“I’ve depended on CSA sales to replace that income,” Sparrow says.

Photo: Fresh Roots Farm.

At Heart Acres Farm in Saint Adolphe, Man., COVID-19 led to an influx of inquiries about the 15-week CSA shares. Laura Tait, who farms with Chad Wiens, sold 102 shares this spring (compared to 70 shares in 2019) and is racing to keep up with demand.

“When COVID hit, we shifted our whole farm toward the CSA model,” she says. “We’ve had to turn people away.”

Maintaining the momentum

The influx of new members is a welcome shift but Tait knows small farmers have struggled to maintain interest in CSA shares.

To tap into a broader customer base, Heart Acres Farm offers a multi-tiered fee structure: The regular price for the CSA is $425; customers who can afford it are asked to consider the “upper income” fee of $525 to help subsidize shares for lower income customers who are charged $405 for the seasonal share. Lower income customers have the option to make weekly payments instead of paying the entire fee upfront.

"When COVID hit, we shifted our whole farm to the CSA model," says Michelle Tait of Heart Acres Farm. photo: Heart Acres Farm

Tait also increased the amount of produce staples like lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers included in each box and cut back on “boutique” items like kohlrabi and Swiss chard that are not as popular. The move has helped maintain interest in the CSA program.

“CSA purchasing happened at peak COVID-19 panic time,” Tait says. “Maybe it will spark something and the people who didn’t think they could afford a CSA… and they will start getting into it and want to make it a part of their lives.”

Stozek and Schram ran a vegetable CSA when they started farming nine years ago but quickly realized their rural community was too small to support it (and driving two-and-a-half hours to Winnipeg to distribute shares was not feasible).

The pair transitioned from plants to proteins five years ago. After experimenting with bulk portions of their grassfed beef and lamb — and discovering that most customers did not have chest freezers to store a side of beef, the pair launched a protein CSA. Each month between July and December, the farmers deliver 16 pounds of meat in a Beef Box or Lamb Box.

Similar to produce shares, customers never know what cuts will be included in the box. Subscribers can also purchase extra cuts, eggs and honey as “add-ons” to their monthly shares, which drives additional revenue to the farm. These guaranteed sales allow Stozek and Schram to focus on raising their herd of 40 lowline Angus and South Devon cattle and 30 Dorset and Dorper sheep, not marketing proteins.

“It provides us stability because we know we have sales every month (and) we can finish animals year round without worrying about marketing,” Stozek says.

Despite tweaking the CSA model to help Rooted Oak Farm stand out, including the option for subscribers to go online and swap out items, none of the creative strategies provided the same influx of new members as the pandemic. Oke hopes those who subscribed to local CSAs as a result of COVID-19 will remain committed to supporting local farms.

“We see the CSA model as a vehicle for us to inform Canadian consumers why their food matters,” he says.

“I think that some people, post-COVID, will not continue participating (in CSAs), but even if a small percentage of the people who were new to CSAs and came in as a result of the pandemic, remain with it… it can really help act as a shot to the arm to the movement… and create a massive change to the local food system.”

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