The Evolution of the CSA – Part 2: Looking to the Future

      Posted On: February 19, 2019

by Dar Wolnik, FMC Senior Advisor |

Why are CSA sales declining? In many areas of the country, CSAs are reporting declining sales and that the overall number of returning customers is also slipping. In Part 1 of this two-part blog series, FMC Senior Advisor Darlene Wolnik examined the origins of the CSA movement in the U.S and the current pressures facing CSAs, including the CSA definition, the explosion of box programs run by non-farms, and the barriers to using benefit programs as CSA members.

[Read Part 1: The Rise, Decline, & Reinvention]

Here in Part 2, she takes a look at the existing information to offer a path forward for family farms and local producers. 

From the Chicago Tribune:

“What you’re seeing in Illinois is what we’re seeing here in Iowa and I would guess lots of different states,” said Craig Chase, program manager for local food programs at Iowa State University. Farmers in Iowa have reported a gradual decline in customers staying with their CSA programs from one year to the next, Chase said.

Yet even with the reports of declining sales and large corporate intrusion into meal programs, there seems to still be room for regional food and farming producers and advocates to swing more shoppers to these direct marketing efforts. Some of the programs and ideas are currently at work to rescue the CSA concept.

Farmers Market CSAs

About a decade ago, I found a farmers market in Lakewood, Ohio that used a CSA as its only vegetable vendor. The only difference was there were two signs for each item: one with a dollar price for walk-up farmers market shoppers, and the other with the quantity of that item allowed for CSA members to add to their box. Once the market grew to a point that other farmers could be supported, the CSA farm only used the market as a pick up for their shoppers, although still allowing those shoppers to peruse and choose the items from each crate, rather than it being picked and boxed for them. Other vendors at that market offer the traditional pick and pay market stand for the non-CSA shoppers.

To me, it was a fascinating way to use a CSA farm as an anchor vendor, and then to grow that market’s vendors beyond that business.  One can now find examples of using CSA  businesses to build markets or market-style programs in many published articles and on market websites.

The trend of market diversification for CSA farmers continues to expand, as noted in the 2017 USDA AMS report, Community Supported Agriculture: New Models for Changing Markets:

“…expectations were even brighter for an increase in farm product sales to non-CSA customers. Of those who responded to the question, 71.5 percent anticipated increased sales to schools and institutions, 65 percent expected increased sales at on-farm retail markets, 60 percent expected increased sales to restaurants, and 58 percent expected increased sales to grocery accounts.”

As for SNAP, one method to allow farms to use benefit programs is through innovative market organizations.The D.C.-based organization FreshFarm began their own market box program called Farmshare. This program was piloted in 2017 at their H Street NE market.  Participants with SNAP cards received one bag of fresh, local produce hand selected by market managers and packaged that morning. Cost to participants was $10 in SNAP/food stamps, plus $10 in Matching Dollars tokens that participants could use to buy produce of their choice at the market. There was no membership cost to participants. Those type of programs allow farms to work with farmers market organizations, adding value for everyone involved. (Do you have an example of a market box program using SNAP and incentives? Please email us to share it if so.)

Also from the 2017 USDA report, Community Supported Agriculture New Models for Changing Markets:

“Partnerships tied to wellness programs could help create an important new source of demand for CSA subscriptions. For example, in Madison, Wis., the Eat Healthy Rebate program created by the FairShare CSA Coalition, and Physicians Plus, offered members partial rebates based on household size for CSA subscriptions. The CSA Coalition saw demand for the number of CSA shares increase from about 2,000 in 2005 to 9,700 by 2012.”

Small Farms Central, “CSAs, We Have A Problem”  blog post also had thoughts on how to rescue the concept from a farm business standpoint:

I believe we need to understand our members better. Even more importantly, we need to understand our non-members better. What is it going to take to get the next 5% of the population to consider joining a CSA? It likely needs to be a different “CSA product” package and different marketing message.”

Here are some of the suggestions SFC had for CSA operators to stay relevant to today’s consumer:

  • Box choice: the standard box just doesn’t work for people, and in the era of choice and convenience, a standard box is no longer good enough. This is the big one based on my research.
  • Flexible weeks: every-other-week options, switch delivery days and locations based on vacation or other factors.
  • Flexible share sizes: smaller shares for single person households.
  • Keep the farm front-and-center: how do you get people to know you? Members form the relationship with the farmer and that is what keeps them long term.
  • Payment plans: reduce up-front cost, take payments throughout the season to decrease sticker shock, and open CSA up to more people. Emphasize the weekly cost over the seasonal cost.
  • Online payment: if you are not taking credit cards, you are losing customers, especially young people.
  • Cooking education: connect the dots between the box and dinner table. If the member does not get food on the table, nothing else matters.
  • Delivery convenience: work into people’s lives. That could mean home delivery (though I’ve found that members are often not willing to pay the extra price for this), workplace drop off, grocery store drop-off, or simply more drop-off locations.
  • Communication: make sure the member knows everything they need to know to be successful with their share. Give a weekly farm update, consider a video.

In response to his analysis and research, Huntley created a new model at SFC called Harvie, an online platform that connects local consumers to local farmers through a customer-friendly CSA / farm share model, including customized shares, payment plans, a Cooking Suggestion Search Engine and more. As of December 2018, Huntley reports that farmers are reporting good sales numbers through the system.

Similarly, this Mississippi meat CSA  offers a multitude of options for its customers:

Founded by brothers Marshall and Jemison Bartlett in 2014, in Como MS.

Erin Buckwalter, Direct Marketing Coordinator at NOFA-VT notes that the CSAs in her state now offer wide variety of customer interaction models, from workplace versions, to aggregation models, even to a pre-purchased card model which often offers a discount to the purchasers. She also notes that the risk component of the model is changing, with some farms giving refunds when there is a weather or infrastructure event that stops production.

In the 2017 Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets survey of producers, 40% of CSA operators responding to the survey were able to take SNAP benefits, or offered payment plans. 43% of those respondents are enrolled in NOFA-VT’s Farm Share Program. which assists limited-income Vermonters in obtaining farm fresh foods by partially subsidizing CSA shares from Vermont farms. Each year, the VT  Farm Share Program assists over 750 individuals participating in CSA programs. The 2014 Farm Bill changed the rules to allow SNAP retailers to be able to accept payment up to 14 days before delivering the food to SNAP customers or before making the food available for pickup. And in 2018, USDA/FNS began a pilot with seven grocers to test taking SNAP payments online.

Other good news is that more training programs for CSA farmers are now available, like this one at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania and resources for having a solid legal foundation thanks to the materials available through sites like FarmCommons. These programs  and resources can reduce the learning curve for new or expanding farmers and offer practical lessons that are useful for selling through a wide variety of direct marketing channels.

In Summary

• Even though the indication is that the traditional CSA model may be waning across the U.S., entrepreneurs are finding ways to add customer-friendly services and to increase access for low-income neighbors.

• The name could use some tweaking, and the functional pieces in place to differentiate a CSA from a market box program or an online aggregator should be made clear among food system partners, and then with consumers.

• Methods to serve low-income shoppers are increasing among direct marketing outlets.

• Many reports on retail trends suggest that fresh foods, tailored to customer service including drop off services are exploding in popularity, which seems to indicate that the model isn’t played out at all.

After all that “doom and gloom”, it is important to remember that CSAs are still adding members and still producing food for their neighbors. February 22, 2019 is National CSA Day when everyone is reminded to sign up for a 2019 CSA. Learn more about CSAs and find one in your area here.

Andreatta, S., Rhyne, M., & Dery, N. (2008). LESSONS LEARNED FROM ADVOCATING CSAs FOR LOW-INCOME AND FOOD INSECURE HOUSEHOLDS. Southern Rural Sociology23(1).

Brown, C., & Miller, S. (2008). The impacts of local markets: a review of research on farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA). American Journal of Agricultural Economics90(5), 1298-1302.

Macias, T. (2008). Working toward a just, equitable, and local food system: The social impact of Community‐Based agriculture. Social science quarterly89(5), 1086-1101.

Woods, T., Ernst, M., & Tropp, D. (2017). Community supported agriculture: New models for changing markets. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service.

Woods, T. A., & Tropp, D. (2015). CSAs and the battle for the local food dollar. Journal of Food Distribution Research46(856-2016-58183), 17.