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At the intersection of food, soil, climate, farming and water.

The future of CSA?

Having just returned from the Midwest CSA Conference, the future of CSA’s are on my mind. CSA stands for “community supported agriculture” and it is a system of buying a share upfront from the farm, often of vegetables, but increasing meats, flowers, grains, and then receiving a portion of that share on a weekly or bi-weekly basis throughout the season.

Just about all the growers echoed the same sentiment, that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to retain members. Numbers of shares being purchased are at an all-time low. Some think it is because of the sheer number of CSA’s have flooded the market. Seasoned CSA growers sometimes point the finger at inexperienced CSA growers and claim that they are spoiling the market for the rest of the growers because these inexperienced growers aren’t used to running this type of business. There is the idea that many of the former CSA members, once cooking for a family, are now empty nesters and the amount of food delivered in a CSA share is too much for a shrinking family. Others think that the younger generation doesn’t seem to have the time to cook and then there are those weekly meal plan delivery services that get some blame too. But besides these anecdotes, we don’t really have a good reason as to why this has changed.

Farmers have been trying all sorts of tactics to combat customer retention, from newsletters filled with recipes, bumping up their social media presence, chef inspired YouTube videos, on farm events, additional choices for share members, on-demand CSA boxes, increased advertising, but the question is—do these tactics work? And these tactics are in addition to the seed ordering, planting, harvesting, weeding, watering, feeding livestock, fighting pests, collecting eggs, dealing with tractor repairs, processing dates, farmers markets, managing employees, worrying about cash flow, filing taxes, while operating around mother nature—and if you’ve ever worked with mother nature you know she is not always the easiest one to plan around.

So the question is – do we want to save CSA’s? Yes. CSA’s are farmer friendly. That CSA share that you buy at the beginning of the season provides much needed revenue to the farm at a time when it’s needed most—that time of year when the costly seed, compost, additional livestock bill is due.

And now for the more difficult question—how do we save the CSA? One idea was to have a national CSA marketing board (similar to what the dairy, beef, corn, and soybean producers have). Would this be just for vegetable growers? All CSA growers? This idea was met with mixed reviews from this group of independent minded farmers. Another idea is to rebrand CSA into a more Instagram friendly format, again this has been met with mixed reviews from farmers that are really connected to the messaging of CSA. The idea to continue to offer more choices and flexibility to customers continues to be a favorable option. How about an app for your phone to connect CSA farmers with customers? And just who would develop this, with what funding, and could we make it customizable to farms across the nation? Maybe.

There are no easy answers and we’d love to hear your ideas about CSA’s.