Record numbers of CSA customers still buying direct from farms this fall

Nearly seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are still buying food directly from farms in record numbers.

When the pandemic struck in March, subscriptions to CSAs — Community Supported Agriculture — spiked. CSA is a partnership between a farmer and customer in which the customer pays for a membership share in exchange for a weekly box of produce, meat or other goods.

The early “run” on CSAs, experts say, made sense. People felt food-insecure, were uncomfortable about grocery stores and were trying to support local producers.

Several food policy leaders who talked to the Small Ag Press in the spring predicted that by fall, CSA sales would drop as people became more accustomed to grocery shopping and unemployed people found they could no longer afford a CSA subscription.

But the numbers tell a different story.

CSA association leaders across the West say they’re still seeing record numbers of memberships.

CSA membership in 2020 has been 167% higher than in 2019, according to Holly Hutchason, executive director of the Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition, or PACSAC.

Hutchason said it’s impossible to compare spring-summer numbers to fall-winter numbers, because fewer farms offer winter shares and more consumers purchase summer shares.

“Winter vegetable selections aren’t as popular: cabbage, radicchio, cauliflower, pumpkin. People are only just starting to recognize radicchio is a vegetable. And people can only deal with so much cabbage,” said Hutchason.

She laughed.

But Hutchason said it is possible to compare this fall to last fall. Doing that, she said, makes it clear CSA interest is booming.

According to the national association CSA Innovation Network, many CSA farms nationwide have already sold out or have waiting lists for winter shares.

“Demand from the spring is carrying over, definitely,” said Emily Cooper, owner of Full Cellar Farm. Cooper runs a year-round CSA near Boring, Ore.

Cooper said last year, she never sold all her winter shares; this year, she is sold out.

“I’m almost all the way filled up almost a month in advance of when (the CSA) normally fills,” said Danny Percich, owner of Full Plate Farm in Ridgefield, Wash.

This week, Percich taught a webinar to 15 farmers interested in learning how to winter farm and start or grow a CSA.

According to Hutchason of PACSAC, last year, her coalition of 85 farms had seven farms offering winter shares; this year, there are 23.

Some farmers are concerned CSAs may present challenges in the long term.

Michelle Wyler, a managing director at the California Alliance of Family Farmers, said many farms offer home delivery, customizable boxes, SNAP benefit processing and easy entry and exit — which may set unreasonable expectations for consumers.

But Hutchason said the most successful CSA farms have always been consumer-focused, kept good business records and been flexible — such as those that poll their consumers at the end of each season to find out what worked and what didn’t.

It may be too early to predict the post-pandemic future of CSAs, said Hutchason, but she’s excited about continued consumer interest.


Inslee opens more counties to agritourists

Farms in five counties with a high rate of COVID-19 cases were allowed Monday to offer more tourist activities as Washington’s governor relaxed restrictions on agritourism.

U-pick farms, Christmas tree lots and other agritourism operations in Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Franklin and Yakima counties will be under the same rules as farms in other counties, according to the governor’s office.

All five counties are still in Phase 1 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phase plan to reopen businesses. The governor’s office in August ordered agritourism severely curtailed throughout the state. Operators, farm groups and legislators persuaded the governor’s office to allow some activities in 34 counties.

Washington Farm Bureau said relaxing the rules in Phase 1 counties was great news. “Bottom line is agritourism farms in Phase 1 counties can once again operate corn mazes, hay wagons, fire pits and more, just like is allowed in Phase 2 and 3 counties,” the Farm Bureau said in a notice to its members.

The rules require farm employees and customers to cover their faces and keep 6 feet away from people they don’t live with. Farms must provide hand sanitizer, regularly disinfect commonly touched services and minimize lines.

Some activities remained banned, such as indoor haunted houses, animal petting, inflatable play equipment, and games and activities in which surfaces can’t be cleaned after each use.


Focusing on preserving farms

PORTLAND — As farmers in Oregon are getting older, a seismic shift in land ownership may be on the horizon.

According to a 2016 study by Oregon State University, Portland State University and the Rogue Farm Corps, more than 10 million acres, or 62% of Oregon’s farmland, will change hands over the next two decades. Yet an estimated 81% of producers — whose average age is now 60 — do not have formal succession plans, opening the possibility of non-farm development.

Enter Alice Williamson, whose job boils down to preserving Oregon’s farm and ranch legacy for generations to come.

Williamson was hired in July as program director for the newly formed Oregon Agricultural Trust, working with landowners on keeping valuable farmland in production. Already, Williamson said she has heard from about a dozen farm operators across the Willamette Valley and as far south as near the California border.

“It’s been great. People are calling us,” she said. “I’m optimistic that we are being viewed as a potential partner for a lot of different types of operators.”

The Oregon Agricultural Trust formed in January to increase the pace and scale of farmland conservation statewide. Williamson, who has a law degree from Lewis & Clark College in Portland and previously served as conservation lead for the Columbia Land Trust in Vancouver, Wash., said she has met with a variety of growers, whose operations range from small organic farms to larger vineyards and nurseries.

“We’ve had the chance to talk to landowners across the spectrum,” Williamson said. “For Oregon to maintain its rural communities and our local food supply, we need to protect our farmland from fragmentation and urban development, particularly among our high-value soils.”

Statistics from the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture show that Oregon is already losing farmland. Between 2012 and 2017, the state lost 340,000 acres from production, an area larger than Multnomah and Hood River counties combined.

Maintaining farmland provides community benefits beyond just food production, Williamson said. Sustainable farms can also overlap with values such as fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, carbon sequestration and recreational opportunities.

“All of that is packaged within an economic generator for a community,” she said.

A native of North Carolina, Williamson was drawn to the West Coast for law school after earning her bachelor’s degree in environmental policy from the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

In addition to working at the Columbia Land Trust, Williamson spent five years as a policy program associate at Sustainable Northwest, a Portland-based nonprofit that balances economic and environmental interests in rural communities, and as an associate for U.S. Forest Capital, a consulting firm that works with landowners and conservation groups on the purchase and sale of working forests.

That experience led her to the Oregon Agricultural Trust, which seeks to protect farmland primarily through purchasing conservation easements.

Nellie McAdams, OAT executive director, said they are nearly finished writing their first strategic plan, which will focus first on farm conservation in the Willamette Valley, followed by the Columbia River Gorge, southeast Oregon — including Malheur, Harney and Lake counties — and the north coast.

“Agriculture makes a huge part of our state’s geography, our economy and just the lifestyle and way of life that we cherish as Oregonians. All of that is dependent on land,” McAdams said. “Once it’s paved, you can’t unpave it.”

The Willamette Valley is home to a range of specialty crops and highly valuable soils, Williamson said, yet is under the most pressure from expanding cities. While land conservation easements can take months, if not years, to develop, she said the trust is already talking with landowners about potential projects and partnerships.

“I think we provide farmers with a tool they can use to secure the investments they have made in their land,” she said. “I think it’s the diversity of farmers we’ve heard from that gives me hope that we are being seen as an asset in our communities.”


Preparation was key to saving goat herd

The fresh corn that Dr. Lauren Acton and John Wright planned to preserve on Labor Day is still sitting in their kitchen at their farm near Molalla, Ore. They were sitting in a couple of beat up camp chairs on Saturday 300 miles east in Union, Ore., watching their dairy goat herd adjust to its new surroundings.

Acton and Wright own Tempo Farm, a family goat farm in the Willamette Valley. As fires raged in Clackamas County, they had to move swiftly to prepare to move their 100 goats from their farm all while keeping up with the milking schedule. They prepped the farm and packed their two trailers with supplies all day Labor Day hoping for enough time to make multiple trips to evacuate all the goats. But with fires bearing down on their farm Acton made the hardest list of her life.

“I had to play God,” she said. “I had to make a list of who goes in the trailer first, second, and who doesn’t get in.”

By 10 a.m. the next day the fire was miles away, but they began to feel its heat and knew it was time to go. They had put out an early call for help, and employees, friends, and family were driving toward their farm with trailers from as far away as Washington and California.

They struggled to pack in as many goats as possible, but they prepared to leave 40 behind in an open field with water. They hoped the fire wouldn’t come and the goats could survive if it did.

As they faced this hard reality, they got a welcome call from a friend from California — he had made it to the bottom of their driveway with his trailer. With his help they were able to evacuate all the goats from the farm. Some went to California, some to a friend’s place in Moses Lake, Wash., and rest stayed with Acton and Wright at the Clackamas County Fairgrounds.

Soon, however, the fairgrounds was also under threat. They decided to move again to Grande Ronde Dairy in Eastern Oregon owned by their friends Stephanie and Byron Rovey.

The Roveys were able to offer safety, hay, pens, a secondary milking barn, and even an employee to set up their milking operation temporarily.

“Stephanie and I are colleagues,” said Acton. “But the dairy goat industry is a big family. Stephanie is incredible, and she has saved our hides more than once.”

But Acton and Wright were also very prepared for evacuation. Acton is a veterinarian and has traveled the country showing her prize breeding herd. She’s accustomed to moving animals and she has had a long career managing animal-related crises. In her free moments in the last week, she wrote up a long list of tips for evacuating on her yellow legal pad, hoping to help other people.

“First,” she said, “Do not wait for a level 3 evacuation notice. You cannot evacuate livestock in one hour. Evacuate early.”

“Second, if you have animals, you need a way to contain them safely for loading.” For horses, goats and the like, this means having enough collars and halters on hand for every animal. Cattle should be gathered and ready to load near catch pens and chutes.

Acton said the natural human fear of fire makes it harder to think. She stresses that planning and packing ahead is key. She said medication with dosage instructions, boxes of halters, and some feed should be collected so it is easy to pack and go. She also emphasizes making that “hardest list of your life” ahead of time and marking animals to stay or go clearly with paint.

She suggests bringing everything you would need for your animals in 24 hours. “Hoses, hose splitters, buckets, medication, animal first aid kits, extension cords, portable fencing, tools, wire, and rope are key.”

She also said be prepared to keep your animals in the trailer if you break down or there isn’t room at an evacuation site. “Ventilation in your trailer is key. You also need tarps for shade and weather.”

Finally, she said, don’t forget the “human stuff” like sleeping bags, potable drinking water, a change of clothes, good shoes, medication, cell phone chargers, and most importantly, folding chairs. “Evacuation has meant a lot of waiting around,” she said.

 Evacuation tips

Planning for disasters from the American Veterinary Medical Association

• Assemble an evacuation kit.

• Develop an evacuation plan for all of your animals and practice the plan.

• Keep written directions to your home near your telephone. This will help you and others explain to emergency responders exactly how to get to your home.

• Identify alternative sources of food and water.

• Have well-maintained backup generators and a source of fuel for use in food-animal production operations.

• Keep vehicles well maintained and full of gas.

• Keep emergency cash on hand. (Remember: ATMs may not work.)


Switch to retail, delivery pays off

CARLSBAD, Calif. — A third-generation grower who has been in business for more than three decades, Jimmy Ukegawa has seen plenty of ups and downs, and had to regroup and retool his strategies to adapt with the times.

But the pivot he made as the coronavirus pandemic began and shelter-in-place restrictions were imposed in California has paid off in ways he never expected.

He grows strawberries on 25 acres in Carlsbad, a coastal city in San Diego County, and hosts U-pick days when the public can visit and pick all the berries they want. Before COVID-19 began, he had begun expanding operations, using warehouse space to put up a farmstand.

When the lockdown happened, he realized people needed a safe place to go and he thought shopping outdoors would provide that opportunity, especially for families with children who find it challenging to remain indoors for long periods.

Ukegawa expanded the farmstand into a farmers market of sorts, sourcing locally grown produce and locally made foods such as jam, wine, salsa and guacamole, in addition to strawberries.

“It’s been going gangbusters,” Ukegawa said. “Our business has increased 300% to 400% since the pandemic began. People are looking for places to go where they can do something.”

The fact that he is located right by the Interstate 5 corridor has also helped boost agritourism.

He also began including produce he sources from the wholesale market in the deliveries he makes, enabling area customers to choose a la carte items or buy a produce box that varies from week to week and is delivered to their doorstep.

His oldest daughter, Robyn, manages web orders and posts what will be available for delivery each week. She also helps manage the retail stands that are open from 8 a.m to 5 p.m daily.

Ukegawa makes sure he carefully vets the goods and produce that he sources.

“It’s so important for the products and produce to taste good, so customers come back,” he said. “This is a lot like back in the day when shopkeepers would help customers fill out their grocery list.”

Word-of-mouth referrals have helped boost sales in a region that’s known for its strong community roots.

Ukegawa recalled how different this is from when he worked with his father, who ran a 1,500-acre tomato farm and 200-acre strawberry farm. In those days, he was up until 2 a.m packing boxes of tomatoes. Cheaper imports and the high cost of water meant the family had to wind down the extensive operations and sell land.

He took over in 1996 with 25 acres devoted to strawberries, and is now focused on expanding retail and delivery operations for local goods.

“So many people asked us to continue this after the pandemic, so this will become a permanent part of our business,” Ukegawa said.


Family farm finds success with produce

BUHL, Idaho — Fresh, wholesome and local are the keys to the success of Blue Rock Farms.

Owners Ty and Trenda Regehr transitioned their conventional commodity farm to produce production in 2015 and have learned a lot along the way.

“I’ve always been intrigued with produce. I thought it would be fun; I didn’t know how much work it would be,” Ty said.

In 2014, they started a small wholesale produce venture growing winter squash on 10 acres.

Unfamiliar with the wholesale business, they used a broker and saw no profit.

But it gave them an education. They expanded production and opened a retail store in nearby Twin Falls to sell the farm’s produce themselves.

“The first year, we grew every vegetable you can grow in Idaho,” Trenda said.

They still do and are always pushing their luck a little trying non-regional produce such as okra, she said.

They also grow watermelon, cantaloupe and strawberries and partnered with an orchard in Fruitland, Idaho, to make fresh stone fruit available to their customers.

“The big thing is we wanted it to be transparent,” she said.

They keep the stone fruit labeled as to its origin. They also label the avocados they stock, which come from Peru.

Everything grown on the farm is started from seed, except for the seedless watermelon. The farm is set up on drip irrigation for most of the production with gravity irrigation for the sweet corn to avoid getting water on top of the plants, which could leave bacteria.

They’ve also been trying cover crops the last two years for weed suppression between rows and to keep the dirt down to have cleaner plants and cleaner produce.

The farm isn’t certified organic, but its practices are probably the same, Ty said.

They grow more than 30 different crops in succession planting, covering them to protect from frost when needed. Fresh produce is harvested May through November, and they are trying to extend the season with hoop houses and greenhouses.

“All the plants get picked every day while it’s hot,” Trenda said. Otherwise they’d end up with giant produce they can’t sell.

The produce is washed, packaged and cooled on site so it’s fresh and cool when it goes to the store — a popular outlet in Twin Falls.

The store also carries the farm’s grass-fed beef, pastured broilers and pork from non-GMO fed hogs — all USDA inspected. It also stocks dairy products from local artisan dairies, local eggs and honey and baked goods from Blue Rock’s on-farm bakery.

“The store has gotten busier and busier every year,” Trenda said.

It saw traffic of nearly 700 cars on a recent Saturday.

“There’s big demand for locally grown. People want to know where their food comes from,” she said.

This year has been particularly busy with people canning like crazy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

Any produce that isn’t sold fresh daily is donated to area food banks or taken back to the farm and fed to the animals.

“There’s hardly any waste at all,” Ty said.

Between the farm and the store, they have 25 people on payroll.

“We’ve been really lucky to have good people who come back, and we try to pay them well,” Trenda said.

The Regehrs are also expanding into wholesale — without the middleman. The reputation they’ve built now has buyers coming to them.

“This year was so busy, there was hardly any extra for wholesale,” she said.


Bill introduced in Congress to aid farms that CFAP missed

Help may be on the way for direct-market farms during COVID-19 — that is, if Congress makes a move.

Last week, Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., introduced the Local and Regional Farmer and Market Support Act, aimed at helping farms that other aid programs have overlooked.

The bill is similar to USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, known as CFAP. But it’s smaller — about $1 billion versus CFAP’s $16 billion — and it targets farmers CFAP missed.

The bill, if passed, would create a payment relief program for farmers that sell direct-to-consumer — mainly in local and regional markets. It would also funnel $25 million into a grant pool to help farmers with direct marketing expenses, another $25 million to help farmers markets and similar organizations pay for infrastructure changes like public health installations and $50 million in targeted assistance to minority farm communities and farmers of color.

To qualify, a farm must get 25% or more of its sales income directly from consumers. This includes a variety of hybrid models, including farmers markets, CSAs, regional cooperatives and local food hubs.

Advocates say the bill is crucial to help farmers in direct-to-consumer markets.

Although many small-scale and organic farms are technically eligible for CFAP aid, trade association leaders say the law does not serve these groups well. That’s because USDA calculates CFAP payments based on national average prices. Farmers with premium markets say CFAP does not cover their losses and pays them mere pennies on the dollar.

“The original prices per pound proposed in CFAP were often laughable to farmers in specialty, local, regional and direct markets,” said Amy Wong, policy director at Friends of Family Farmers, an Oregon grassroots nonprofit.

One premium-market potato grower, for example, lost $20,000, but calculated CFAP would only reimburse him $800, she said. He decided his time would be better spent farming than applying.

Instead of following CFAP’s price index model, the new bill would base payments on a farm’s historic revenue.

Eric Deeble, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said his organization has been advocating a revenue-based approach all along, even when CFAP was introduced. Deeble didn’t get his way last spring, but he said he hopes this bill will pass.

“Conversations among legislators so far have been very, very good — constructive,” he said.

But a policy analyst familiar with the bill who did not wish to be identified told the Capital Press that Congress appears to have higher priorities than this bill — debates over the next federal relief package, unemployment benefits and the impending election.

This bill, the source said, is likely low on legislators’ list of concerns. And because Congress hasn’t exhibited much bipartisan cooperation of late, it looks a bit like a lame duck session even before the real lame duck session after the election.

Nevertheless, farm advocacy groups continue to press legislators to move the bill forward.

“I’ve heard from so many small farms in need all across Oregon, and I’m hopeful this will pass for their sake,” said Wong of the nonprofit.