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.