An Old Local Harvest article...

LocalHarvest Newsletter, November 20, 2014

Welcome back to the LocalHarvest newsletter.
Last July we asked our CSAs to tell us their thoughts about the current status and future of community supported agriculture (CSA). Over 1,000 CSAs participated in our survey, which yielded some thought provoking results. Here is some of what we learned from the survey and some number crunching from our own database.
The vast majority of CSAs are relatively small. Over 85% of our CSAs have fewer than 150 members. Though many CSA farmers find ways to thrive at this size, others operating at a small scale find it quite trying. When farm income does not cover expenses, farmers must work off-farm jobs and/or do without hired employees. For some, these things become unsustainable over time.
The traditional CSA model is changing in many ways. We think of traditional CSAs as those with one farmer, one size weekly box, and one payment made by members before the delivery season begins. Fewer and fewer CSAs utilize this model. More farmers are expanding their offerings. Our survey found that over two-thirds of respondents now sell add-on products like eggs or meat in addition to their vegetable shares. Meanwhile, 71% of CSAs surveyed said that offering multiple payment options has been a key part of their growth strategy. The traditional model is evolving.
CSAs' top concern: low profit margins. We gave survey respondents a list of 11 challenges faced by CSAs and asked them to indicate which three were of chief concern. The most frequently named obstacle, across every size category and number of years farming, was "low profit margin." One farmer wrote, "Every dollar [farmers] make off the farm is a direct subsidy of the cost of food. "What other segment of our society is asked to produce and provide their goods as well as subsidize the cost?"
Other issues of immediate concern to CSAs included climate changes affecting food production, the number of CSAs in their area, balancing demands of farm/off-farm employment, and finding/retaining qualified employees.
Looking to the future, CSAs worry about money and regulations. Given the same list of obstacles and asked to choose the single biggest challenge facing CSAs in ten years, the top two concerns were low profit margins and increased federal food safety regulations. These were followed closely by climate change and retirement/succession issues. Interestingly, small CSAs ranked "climate changes affecting food production" third among potential future challenges, but large CSAs placed it ninth of 11; large CSAs were most concerned about future pressure from food aggregators and home delivery services.
Some CSA farmers are moving on, but many believe CSA is the way to go. Just over half of the CSAs we surveyed are anticipating a growth in their membership over the next three years. Newer farmers anticipate more growth than experienced farmers, despite the fact that more experienced farmers enjoy significantly higher member retention rates from year to year.
Some farmers reported that they are closing their CSAs, typically because they find the model labor intensive and unprofitable. Others love everything about the traditional CSA model. One of these farmers wrote, "I think CSAs are THE FUTURE of small farm marketing." The biggest group of farmers told us that while they think CSA is a good idea, it needs significant modifications to work well for their farms. Ideas farmers are testing include offering CSA-like "grab and go" boxes at the farmers market, smaller share sizes, customization options, and a CSA cooperative.
Farmers are inventors and problem solvers by nature. We have no doubt that over time they will create new forms for CSA that suit both themselves and the members of their communities.
We want to thank all the CSA farmers who participated in our survey. We learned much from your comments and will write about how your thoughts have informed our sense of the future of CSAs in our January newsletter.
Until next time, take good care and eat well,
Erin Barnett


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