CSAs Get Creative to Compete in Crowded Market

May 6, 2015

The local food scene has exploded in recent years, which means there’s a lot more local produce on dinner tables. It also means that during the spring season as small farms start ramping back up, they have to work a bit harder to attract new customers.

Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs, allow subscribers to connect directly with a farm, and remain a mainstay for local farmers looking to latch on to consistent revenue.

Competition, though, has gotten stiffer. Gone are the days when farmers could just fill the boxes with whatever they grew to satisfy easy-to-please subscribers. Today, CSA farmers have to work hard to stand out from the crowd.

Before the mid-1980s there were no farms in this country offering CSAs. Now there are upwards of 5,000. (Exact figures are hard to find, but in the 2012 Census of Agriculture, more than 12,000 farms responded that they “marketed products through community supported agriculture.” This figure, however, may include farms that provide a product like milk or cheese to a CSA, but don’t actually sponsor one themselves.)

Now, some CSAs let customers select what they receive in their weekly box and many farms also market their produce wholesale. Others offer additional meat, or eggs, or dairy options.

At Seven Pines Farm near Maxwell, Iowa, Dan Beougher markets his CSA as a serious business.

“We do a lot of promoting for it and try to get it as big as we can get it,” he said.

Beougher’s crops are certified organic, which attracts a certain customer-base, and he raises a small number of hogs, chickens and lambs, which subscribers can buy to supplement their produce. This year he added a new feature.

“We have a personal chef that will create recipes for everything that’s in the box,” Beougher said. “So when you get that kohlrabi or eggplant that you’ve never cooked before and don’t know what to do with, she’ll have a recipe to help you make something out of it.”

The chef, Holly Wierderin, says a little creativity can also take something familiar but potentially mundane, such as a radish, and transform it into something more interesting.

“Let’s think about roasting radishes, and maybe in a brown butter and maybe if the tops are present then you can sauté the tops as well,” she said, “and that’s a fantastic side dish.”

As Wierderin sees it, the farmers give her a chance to help customers enjoy mealtime performances.

“Their food becomes the star,” she said, “I am just a supporting actor here.”

In Ames, Iowa, Mustard Seed Farm promotes a social mission that both attracts paying customers and allows the farm’s owners to make an impact in the community.

The farm launched a farm-to-clinic program with Primary Health Care, which allows clinic patients to sign-up for a CSA share at a discounted price. Certified nurse midwife Megan Sloat approached the farm with the idea because she thought it would help her patients incorporate fresh produce into their diets.

Ala Khaleel, one of Sloat’s pregnant patients, recently moved here from Jordan with her husband and signed up for the discounted share—just $5 per week instead of $20. 

“The farmers support us with the food and veggies and we are supporting them because they are local,” Khaleel said.

For Mustard Seed farmer Alice McGary the farm is labor of love—she says she doesn’t make any money from it—and the emphasis is on feeding as many people as possible.

“We are a farm that is not for profit, we are a service farm,” McGary says. “And so a big part of our service is food justice and we just think that everyone should have really good food to eat.”

Now, that includes the pregnant women and patients with diabetes at Primary Care, whom Sloat says could potentially see health improvements from fresh produce.

McGary says the people who can afford to pay the full price subsidize the others. And she says this arrangement actually attracts some paying customers.

“On the marketing question,” McGary said, “there are people that do join our CSA because of our mission.”

With the growth of local food options, many farmers are expanding their marketing programs in order to attract customers. Still, Corry Bregendahl with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, says we’ve haven’t maxed out the number of CSAs the Midwest can support.

“Because of the maturation of the business model,” she said, “I would say no. But in in a kind of pure CSA sense, I think the pure CSAs are gone because they were too limiting.”

Now that consumers can buy fresh local vegetables all over town, they can also match their produce with their passion—whether that’s a social mission, the luxury of custom recipes from a personal chef, or maybe just the convenience of the local grocery store.

Maris Bomgaars was never likely to sign up for a traditional CSA. She’s used to buying vegetables frozen or canned to save money. But at a check-up during her recent pregnancy, she heard about Mustard Seed Farm’s farm-to-clinic CSA and quickly signed up.

“It will be really nice to be able to have fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said.

And that’s just what CSA farmers want to hear. 

More: For one of Wierderin 's recipes, read A Tale of Many CSAs and Lots of Kale.