CSA Farmers Look Back on an Unusual Year

When the pandemic began in March, many people wondered where they would get their food. Public health experts encouraged people to be cautious at grocery stores and avoid touching products that had been handled by employees and other customers as food went through the national supply chain. 

At the same time, Community Supported Agriculture was gearing up for the season. CSAs are  local partnerships between farmers and customers where members sign up for a season’s worth of farm-fresh food and receive a box of produce, meat, eggs, or other items each week. In most cases, the food is harvested by the farmer, delivered to customers in person or at a contactless drop-off spot, and only touched by a few hands along the way.

“When food shortages began to happen in reaction to the pandemic, people really turned to their local food. So that was when we made the decision to shift some of that production over to the CSA,” says Shiloh Avery from Tumbling Shoals Farm in Wilkes County, North Carolina. 

Most years, she and her partner Jason Roehrig sell produce at farmers markets and have a large CSA of about 100 members. This year, in response to the pandemic, their CSA doubled in size to over 200 members.

“We didn’t anticipate that. We anticipated that we’re going to work hard to move some of our production over and maybe add another 50 shares, but honestly, we were sold out fairly quickly,” she says.

By March, most local farms have spring crops in the ground and a finite amount of produce they can harvest. So Shiloh turned to her farming community for help fill the CSA boxes.

“We made some adjustments and started working with some other farms so that we could increase that capacity because we just didn’t have enough in the ground, especially for that early season stuff where we had already planted before the pandemic,” she says.

Many CSAs had an influx of new customers this year, but in some rural counties, it was difficult to accommodate customers who live far away from each other and the farm. Frances and Stephen Juhlin from Candy Mountain Farm in Cherokee County had to reduce their pick-up spots when two of their usual locations at a craft shop and a craft school closed.

“I was really concerned about how I was going to maneuver that. There were some people that needed to be unfortunately cut from the regular group because the logistics just weren’t going to work for either of us. However, I was getting a lot of calls, and I do credit that to ASAP’s online guide, from people I’d never heard of before. Often I get referrals from one member to another, but these were totally new people,” Frances says. 

Candy Mountain Farm received a grant from ASAP which allowed them to purchase washable bags to safely distribute CSA shares to their 30 members. Now that the season is coming to a close, those bags are filled with salad greens, bok choy, potatoes, and mushrooms.

Frances is thinking ahead to next year’s CSA and how to maximize their one acre of growing space so they have the option of adding a few new members. 

“I think the model is working fine and I seem to be able to hold on to the majority of my people,” she says. “If I can amp up my production and I can amp up some more membership, that would be satisfactory to us because the idea of us having any more land to do anymore isn’t going to happen.”

Shiloh from Tumbling Shoals Farm isn’t sure what to expect next year, but for the first time they’re considering the possibility of not returning to farmers markets and only offering a CSA.

“I don’t know whether we’re going to hold on to the demand or not. I think there was an across the board increase in demand for local food. I probably would be happy holding on to 10 percent of that demand, but I assume that a lot of that is going to go away as shortages end. I hope not. I hope that people were delighted with the local food selections this year and that they stick with us,” Shiloh says.

While next season’s CSA may seem far off for some, many farms sell out early. Learn more about Community Supported Agriculture and find farms that offer CSAs throughout the region in ASAP’s Local Food Guide, www.appalachiangrown.org, and look for the CSA Guide, Full Share, in January.

Aired: October 26, 2020

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