Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Black farmers in the Southern U.S. had pioneered a community-supported agriculture model in the 1960s and ’70s.
On March 12, four days before seven Bay Area counties would issue a shelter-in-place order, Lorraine Walker and her stepson Andrew put 24,000 plants in the ground at their 105-acre Eatwell Farm in Dixon, California.
The farm had been trying to expand its wholesale numbers over the previous year, selling to several San Francisco restaurants and the Capay Valley Farm Shop, which supplies to Silicon Valley tech companies. But that still only made up about 15 percent of their overall sales, with the rest going to their community supported agriculture (CSA) program and to San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
But given that all of Eatwell’s sales are tenuous, and at the whim of fast-changing consumer preferences, Walker (pictured above) was worried that they may have overshot the number of plants they’d put in the ground. Within 24 hours, her worries deepened, as whispers of the impending shelter-in-place order killed her wholesale business almost overnight.
But then, to Walker’s surprise, over the next few days Eatwell saw a 50 percent uptick in its CSA sales, from 470 boxes to 700, more than making up for the loss in wholesale customers. “By Saturday”—just two days later, March 14—”we were like, ‘What is going on?’” Just a few days after that, Walker had to turn off new CSA subscriptions. She now has a wait list of 350 potential members.
As Americans are told to stay put, more are cooking at home and looking for healthy options to get through the coronavirus pandemic. Some people are still visiting farmers’ markets, but many fear the long lines and potentially contaminated carts at grocery stores. To the rescue are small-scale local farmers, ready to bring fresh food to their neighborhoods. From Vermont to Kentucky to Southern California, farms with existing CSA are seeing a massive increase in their memberships. Some farms have also started new ones.
Some CSA farms saw 50 percent increases in sales over a few days. Rancho Gordo received 1,700 orders in a single day.
Even CSA farms in Northern California, which already had thousands of members, have seen a boom; nearly all now have now have waitlists. The farmers at Terra Firma Farm in Winters, California, say they have never added so many additional box deliveries in such a short period of time. Rancho Gordo, an heirloom bean company in Napa that sells some of its product through Eatwell, saw 1,700 orders in one Saturday.
Carolyn McDermott is one of the thousands of Northern Californians who have recently joined a CSA for the first time. She says she’s “really trying to only shop in public every two weeks” during the pandemic, but still wants fresh produce weekly. She heard about Eatwell and Walker through a friend who “raves about her box,” and McDermott decided it was time to “hop on the CSA train,” since it was something she had always wanted to do.”
To respond to this profound shift in the way their food gets to customers, small farms are adjusting on the fly. “Innovation is always happening with small business owners, especially those who provide essential services,” says Evan Marks, the executive director of The Ecology Center, a farm, market stand, and education site in the Orange County city of San Juan Capistrano.
Marks’ team is quadrupling production as fast as it can in order to pack 500 “resilience boxes” a week, stocked with hardy pantry staples including alliums, fingerling potatoes, dark leafy greens, and citrus. Last Tuesday, 200 boxes sold out online within 10 minutes. Like Walker at Eatwell, Marks has been able to meet demand by siphoning produce from the Center’s recently closed market stand and supplementing with produce from neighboring farms.
Additionally, some Bay Area restaurants, such as Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, are helping farmers transition fast. The restaurant now offers CSA boxes with produce from its normal suppliers—Green String Farm, Riverdog Farm, and Full Belly Farm—to support farms that normally depend on restaurant business.
But these farms are lucky. Dawn Thilmany, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at Colorado State University, is worried about other farms and food distributors that rely almost entirely on wholesale accounts—not just restaurants, but also large institutions including schools and workplaces. She says most of their business is gone, and it’s not possible to quickly turn to direct consumer sales, although there are some examples of a fast, effective pivot—the University of Kentucky, for example, has put together a service through which students can buy local vegetables that they would get at school even when they’re back at home.
The Rise and Fall—and Rise—of CSAs
CSAs are rooted in Black farmers in the South: In the 1960s and 70s, farmer and Tuskegee University professor Booker T. Whatley began advocating for what he called “Clientele Membership Clubs.” In the mid-1980s, two farms in New England started what has now become the model for today’s CSAs: small-scale farmers invested in agricultural stewardship, organic and other sustainable practices to build direct relationships with consumers. The idea is simple: members pay a small fee up front and commit to buy produce throughout a season (or for longer stretches in California, where produce can be grown year-round). As a result, the CSA provides a sustainable financial model for farmers, positioning customers as shareholders with longer-term commitments.
In return, CSA members get regular boxes of fresh, local produce delivered to neighborhood pick-up spots. They agree to take whatever the farm produces (even if that means a box chock-full of root vegetables and kale in winter), embracing seasonal crops and weathering the lean times as well as abundant ones. From their inception, CSAs have been a central component of the organic, local food movement that has since blossomed. And at a time of burgeoning globalization, CSAs revitalized the idea that what is locally produced should be locally consumed.
Today there are close to 13,000 CSAs across the country listed by USDA’s 2012 farm census data, the most recent available and comprehensive report, with at least 41 registered in California, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. But CSA farms around the country took a massive hit with the 2008 recession—and for the most part, haven’t bounced back.
Before the recession, says Eatwell’s Walker, the farm had around 900 members. But once the economy tanked, some members scaled back from a box a week to one every two weeks, and others left the Bay Area after losing their jobs. “Our box sales kept going down and down,” she says.
Even after the economy finally rebounded, Walker’s subscriptions didn’t. That’s because CSAs suddenly had fresh competition. New companies, often backed by tech money, caught onto the home-delivered produce trend. Vegetable box services like Good Eggs and Instacart began to offer regular deliveries of fresh food, while meal-prep services like Blue Apron and Purple Carrot promised healthy, easy-to-make meals. These new services only require a short-term commitment; and because they are curated from several sources, customers choices were no longer limited by geography and seasonality.
While many of these new services have adopted the language of CSAs—farm-fresh, organic, healthy—they don’t offer the fundamental farm-to-consumer relationship that growers like Walker have worked for decades to cultivate. The newfound competition hurt CSAs across the country, from New York to Milwaukee to California.
In recent years, CSA farms have tried to adapt to the changing marketplace. Some, like Eatwell, don’t require an upfront fee or season-long commitment, asking for a one-month commitment instead. Many also offer flexible box options, allowing buyers to get that extra bunch of carrots or opt out of that pesky bunch of kale. CSAs also increasingly offer pantry staples like eggs and flour, too.
But no matter what they tried, Walker says, “We could never get those sales back up again.” She’s not alone. Paul “Pablito” Underhill of Terra Firma Farms wrote in a recent newsletter to CSA subscribers that, over the last 10 years, the farm and others have seen participation in their CSA drop by 50 percent. “Several farms around the Bay Area have shut their CSAs down completely,” he wrote. “Small farms and CSAs like ours could not compete with the well-funded and heavily marketed alternatives.”
With the CSA model waning, many farms, including Eatwell, began moving toward wholesale and direct sales to restaurants and institutions to make up for lost revenue. That shift has ironically made them more vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic, with their business from restaurants and schools closing overnight. Walker feels lucky that her farm only began to sell to restaurants and tech companies last year; if those sales had made up more of her revenue, she’s not sure the increase in CSA membership would have been enough to keep her afloat.
While the jump in numbers “has been a total game changer for us,” the surge also came at the end of an unseasonably hot February that caused many crops to go to seed to early, making them unusable, and between seasons. So far, Eatwell has been able to meet demand, but there are weeks when Walker says she’s been “worried about filling all the boxes.”
Could Coronavirus Revive the CSA Model?
Jennifer Branham of Laguna Farm in Sebastopol, California, says the coronavirus may be what saves the model. “It took a pandemic for people to support local sustainable agriculture again, and home cooking, and ‘know your farmer,’” she says.
Two years ago, the farm she owns with one other family was on the brink of closing, reeling from years of steady decline. But in the last few weeks, Branham has started her days with phone calls from “worried grandmas” who are anxious to find access to fresh produce without venturing into public spaces. Now, her farm is running at maximum capacity with 450 members, up from 200.
“It took a pandemic for people to support local sustainable agriculture again”
But while some Americans have turned to CSAs to ensure they stay stocked up on local produce, not everyone can afford $25-$35 a week for fresh vegetables. Many farmers markets now accept SNAP funds, but only some CSAs do. And drop off locations are often clustered in leafy, higher-income neighborhoods.
Eatwell has a donation program for chronically ill patients within the Bay Area, which Walker started when her late husband Nigel Walker was battling cancer (he died in 2017), and she says she’d extend that to lower-income residents if this boom continues. But she’s not sure how long it will last. Walker says the increase in CSA membership is “a saving grace,” but wonders, “What if CSA members lose their jobs? Will they stay?”
That uncertainty affects planning. Walker would like to hire more workers and plant more crops to meet her new demand, but she realizes the pandemic could end next month and she needs to plan far in advance. “If we weren’t worried about CSA membership steadily declining again, then we could grow,” she says. “But farmers now have a reductionist view rather than a growing perspective.”
Walker is also worried about how the coronavirus will impact her workers. She requires her farmhands to stand six feet apart, use gloves, and regularly wash their hands. Her farm now also lines the reusable CSA boxes with disposable plastic as an extra precaution for consumers. But if someone gets sick, it could take down her entire workforce in a few days, compounding the labor challenges that Walker says have plagued all farms—even before the pandemic.
Still, Walker hopes the new reliance on an old model will help people realize the importance of supporting the local food movement. “We live in the most populous state and the state that considers itself food-centric, and it yet it took a pandemic to save our business,” she says. “It’s kind of a tragedy that the farms have to work so hard to hang on.”
For her part, new customer McDermott is “so thankful for my box every week.” She plans to remain an Eatwell CSA member after the pandemic because she’d “like to support local farmers”—but once grocery stores are back to normal, she’ll probably switch to a bi-weekly commitment.
Top photo collage photos courtesy of CUESA and Eatwell Farm.