2020 has been a great year for Pennsylvania farmers like Dan Landis who operate Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.
In addition to his CSA, Landis also operates two farmers markets: one at his Lebanon County farm near Jonestown and the other in West Philadelphia. His CSA-member participants pick-up fresh food at either the Clark Park Farmers Market in Philadelphia or at his farm, which is located at 838 Ono Road.
Business derived through his CSA, as well as other direct-to-consumer marketing initiatives, is booming this growing season because of COVID-19.
The massive increase in CSA participation is a statewide phenomenon not unique to Landis’ 111-acre Landisdale Farm, according to Brian F. Moyer, an Educational Program Associate at Penn State Extension Lehigh County. Moyer instructs farmers on how to directly sell their products to consumers via three avenues: CSAs, local farmers markets, and on-farm farmers markets.
“As soon as COVID-19 hit and the panic-buying in grocery stores happened,” Moyer said, “that then led to shortages in the greater food supply chain. That caused people to turn to their local farms, and those farms sold out their (CSA) shares very quickly. In all cases, with the farms that I’ve talked to, they all now have waiting lists.”
A marketing concept first launched in the early 1990s for farmers to market their farm products directly to consumers, CSAs sell “shares” at a certain price per share prior to the growing season and then distribute the weekly harvest to participating customers.
While most CSAs grow a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, some also offer meats, dairy products and other farm commodities like eggs, honey, and even apple cider, according to Moyer.
“CSA consumers share the risk that there will be a harvest but also enjoy the rewards when there is a harvest,” Moyer said. “Each week, a consumer either drives to the farm or to a designated pick-up site to get their weekly share of farm-fresh produce. As the summer growing season changes, so do the goods a consumer receives that week.”
Landis, who has just under 100 CSA shareholders, said that number could easily be much higher this year.
“Yes, we had to turn some people down this year,” Landis said. “But sometimes you have no choice and have to do what you have to do. We have a lack of available manpower to serve more customers.”
The 15 acres Landis uses to grow his organic products yields a cornucopia of fresh vegetables for his CSA customers in Lebanon County and Philadelphia and wholesale markets in New Jersey and New York state.
All farm products are USDA-certified organic, including grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and pork, seasonal vegetables and locally-sourced eggs and dairy products. Landisdale Farm, which he and his wife Karen purchased from his parents in 2017, has been a CSA since 2006 and an organic farm since 1998. The family also harvests corn, hay and small grains, including wheat and rye that they sell to other certified organic farmers in southeastern Pennsylvania.
The surge in consumer participation in CSAs is welcome news to Pennsylvania farmers who had witnessed buyer interest level off in recent years, according to Moyer.
“We believe the interest in farms that wanted to market their products that way had increased but consumers who wanted to buy their food in that manner didn’t keep up with [farmer] demand,” Moyer said.
Moyer said the traditional CSA model does have its challenges, which tends to lead to lower renewal rates the following year.
“Farmers determine how many shareholders they need to make the venture worthwhile, and when they lose consumers from one year to the next, it can be a real struggle to get new customers,” Moyer said. “The biggest reason consumers quit a CSA is because farmers tend to give extra [produce] in each week’s box and if a consumer can’t use all they get, or if they get an item they really don’t like, that food ends up going to waste. Most consumers do not like to waste food.”
Lower renewal rates leave farmers scrambling to find new shareholders before the start of the next growing season.
One way to address consumer concern is to allow customers to select from a list posted online of the produce they want in their weekly harvest. While that makes it better for CSA shoppers, it does cause more work for farmers since they have to customize their shareholder orders, noted Moyer.
“The CSAs have developed over time from where they used to be. You used to just get a box of whatever was harvested that week,” Moyer said. “And then to attract more customers who wanted more convenience and more choice, farmers started to allow customers to come to the farm or to order online or place an order at the pick-up site.”
Simon Huntley, a Pittsburgh-based businessman, has created a website called Harvie to make it easier for consumers to find CSAs and farmers markets. With over 100,000 active consumer users and more than 200 CSAs in its database, Harvie is a repository that connects American farmers with consumers, according to Huntley.
“We’re looking for the convenience, the use of technology and the ease of purchase that you would have through something like Amazon.com,” Huntley said, “and joining that with what is happening with CSAs, and farmers markets and the ability to purchase directly from local farms. The beauty of Harvie is that customers can set their preferences and farmers can customize every box.”
Huntley added the future success of CSAs and farmers markets depend on pivoting away from the old business model and embracing technology that best serves consumers.
“What we’re trying to do is make it super easy for people to make a choice to support local farms,” Huntley said. “And that’s what will support this local food economy going forward: making purchases convenient for consumers.”
Landis, who is a long-time Harvie customer, revamped his customer service for his CSA members this year by adding a debit card system instead of locking consumers to a set amount of shares.
Instead of buying shares pre-season as they did under the old CSA business model, consumers pre-load their debit card and can reload that same card once their initial deposit is depleted. This system is especially efficient for consumers.
“Everyone’s a little bit more happy with the new debit card system,” Landis said. “Number one, my customers only have to buy what they know they’ll use that week, so they are very glad that they don’t have to waste food. Also, the more convenient it is for them, the more likely they will come back and stay with you next year.”
No one really knows if 2021 will continue to see the same level of interest in the $250-million CSA industry as 2020 has.
Will consumers flock back to grocery stores or will they continue to embrace CSAs, especially following a pandemic that exposed the weaknesses in the national food supply chain system? If demand remains high, will more farmers be able to open their own operations in 2021?
Those questions should be answered on Feb. 28, 2021, which is recognized as National CSA Sign-Up Day and the first day most farmers begin accepting shareholders for the coming season.
“It really comes down to trust and transparency,” Moyer said. “There was a lot of trust that was lost with consumers with the food supply chain disruption. Consumers were asking, ‘Why are they plowing under veggies in Florida? Why did the price of eggs jump while they are simultaneously euthanizing chickens?’ And consumers want to know why these things are happening to the food supply chain.”
Moyer added that there is great comfort for consumers to know they have access to a reliable local food source. Penn State Extension is doing its part by recently releasing a market finder app for consumers to help locate the more than 1,000 CSAs and farmers markets across the Commonwealth.
“Local farmers markets have a very small supply chain,” Moyer said. “They harvest their food, and then put it on the market at the farm, at a local farmers market or distribute it via a CSA.”
For Landis, who wants to retain between 85 to 90 percent of his current CSA customers in 2021, which is nearly double the statewide average of 50 percent, it’s about finding ways to be innovative.
“Farmers have to be on the cutting edge of things if they want to be prosperous,” Landis said. “Say you are selling cars. You can’t keep on selling the 2020 model. People want the next newest thing.”
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