11 CSA Farms, 1500 Miles, 5 States, 4 Days

Last week, I took a road trip driving east from Pittsburgh visiting farms in eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, and the Hudson Valley of New York. My purpose was to visit some customer farms I had never visited before, make some new farmer friends, and get a pulse of what is going on with CSA farms nationally.

I took some photos along the way which you can view here: East Coast CSA Farm Tour, August 2017. Here is a map of the farms that invited me to visit, but I did not get to visit all of these farms.

All of the farms were diverse vegetable operations ranging in size from a few acres growing for 30-40 families to large CSAs growing for as many as 3000 families per week. Some of the farms relied heavily on wholesale accounts to drive sales while some of the farms were 100% CSA sales. A lot of the farms I visited have been in CSA for 20+ years. These are established, serious farmers who need CSA to work for their business model to continue.

So, what did I learn?

The CSA side of their businesses is shrinking. Every single farm was down from their peak, except for one farm that had made the decision to halt membership growth for the last few years. In addition, farmers market sales are slipping. Many of these farms are making up for the difference by increasing wholesale accounts, restaurant sales, or sales to food hubs which are less profitable channels than CSA. 

The farmers I talked with during my road trip confirmed that consumer expectations are changing as I have discussed in the past. One CSA farmer noted that there is less “you are doing God’s work” comments from customers, more complaining, negative online reviews, and that baby boomers are aging out of CSA membership.

She also noted that the millennials have not embraced CSA programs yet. Perhaps they have all joined Blue Apron and Hello Fresh or there are other cultural factors that are keeping them out of CSA. The question “where are the millennials in CSA programs?” is an interesting one and something I have not had a deep dive on yet. If anyone has any insights on this, I am all ears! This age group is starting families now and we need them to join CSA programs if we want to grow or even sustain the current levels of membership.

I asked every farmer what the future of CSA looked like at their farm. Not every farmer was this dire, but one large CSA farmer responded, “slow death”.

These CSA farmers are struggling to deal with expectations from consumers like being able to put their share on hold for vacations, dealing with changes in my box (“We don’t eat peppers”), and lettuce that is ready to eat right out of the bag.

There was a lot of hand wringing about the fact that members don’t cook enough and the fact that Blue Apron and competitors are taking customers away from CSA. There is some perceived pressure from other CSA farms.

One big blind spot I see with all of these farmers is that none of them had a clear sense of how to acquire new customers to their CSA programs. They have not been able to find a systematic marketing method that drives sales beyond word of mouth. When Blue Apron is willing to spend $144 to acquire a single customer, I think this is a big problem. While these farmers really know how to grow food in a scalable manner, they have not been able to scale marketing to the same degree so other sales channels must emerge to take the excess produce.

So this doesn’t sound good. The bright spot is that consumers still do care about buying food from their local farmer. One New Jersey farmer noted how crazy his customers are for the “Jersey Fresh” brand. The local food message still resonates with consumers, it is just getting drowned out in a sea of marketing and changing consumer expectations. Even Wal-Mart is explicitly advertising local food now.

So, we still have a problem. My view is that these problems are simply opportunities in disguise. They point the way towards are potential future for CSA(-like) programs. I urge you not to give up on your CSA program since it is such a profitable channel and it is a model where you own the customer. You know what is grown in the field is going to be sold when you have a CSA customer. 

Expectations are changing. The market is shifting around us, but I believe that we can adjust the CSA model to work better for the consumer while still working for the farmer. Nothing in business, or life for that matter, stays still. We’ve got to change with the times.

Thanks to the farmers who hosted me last week! 

-Simon Huntley
Founder, Small Farm Central

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