CSAs direct from local farmers grow in popularity during pandemic: Andrew Coppolino

The number of people turning to local farms for community-shared agriculture boxes, or CSAs, is growing, writes food columnist Andrew Coppolino. The farms, in turn, are doing their best to meet demand.

Local farms say they're better prepared for demand for CSAs this summer

Community-shared agriculture boxes, or CSAs, have been growing in popularity during the pandemic for many farmers in and around Waterloo region. (Angela Bosse/CBC)

Kendra Danner of Green Hart Farms has been creating an online "Veg Academy" as her community-shared agriculture business (CSA) operates during this our second summer with the pandemic.

It's an idea designed to support her customers and especially ones new to receiving regular boxes of fresh produce.

"They end up with a fridge full of produce and say they are wasting food. They ask, What can we do?" Danner said. "The portal for members has recipes and cooking videos and we've also added cooking and gardening challenges."

Her CSA has evolved. Rather than focusing on farmers' market sales, Green Hart, operating just outside of New Hamburg for about six years now, has added more "Hartshare veggie box" subscriptions filled with the produce that comes from the farm.

Area CSAs like Green Hart have responded to last season's COVID-19 fears of food shortages and physical-distancing concerns.

At Reroot Farms in Harriston, Caitlin Hall has sold all 100 of her produce shares grown on her five acres and which she delivers into Waterloo region. She says the demand for pre-packed vegetables increased last year and continues.

"New customers got on our waiting list and are trying something new for their family when it comes to local food. I guess there are some fears about rising food prices, too," said Hall, who has been farming for about 13 years.  

Uptick in interest

Danie McAren's Wild Leek Farm near Guelph currently has a waiting list but is looking at increasing the farm's CSA memberships.  

"This year is a continuation of people really looking at their food sources," McAren said. "A lot of momentum was built from last year, and I've noticed in the last few weeks an uptick in interest."

For some CSAs, the recent bounce-back to another lockdown in Ontario wasn't a surprise, according to Jesse Way of Milky Way Farm, located in Sweaburg just outside of Woodstock. It's allowed Way to focus more on farming for the farm's roughly 100 CSA shares and less on marketing.

"It's easier to plan now. Last year was a lot of day-by-day trying to figure things out. This year, we came into the season anticipating that there would be extended closures and potential lockdowns," he said.

Milky Way has a few CSA memberships remaining, but he expects them to go fast. Their pickup is at Kitchener's Café Pyrus Outpost on Saturdays for pre-ordered, pre-packed and contactless service. Milky Way also has a $5 delivery fee that's free for orders over $50.

Establish stability

Like Milky Way, CSAs have tried to establish more stability. Last year, when they weren't sure they would have access to farmers' markets, Wild Leek put a farmstand at the end of their driveway and will do the same this year: McAren says one third of their business last year came from farmstand customers.

Wild Leek has also dropped their delivery fee by 50 percent.

"We didn't want the fee to be a reason for people to have to put themselves in a situation they weren't comfortable with," said McAren who grows 20 kinds of peppers and 20 kinds of tomatoes, of which heirloom varieties are a specialty.

With its farm and roughly one-quarter acre in production, Crieff Hills Retreat near Puslinch started to offer a weekly food box last year as it transitioned when the pandemic hit.

"We really dug into producing more vegetables thinking that would be great for our dining room," Crieff Hills' Kristine O'Brien said, adding that then they had to lay off most staff. "We weren't serving the meals we thought we would be, so we're offering a CSA."

They also do some foraging on their property for wild leeks, wood violets, asparagus and rhubarb.

"And the box always includes a dozen eggs from our 30 chickens, too," she added. O'Brien says Crieff's small CSA still has openings, and they hope to expand when economics permit.

How to get a CSA

For people who want a CSA but haven't signed up for one yet, getting on a waitlist — and checking for a CSA's late-summer food box — may be a good way to get a membership.

McAren says circumstances change: several of her customers had to relinquish their memberships because of changing employment situations and moving residences due to COVID.

"We're willing to have people on stand-by. You never know what happens by the middle of June."

Bailey's Local Foods, an online farmers' market based in uptown Waterloo, is a good alternative if you can't get into a CSA.

According to Maryrose Ivanco, Bailey's co-owner and operations manager, you select the produce at your price point and Bailey's fills a box with veggies based on seasonality and availability; or, you can select specific items you want and they pack them for you (there is a delivery option, too).

"Pickup at First United Church is very safe," said Ivanco. "We have 15 slots every half hour, and your food is packed and waiting for you."

Bailey's will process about 160 orders on an average Saturday. They work with about 145 vendors — up about 50 vendors from last year — that customers can purchase from. For instance, you can select kale from among five farms through Bailey's online order system.

"This year, there has been a movement to get food out of Toronto, so we have a lot of vendors we've never had. That wasn't there before," she said.  

Like CSAs with limited share availability, Bailey's is limited only by the relative bounty of nature and the vagaries of farming, says Ivanco.

"But if we find we're running short of something, I will search and find another farm that has that product."


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.