Community Shared Agriculture a hot commodity as food security worries increase
CSAs represent stability in a disrupted food chain, writes Andrew Coppolino
Community Shared Agriculture programs (CSAs) in and around Waterloo region and Wellington County have seen a big surge in demand this year, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic creating more awareness and less convenience for buying fresh food.
A CSA is a farm business that you pre-purchase a share or a "membership" for the 18- or 19-week growing season and as crops mature, you receive regular produce boxes from the farm.
With provincial orders to manage the spread of COVID-19 closing restaurants and panic buying rendering grocery store shelves a bit bare as the pandemic hit, CSAs represented stability in a disrupted food chain.
Milky Way Farm CSA, in Woodstock, has 110 subscribers. Once word got out that farmers' markets were closing in March, they sold out quickly says co-owner Jesse Way.
"Kitchener-Waterloo customers were really interested, and we filled up within a couple of weeks, with no advertising," said Way. "A lot of our customers are first time to a CSA."
It was the same for New Leaf Market Garden, a CSA located between Waterloo and Elmira, who set a goal for 50 subscriptions this year but got 75.
CSA demand offsets market loss
"The year was unique. In early April, requests went through the roof. I lost the Elmira farmers' market, but this was good for the CSA," said New Leaf owner Jeremy MacDonald.
He says people told him they were nervous about not getting local produce and concerned about other supply shortages.
Re-Root Farm of Minto is in its 14th-year as a CSA serving Waterloo Region and Elora. Farmer Caitlin Hall says that her more traditional CSA, capped at 100 shares, saw a considerable bump in interest in early spring as worries of border closures, toilet paper shortages and the shuttering of farmers' markets caused a mild panic among shoppers anxious about fresh produce.
"There was quite an interest and more demand for our CSA as soon as the news broke. There was more interest in local food," Hall said.
Virtually all CSAs say waiting lists for next year are longer than normal, too.
Direct access, shared risk
But while customers flocked to CSAs during the early pandemic days for stability and a "guarantee" for produce, a principle of joining a CSA is also shared risk, points out Steffanie Scott, a University of Waterloo geography and environmental management professor, who does research in sustainable food systems.
"We're committed to farmers whether there are floods, drought or pests. Some years we don't get as much lettuce or other produce but because they might grow two dozen other items, a month or so later there will be something else," said Scott.
Other CSAs that saw significant bumps in subscriptions include Kitchener's Hacienda Market Garden, which had its largest purchase of shares (160) in eight years and the first sell-out year. Last year Hacienda sold 140 shares, and the increase has prompted the group to do less wholesaling, says Adam Kramer.
Heather Lex, manager of St. Ignatius Farm CSA in Guelph, says for the first time in 20 years of their CSA program, the farm didn't take their spot at the Milton Farmers' Market and re-directed those crops to added CSA members, which sold out three weeks earlier than usual.
At Zocalo Organics in Hillsburgh, about 30 kilometres northeast of Guelph, Seb Ramirez says he sold out at 175 CSA members, calling it "an unusual season, to say the least."
One CSA that did shift its business specifically for the pandemic was Fertile Ground, based in St. Agatha.
Fertile Ground sold 300 subscriptions this spring compared to 270 last year, so owner Angie Koch decided to shift away from the farm's wholesale business to pick up more CSAs members..
"People were panicked over the food supply and what they were seeing with supply lines in other sectors," Koch said.
And while typically a barrier to buying into a CSA has been that the food boxes still arrive even if customers go away for a vacation, this summer that wasn't a problem, said Koch, with people planning to stay closer to home.
Limited ability to scale up
With nearly 100 people on a waiting list, Koch says she got many new subscribers, including people returning who left several years ago. "We've never had a waiting list like this," she said.
It's difficult for CSAs to scale up, plant more and add more shares, espcially on short notice.
Koch says it's difficult to add more staff and maintain physical distancing. In the peak of the season, she has five employees but adding more boxes — and therefore more employees — would be hard.
According to Koch, CSAs have seen a slight decline in business as other methods of purchasing local produce have evolved and as customers demand tailored and customized purchasing along with more flexible delivery.
"Will this continue next year?" Koch wonders. "I'm curious."
Scott believes the trend will continue — at least in the medium-term.
"There is instability and a lot of unknowns, particularly given how reliant we are on imported foods from the U.S., Mexico and elsewhere. There are also concerns with transportation and migrant workers which results in a lot of uncertainty," Scott said.
She suspects demand will stay high into the fall and winter, as questions remain about a second surge of COVID-19 and how much food we're going to be able to produce, import and store over the coming months.