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CSA Farms vs. the Middlemen

Traditionally, April is the month when we wrap up the office work, don our boots, and head back into the fields full-time. This year, however, I find myself tethered to the computer, strategizing how to sell our remaining CSA shares. For better or worse, I know I’m not alone. Across the United States, CSA farms are facing the same hard reality—that competition from delivery services, supermarkets, and even Walmart, have diminished our command of the organic market.

Twenty years ago, CSA farms and specialty stores were the only options for sourcing local, organic food. Now it’s available virtually everywhere, with a price range and convenience scale for everyone. Certainly this is an improvement for consumers, but the downside is that the very CSA farms that gave rise to buzz words like farm-to-table and locavore are now struggling to compete. And if these CSAs can’t compete, what does that say about where the local food movement is headed?

At this stage in the game, I believe it’s worth revisiting why the CSA model so unique, and why it’s as important today as it was twenty years ago. For starters, CSA guarantees the farmer a market, which helps fledgling farms hang on through tough times. As these farms mature, many diversify to include farmer’s markets, restaurant accounts, and other revenue streams, but the CSA base remains a cornerstone; without it, the entire operation would not be viable. CSA also involves a direct relationship between farmer and consumer. Supermarkets and delivery services may include a “Farmer’s Story” in their packaging, but that’s no substitute for a real relationship. Meanwhile, parents and schools pay a lot of money for agro-tourist versions of what CSA kids experience on a regular basis—farm visits, exposure to fresh vegetables, pick-your-own berries, volunteer opportunities, etc.

Times are challenging, to be sure, but we’re not taking this sitting down. For starters, we’ve finally embraced social media, with a beefed up presence on Facebook and Instagram. We’ve been working with Google and Yelp to bring our online profiles up-to-date, and we’re in the midst of an April membership drive. We’ve made online payments an option (though I still really prefer checks!), and I continue to tweak the website, making it as engaging as possible. After years of nominal marketing, we’re hopeful that these efforts will produce results.

I recently read Simon Huntley’s Cultivating Customers: A Farmer’s Guide to Online Marketing, and I quoted this line to Dan: “A farm without marketing is just a big compost pile.” Dan grinned and replied, “Yeah, but I’d love to be a compost pile.”

Dan may long for the compost pile, but we’re both coming to terms with the new normal—that CSA farmers must be savvy marketers, just like any other business. Fortunately, the soil is warming, and it won’t be long before we’re back in the fields full-time, which is where we prefer to be anyway.

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