CSAs, direct-farm sales have soared

It’s called “community supported” because customers pay for the program in full upfront, putting seed money into farmers’ hands when they need to make investments for the season to come.

Amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, some local farms have doubled or tripled direct sales to Vermonters, with business at farm stands and Community Supported Agriculture programs soaring in the state.
Although state data from March through July show Vermont farms losing money on average, farms that have been pivoted to direct sales are reporting major growth. 
But scaling up a business often involves expensive investments, and farmers hope that new customers will remain, even after the pandemic winds down.
For people who are nervous about crowded grocery aisles or bare shelves, buying directly from a local farmer is one way that Vermonters have been adapting to the pandemic. And farmers have adapted to meet the increased demand for local food, especially as their wholesale business with restaurants has dwindled.
And the impact on farm businesses has been remarkable. According to Abbey Willard, director of the state’s agricultural development division, it wasn’t unusual for farms doing direct sales to report their volume grew by 200% this year. Willard credited it to both “an outpouring of support for local agriculture but also the consumer preference that wanted a safe, reliable, guaranteed, close-to-home food source.”
While state officials say there are between 700 and 800 produce farms in Vermont, statistics are hard to come by on how many of those farms are offering CSAs.
ACORN’s 2019 Local Food and Farm Guide listed 13 CSAs in Addison County. The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont lists 6 CSAs in Addison County.
With many restaurants closed and people home from work and school, grocery stores also report a 50% increase in demand.
Plus, some grocery stores imposed limits on how many items a consumer could buy, such as setting a cap of one dairy product per person. 
“We heard from CSA farms that they were quickly able to increase production and accommodate some growth in demand,” Willard said. “Then we heard from farm stands that it was like Thanksgiving every day for months.”

At some farms around the state, sales more than doubled.
Chuck Wooster, who owns Sunrise Farms in Hartland, is one of those farmers. Wooster has been farming for 21 years, but this was an unusual year by any metric. After the pandemic hit, Wooster saw a huge increase in people interested in his CSA program. In a typical year, Sunrise Farm sells shares to 150 customers. This year, that number jumped to 350.
To adjust, Wooster turned one of the large barns at his farm into an area where customers can pick up their crops — and respect social distancing norms.
Wooster converted a storage area into public-facing space. At the entrance to the barn, he installed a hand-washing station to make pickups safe at the farm.
“It’s been great,” Wooster said. “This has been our best year ever.” And Wooster says he knows that’s true for other small farms doing direct sales, too.
Wooster has nine employees and has always run the farm exclusively using the CSA model. Customers pay for their share at the beginning of the growing season, as early as March or April, and then typically receive a box with produce and sometimes dairy or meat every week. The programs usually wrap up in the fall, although some go as late as December.
It’s called “community supported” because customers pay for the program in full upfront, putting seed money into farmers’ hands when they need to make investments for the season to come.
While Wooster was enthusiastic about this year’s sales growth, he said that owning a farm is really hard. Now, he is wary as he describes his small farm on the brink of becoming a midsized operation. That can be a financially difficult place to be, he said because it often means competing on an industrial scale. Plus, the costs of running a bigger farm are greater.
This year, he said, “The supply chain shifted,” as people stopped eating out. But he speculates the market will probably go back to normal when people start eating in restaurants again.
“Then we won’t sell as much,” Wooster said.

Danielle Allen of Root 5 Farm in Fairlee reports similar growth in her CSA program, which has doubled from 180 shares last year to 360 shares this year.
“It was kind of a gift,” Allen said. She said the conditions of the pandemic were the “confluence of events” that helped first-time customers be successful in using the CSA well. Anyone who had a busy travel schedule before COVID was freed up, and opportunities to eat out were seriously limited.
For a CSA to work well, “you have to be committed to your kitchen,” Allen explained. During the pandemic, people haven’t had the option of going out as they would in a normal year. Sometimes people feel bad about CSAs because they end up wasting food, but Allen said she’s heard that people were doing well this year.
Allen farms with her husband, Ben Dana, and they got their start at the Intervale in Burlington, where they leased 14 acres for 10 years before buying the 36 acres they now farm in Fairlee.
They have six employees; two stay on year-round and four come for seasonal work. The farm grows produce and partners with two other local farmers to provide a meat-share as an add-on and a fruit-share with peaches and plums.
Root 5 Farm also sells produce wholesale to local grocery stores, and while it also sells to restaurants in normal years, Allen said those sales were “way down” this year. 
They also decided not to sell at the Norwich farmers market this year, and instead focused their energy on the expanded CSA program.
Even before the pandemic, the CSA boxes were prepacked and there is no contact at the time of pickup, another COVID-friendly feature. Allen said it was “kind of luck” that they were already doing things that way, and it helped everything to go smoothly this season, too. 
They already had a website up and running, which gave them a market advantage. Many small farms have had to rush to create so they could start an e-commerce business.
Allen is optimistic about seasons to come. “I do see this sustaining us through the next years,” she said. In spite of the “big hurdle” of building relationships with new customers, “there’s this magical thing. If we can hold people for two years, we can retain them.” 

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