Demand for CSAs and Local Produce Surge In the Face of COVID-19

Several New Jersey farmers explain why buying local produce is more important than ever.

Photo by Arnaldo Aldana on Unsplash.

While not a new concept, CSAs—which stands for Community-Supported Agriculture—are seeing a rise in popularity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. We spoke to a handful of farms around New Jersey about how they’re confronting their CSA programs this year, and why buying local produce is more important than ever.

Lisa Alexander, Executive Director of Grow it Green Morristown

“There will be a great need for local food.”

Table Hopping: What would you say to people just starting their first CSA?
Lisa Alexander: A lot of people don’t understand that CSAs are really to help farmers out by giving them income up front, so they can make an investment in what they need in order to plant. Really a CSA is a great investment in the farm, also it’s a little bit you taking on risk. In 2018, I know we struggled a lot with not having as much in the CSAs because it rained a lot. It’s kind of an agreement with the farmers—“I’m gonna hold hands with you. It’s a partnership. I’m going to ride this out with you.”

TH: What is the farm output like?
LA: Last year, we grew 20,000 pounds of fresh produce. It was a record year for us. Farmer Shaun does an amazing job. He’s made a lot of changes on the farm in order to maximize and environmentally-consciously expand the yield.

TH: Are you noticing a surge in CSA demand since the outbreak of COVID-19?
LA: Interestingly enough, our Seedling CSA has been really high. There’s a shortage of seeds and a lot of people are very interesting in growing their own food. We’re not seeing as much spike in demand for the regular CSA. Though we have more CSAs available this year because of the changes [Farmer Shaun] made on our farm. But demand for that is pretty much consistent. And we are almost sold out of both.

TH: In terms of finances, then, what about the farm itself? You guys are a nonprofit, but people rely on you, too. Are you still fundraising?
LA: We struggle as a nonprofit. We’ve had events cancelled. It’s hard for us to figure out where we’re going to get our funding. But we’re committed to growing produce. We’re going to put food into the ground, no matter what. Especially because we feel like, even past the pandemic, people are going to be economically impacted by this. There will be a great need for local food.

TH: And speaking of local food, what can people expect from their Grow It Green CSA?
LA: One of the big ones—we’re all excited about the fact that we’ve added okra back! Shaun’s like ‘You guys are all-in on the okra, wow!” We love it. [But] what to expect in your share: lettuce, kale, chard, radishes, turnips, beets, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, Bell peppers, eggplants, carrots, herbs and more!

Bear in mind those products will be available over the course of the 21 week-long program (not all at once!). Grow It Green will be hosting a virtual fundraiser, Diamonds for Kale, from April 22–25. They are also sticking to their roots as an educational farm, taking the lessons online. “We have a farmer educator, Farmer Tina, doing online lessons [free]. She jumped right into it. It’s all about making sure we keep educating the students. It also means comfort, a familiar face.”

Sherry Dudas, Farm Manager of Honey Brook Organic Farm

“This is very similar to what we saw after 9/11.”

Table Hopping: Honey Brook has a lot of history. Your perspective on the COVID-19 crisis might be longer than other farms.
Sherry Dudas: This is our 30th year offering CSAs. Actually, when it comes to certified organic CSA programs in New Jersey, we’re the oldest. So we’ve seen the trends over all these years. Before COVID-19, we hit our peak in 2016 at about 4,000 CSA memberships. But we’ve seen loss and gain before.

TH: Can you explain what that looked like?
SD: Things dropped precipitously in 2016 and 2017. First we lost about 500 members, then 300 on top of that. A lot of the other CSA farmers believe it was the advent of the boxed food delivery programs, the meal kits. Commitment to supporting local farmers markets was softening. And nobody was really reporting on that. We spent so much time caring about local farms after Michael Pollan wrote all his books. But we forget. And it makes Americans uncomfortable to talk about that.

TH: Have you seen a surge in business since the outbreak of COVID-19?
SD: Oh my god, yes, we’re going to sell out this year. We haven’t sold out in probably seven years. If we wanted we could probably sell more shares this year and have a record year but since we began experiencing membership decline in 2016, we started taking land out of production.

TH: That sounds like a larger issue than even COVID-19.
SD: Americans have turned away from local sources in favor of imports. Even with organic produce. You can go into a Whole Foods and get organic Mexican asparagus. People have been shopping convenience. CSAs traditionally are one of the least convenient ways to get produce—we tell you what day, how much you’re allowed to take, you have to pick your own!

TH: Why do you think people are relying on CSAs again, if not just avoiding grocery stores?
SD: There is a fear that we’re going to run out of food in the U.S. I don’t see people starting, but we have relied so much on imported produce, and those supply chains are being disrupted now. It’s really scaring people. And that fear is having them turn to local produce again.

An interesting trend—whenever Governor Cuomo was starting to do his press conferences that first weekend, our sales for on-farm pick-up flat-lined. Nobody wanted to be around a market. Then, after that, the orders for home delivery took off exponentially. Whatever the news winds up being could affect it day to day. We do home delivery to Bergen and Essex County and those people seem to be in a panic. But I actually expect those numbers will start coming down once we flatten the curve.

TH: So you see the reliance on local farms as temporary?
SD: This is very similar to what we saw after 9/11. We had that comfort food movement. For us we felt like that last about three years until people went back to what they were doing pre-9/11. I do think that’s where this is going to go. I don’t think we’ll see a permanent change in consumer behavior. I wish I could be more optimistic, but honestly after seeing my farm share members leave in 2016 and 2017, it really was a smartener-upper for me. I will tell you personally how hard it was for me. I’ve known these people for years. I would see them in the market and they would look away. It was totally weird, like I was shunned because they couldn’t face the fact that they went elsewhere.

Honey Brook Organic Farm still has some CSA share options available on its website, with delivery by refrigerated truck. They’re also offering “grab and go” drive-through at the Chesterfield and Pennington farm locations (where you can pick up a box of available produce ordered same-day).

John Squicciarino, Farmer and Co-founder of Rolling Hills Farm

“The local thing is selling itself right now. As it should.”

Table Hopping: Have you noticed a change in CSA sales?
John Squicciarino: We are seeing a huge surge in demand. For our sales in March and April, which are usually just completely dead months because growing season doesn’t really start until May, we’re seeing the most we’ve ever sold since buying the farm.

TH: You guys are a fairly young, unique farm. What is your CSA program like?
JS: We’re not your typical diversified CSA. Over the years we’ve become more specialized with our niche crops. But we really only do farmers’ markets and wholesale to restaurants. So we sell membership, but it’s a market-style CSA. [Co-founder] Stephanie [Spock] whipped up an e-commerce page so customers can shop digitally and just pick up their produce with zero contact, no cash. The CSA we’ve been doing for the past four years is like pick-your-own. If you pay $350 to be a member, we give you a card with $392 on it, so you have some extra money, and you buy whatever you want online or at our stand. Anything you don’t spend rolls over to the next year. A lot of CSAs have a lot of food waste.

TH: Have you seen more sign-ups?
JS: Some people who were members five years ago reached back out for the first time. Others are just our regulars wanting to avoid produce at the grocery store and just continuing their pretty steadfast mindset of wanting to know where food comes from. Some people have been thinking that way for a while. Now, with this, we’re seeing more people wanting to know their farmer, know more about their food, going down this path of thinking “Maybe the local farmer is okay.” We had the E. Coli thing happen and everyone was telling people not to eat romaine. But we had beautiful romaine and we basically had to reeducate people, like, “This is why local farming is important.”

TH: You also supply to restaurants, which have been hard-hit. Are you seeing any impact from that?
JS: Forty percent of our business last year was restaurants. It hasn’t really hit us yet because it’s still April and we don’t kick off restaurant sales until May. I honestly feel bad for restaurants. Those still running, I want to make sure we’re looking out for them just like they’ve looked out for us. We’ll do a negotiable price point, whatever it takes.

TH: Are items still selling out?
JS: We have items out of stock. For instance we had a limit this week—200 salads, and we sold all of them. The risk with our CSA model is getting to the farmers’ market [or website] and the stuff being sold out. But I like our model because it maintains flexibility, which is good, especially when we return to normal life.

Rolling Hills Farm is currently sold out. They suggest you sign up for their newsletter to be alerted when produce is restocked and you can order online. They typically sell “salad mix, arugula, spinach, baby kale, and of course tomatoes and cucumbers,” says John. “But people are really coming to us for our greens right now. They want to stay healthy, and who knows how many people touched or sneezed on a bunch of Kale at Shoprite. The local thing is selling itself right now. As it should.”

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