CSA Innovation Network (CSA-IN) May 2021

CSA Innovation Network (CSA-IN)

May 2021 Impact Assessment II

Compared to pre-COVID normal, are there dimensions of your sector that have experienced a sustained increase or reduction in activity? What aspects of Pandemic disruptions or adaptations were temporary, and which appear to be longer lasting? Do any appear to be permanent?

Increase:

  • Demand for CSA: CSA shares sold out much faster in 2020, and seem to be on the same trajectory for 2021. Many farms increased the number of shares they planned to offer and they are also selling out 1-2 months earlier than previous years.
  • Online sales/ecommerce platforms
  • Aggregate box programs (especially among BIPOC farmers)
  • Need for assistance/food access programs
  • Labor/Capacity: to cover the extra work involved in packaging and delivering shares safely. Increase in staff for technical assistance (TA) providers
  • Low income access and interest in SNAP accessibility is substantial. In a recent survey (n=70), 21% are authorized to accept SNAP; however, 57% are interested in accepting it

 

Reduction:

  • Wholesale accounts (restaurants, schools): some report signs of these sales picking back up in 2021, though still not at pre-COVID levels.

Mixed:

  • Farmers market sales: majority report a reduction in sales in farmers markets, with some farmers discontinuing from farmers markets altogether. However, some have seen increase or sustained levels due to markets remaining open and some creative pivots/online purchasing options.

 

What disruptions or pivots did you feel your farm/the farms you work with were able to navigate well? What about your farm/the farms you support allowed for successful pivots?

Many of the below points built upon existing knowledge and systems that farms had in place. Where farms were developing new practices, there was an increase in resource-sharing and mutual aid, amongst farmers, support organizations and community members. There was an amplification of knowledge and best practices through grower gatherings, webinars, calls, and online forums. TA providers were essential in sharing the outcomes of those meetings to broader networks.

Disruption: Increased Safety Concerns

  • Increased sanitization and safety protocols for farmers, staff, volunteers, and CSA members, unique to the CSA pickup model, including social distancing, face masks, hand washing and sanitizing stations
  • PPE/cleaning supplies – Through food systems networks (including restaurants that were closed), there were large mobilizing efforts to distribute bleach and other supplies to farmers who had run out. It was a huge community effort centered around mutual aid.

Disruption: Food purchasing

  • Committed CSA Member base
    • In addition to being committed purchasers, many members acted as a volunteer labor force to help with increased distribution needs
  • Online sales platforms
    • Online store features significantly increased sales for some farms, though this pivot was available to more well-resourced farms.
    • Many farms had already started thinking about or experimenting with online sales, COVID-19 pushed them to make decisions and changes more quickly.
    • Many platforms allowed members to add on additional food items to their CSA order each week, increasing overall farm sales.
  • Pivot from wholesale markets.
    • Farms converted lost restaurant sales into CSA shares very quickly. It was early enough in the season that some farmers were able to plant more crops than originally planned, to meet the demand for safe food for their communities.
“Our CSA base was eager to stand behind us to make sure we didn’t go under. I think they became even stronger buyers” – Shared Legacy Farm

 

Disruption: CSA Logistics

  • Pickup
    • Lots of CSA farms switched their CSA pickup model to pre-packaged, no-contact pickup with specific pickup time slots, which required more labor upfront but kept everyone safe and comfortable.
    • Many farms delivered to employer workplaces pre-COVID. With most employees going remote in 2020 many farms worked to find alternative community-based pick up locations that were open air.
  • Home Delivery – Many farms started/expanded to meet the demands of members
  • Those farms with diversified operations appear to have fared better
“Small farmers are and have to be innovators and problem solvers on a minute-to-minute basis when dealing with growing food and running a farm and they saw this pandemic as just another problem to solve. I think many of them were also able to lean on strong support organizations to make sure that they were able to serve their customers and access new customers during the pandemic.” – Michigan State University

 

Looking back on your past year, what aspects of pandemic-related disruptions or adaptations were temporary, and which appear to be longer lasting? Do any appear to be permanent?

Temporary

  • Decrease in wholesale accounts and farmers market sales
    • Sales are beginning to bounce back, but slowly. This trend will likely increase once schools, restaurants, etc. begin reopening.
  • Enhanced Safety Protocols
    • Some farms report continuing with increased safety protocols (handwashing and hand sanitizing stations, plastic liners for CSA boxes, PPE in certain instances), but many procedures will likely relax to standard food safety levels.
  • Pickup Logistics
    • Site changes due to social distancing and/or quarantine measures
  • Continuation of federal relief programs will continue to infuse money into the sector

Longer-lasting

  • Increased interest in CSA/local food purchasing
    • Farms and support organizations are optimistic about continued demand for CSA, post-pandemic. There has been a need for the model to access new customers and the pandemic sped that process up exponentially. Some of this will be reliant on farms focusing on member retention going forward.
  • Logistics
    • Pre-packed CSA boxes
    • Home Delivery, and added farm labor to facilitate delivery
  • Community-based food access initiatives
    • Increased purchase options with SNAP benefits
    • Sliding-scale models
  • Aggregation/Multi-farm CSAs
    • This model has a lot of potential for organizations and farms working to address food justice and food sovereignty

Permanent

  • Online platforms for:
    • Sales – Farms are thrilled about online sales and the ability for customers to add on to their CSA share.
    • Outreach/Marketing – Utilization off social media to connect with new/existing members
    • Resources-sharing – Virtual grower gatherings, field days, etc. have been extremely helpful for working with farms that are spread across wide geographic regions.
  • Flexible farm box models
    • Less commitment, increases in choices, and flexibility resonate with those new to CSA; farmers are responsive to new customer demands in order to acquire/retain customers.
  • Regional aggregation and distribution
    • The need for high-volumes within short time frames created and/or expanded regional aggregation and distribution solutions (hubs, farmer cooperatives, etc.)

Were there any specific issues, disruptions, or challenges caused by pandemic-disruptions that caught your farm / the farms you work with off-guard, or that were especially challenging to address?

Disruption: Food purchasing

  • High Demand for CSA
    • Many farms wanted to provide more shares to their community, but sold out of their CSAs before the season started in 2020, even with adding more shares and increasing production
  • Farmers Markets
    • Sales were down even with pivots to online pre orders and social distancing.
  • Demand for high-volumes and quick turn-around time

Disruption: Increased Safety Concerns

  • Shifting regulations and restrictions
    • Effectively communicating to members and staff about COVID-19, social distancing, quarantining, and required safety precautions
  • Members
    • Determining protocols for vulnerable populations (i.e. members that were immunocompromised).
  • Farmers
    • Maintaining social distancing during packing
    • Determining what to do if a worker got sick with COVID-19 and/or had COVID-like symptoms

Disruption: Labor and Infrastructure Needs

  • Supply shortages/global supply chain
    • Difficulty sourcing necessary PPE for staff, packaging materials for shares, seeds and starts.
    • Increased price of materials and equipment
  • Increased labor costs that come with changes to packing/distribution (i.e. home delivery) of shares
  • Ecommerce pivots
  • Government relief
    • Prevalence of government relief going predominantly to emergency models rather than farm-based models such as CSAs and farmer markets
    • Reliance on other food donation-based models like mutual aid

Disruption: Stress

  • Navigating ever-changing safety rules and regulations, what happens if a farm worker experienced COVID-19 symptoms, pivoting business model to meet demands, all compounded into acute stress during the beginning of the pandemic.

Based on your experience of the past year, what would you say are the important factors within your farm / the farms you work with that helped you to navigate the year’s challenges? What expertise, resources, infrastructure, management philosophy or other aspects of your farm / the farms you work with were of the greatest help?

Existing Online Infrastructure

  • Strong social media presence and email list for communicating with community members about the safety/reliability of CSAs.
  • Familiarity with/established e-commerce platforms

Farm + Farm Member Community

  • Returning staff allowed people to build trust and relationships to navigate challenges more quickly.
  • Strong community support (particularly through CSA members) contributed to reliable purchasing, and critical fundraising efforts.
  • Expertise enabled quick response and facilitated quick connections to resources

Existing national & regional farm networks and support from TA providers

  • Support organizations held regular farmer-to-farmer discussions early-on in the pandemic about emergent challenges and solutions, and were able to connect farmers with outside experts (ie: food safety, risk management)
  • TA providers connected farmers to information about emergency food box and/or aggregation opportunities
  • Farms in established grower networks had existing relationships and trust, which allowed them to enter into collaborative marketing relationships
  • Support organizations were critical in connecting people looking for shares, with local farmers
  • National networks collaboratively shared, cross-promoted and mobilized around key needs

Adaptability and Resilience

  • Many small-scale, diversified farms have several market channels; allowing them to pivot more seamlessly.
  • Larger, more well-resourced farms pivoted more successfully
  • Farms with access to large cities and had English-speaking farmers/workers were, on average, able to adapt more quickly.

 

“Each year we have been hit with big disasters or health related events so in a way this year was no different, we pivot, flex, we have always needed to do that.” – Rock Steady Farm

Given the innovations and adaptations you’ve seen, how would you say your stakeholders and/or your sector demonstrate resilience in during the pandemic?

Increased Funding Opportunities

  • Government
    • CFAP and PPP loans were critical for farmers and TA providers
    • State-sponsored funding opportunities that helped get resources to where they were needed most, including farms and food pantries.

                        (e.g. CA Farm to Families Food Box program, Growing the Table)

  • County funding – Federal CARES Act funding that flowed through counties supported many food access programs that connected with local producers
  • Since the majority of funding from the government went mostly to emergency food models there were missed opportunities to support more equity based and small farm focus efforts.
  • Fundraising via individual donors and foundations
    • Support organizations were able to quickly create emergency funds for farmers/food access initiatives

-Local Emergency Assistance Farmer Fund (https://thegoodacre.org/leaff/).

-Community Alliance with Family Farmers Emergency Relief Fund ($250+K).

-Glynnwood Food Sovereignty Fund

-FairShare CSA Coalition & Dane County Farmers Mkt Emergency Relief Fund

Networks + Institutional Support

  • Existing coalitions/networks – organized response calls and facilitated collective support, resource-sharing, multilingual support, funding opportunities, and advocacy.
    • Advocacy – ensure government funding applied to small-scale farmers, safely reopening farmers markets, federal farm box language, many sign-ons letters.
    • Organizations- FairShare CSA Coalition, Hudson Valley CSA Coalition, National Young Farmers Coalitions, CSA Innovation Network, The Agricultural Justice Project, National Family Farm Coalition, Taste the Local Difference, West Michigan Growers Group, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Michigan Farmers Market Association
  • Extension – creating new safety protocols and farm-specific COVID-19 information.
  • Soul Fire Farm and other similar BIPOC-led organizations disseminated resources, funding opportunities, etc. that are particularly helpful for BIPOC-led food sovereignty and farming initiatives.

Were there any pivots, updates, or opportunities your farm / the farms you work with were unable to take advantage of due to insufficient financial resources, technical assistance, or other forms of support?

Small farms face many challenges, many of the same challenges (access to land/capital, customer/business management, food safety, etc.) that they faced before the pandemic impacted their ability to take advantage of pandemic opportunities. – Michigan State University

 

Funding Opportunities

  • Some farms could not apply for PPP loans because they did not have the necessary connections with financial institutions.
  • Farms without existing 3rd party audit food safety certification lost out on huge federal sales opportunities (box programs)
  • Language barriers and complicated application processes limited many farmers for whom English isn’t their dominant language, as well as undocumented farmers.
  • Many small and midscale farms were not able to take advantage of the initial round of funding.
  • Equity-based models – Many pivots like homebound delivery, culturally relevant meal and food boxes, increasing SNAP redemption went undone or didn’t expand due to insufficient financial resources made available to solidarity and equity-based models and related technical assistance.

Institutional Support

  • Majority of TA support and most webinars/trainings are in English – had massive, negative implications for many of the pivots required of farmers. (ecommerce/online platforms, home delivery, etc)
  • Farms that were isolated and not connected to other regional farmers/networks or who were extremely new to farming were less able to take advantage of opportunities

COVID-19 pivots (farmers)

  • Lack of labor, finances and resources – prevented development of home delivery programs, customization of shares, additional online sales, etc.
  • Farmers Market – Even when markets moved to online sales and assisted farms with joining and selling through the platform, some farms had a hard time pivoting to harvest forecasting and needing to harvest and hold product for sale.
  • More demand than supply – many farmers didn’t have the infrastructure or resources to expand their programs as quickly as they wanted to or as was needed.

What changes did you see in year over year in sales/the sales of farms you work with? And/or overall profitability in 2020 compared to 2019?

Higher income, higher expenses

  • CSA sales were up in 2020 compared to 2019 (ranging from 25-100%). Overall profitability is harder to measure, as many farms did well but also had increased costs (labor, technology) to achieve some of the increased sales.
  • CSA increase vs wholesale decrease meant many farms were getting more money for their produce.
  • Out of 35 Midwestern farms answering a question about COVID-19 impacts on farm net profit at the end of 2020, 4 said it increased significantly, 22 said it increased, 8 said there was no change, and 1 said it decreased.
  • National data from 110 farmers, who include CSA as one of their marketing channels show a combined gross increase of $6,107,000 in 2020 over 2019 sales; a 65.05% increase.

Increased purchasing from the emergency feeding system

  • Increased sales to food banks/pantries, as demand for these services skyrocketed

Do you have preliminary data about the sales trajectory for 2021 as compared to 2020?

Continued demand for CSA

  • Many farms are selling out of their CSA shares at similar rates to 2020, with some farms expanding their CSA programs.
  • Survey respondents in California (n=25) project sales to: 52% increase, 5% stay same, 5% decrease, 38% unknown.
  • More farms have entered the market, so may see an overall increase for CSA sales over 2020.

More stability in other markets

  • Wholesale markets appear more stable than in 2020
  • School food sales are slowly increasing as schools begin to reopen

Limiting factors

  • While demand for CSA is up, budgets for CSA voucher programs from employer partners are NOT up due to the constraints of the pandemic.
  • In some regions, farmers are facing the impacts of climate change as well as the pandemic, with severe drought, water shortages, and the coming fire season.
  • Farmers are cautiously planning for slight growth

Given the innovations and adaptations you’ve seen, how would you say your stakeholders and/or your sector demonstrate resilience in during the pandemic?

“Resilience looks like ecological stewardship, economic sustainability, and strong connections with the surrounding community.” – Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming

 

Ecological resilience

  • Sustainable/Organic growing practices
  • Climate change – Farmers need real resources on how to adapt to climate change. A number of farmers in the Midwest left farming/reduced their operation at the end of 2019 because of the impacts of climate change on their farming systems.

Social resilience

  • Loyal CSA members – ensures strong retention post-pandemic, as well as additional financial support (fundraising, loans, etc) if the need arises.
    • There are many low income farmers/owners that have no savings or family money to lean into, no land to sell off. They are required to be resilient and creative to get through financial hardship. Rely on partnerships and community support.
  • Existing networks of growers/support orgs – fosters much needed collaboration, mutual aid, and resource-sharing during the pandemic.
    • Farms that were most resilient prior to, and during the pandemic were the most willing to partner, network and work to build the local/regional food system as a whole, rather than focusing singularly on their own farm/operation.

Economic Resilience

  • Sustained market access and market demand for CSA
  • Consistent access to capital and labor

 

“Often more marginalized people are more resilient because we always have had to be.” – Rock Steady Farm

 

Required support:

  • More funding/grant opportunities for small-scale farms
    • Using sustainable growing practices (particularly for historically marginalized populations)
    • More government subsidies for small-scale farming and fewer for commodity crops to level the playing field.
  • Increased diversity in CSA farmers and members
    • Farms will need to build more community partnerships
    • Obtain funding for the translation of resources/websites
    • CSA shares subsidies/sliding scale
    • Ability to accept SNAP/EBT payments
    • More Double Up Food Bucks programs
    • More educational materials for first-time CSA members
  • Trainings, resources, technical assistance
  • Multilingual support

Looking to the 2021 season, what issues are top of mind for your stakeholders or your sector? Are there areas where cross-sector technical assistance (e.g. choosing the right online platform, partnering with emergency food agencies) would be timely for your sector

Funding

  • Continue sharing grant/funding opportunities with farmers
  • Connect farmers directly with financial capital for purchasing land, farm tools, equipment

Resource Creation + Resource Sharing

  • Educational materials for farm members
    • Recipes and produce tips & tricks
    • Resources for meat CSA farmers and members
  • Translation of CSA member materials into multiple languages
  • Continue virtual learning opportunities, grower gatherings, farm tours and educational events
  • Continued networking and coalition building

Marketing/Outreach

  • Increase paid marketing (social media and radio) for CSA farms/build a local awareness and investment in small local farmers.

Food Access Initiatives

  • Expanding the accessibility of CSA to SNAP users
  • Staff focused on farmer policy needs, government programs, and advocacy

Resiliency and Innovation

  • Working with farmers on research on adaptations for climate change.
  • Providing ecommerce/tech support for farmers
  • Facilitate CSA aggregation programs, especially amongst Latinx & Hmong growers

What support is needed:

  • Support from other TA providers who are doing this work and have the same inquiries.
  • Funding for the staff time and coalition-building, to facilitate programming, and paid advertising/marketing efforts around CSA specifically.
  • Support in marketing and consumer engagement
  • Research on organic systems generally and related to climate change and reducing tillage.
  • Mentorship and resources (land/capital) for new/beginning farmers.

Are there any recommendations (programs, funding, policy, etc.) you would make to local, state, tribal, or federal agencies or policy makers for how to  support the recovery and resilience of  local and regional food systems moving forward?

Network/Coalition-Building

  • Continue to fund development of networks that can connect farmers, resource providers, policy/decision makers and funders, both regionally and nationally.
  • Support experienced farmers to provide education and technical support to beginning farmers
  • Support food hubs and regional distributors, especially in rural communities.

Funding

  • Farmers want and need more support in understanding how to access existing financial assistance.
  • Direct-to-producer grants and microgrants are a useful tool to help farmers of all scales access equipment, education, and transition-related increases to input costs.
  • Financial assistance and technical assistance options to support transition costs to sustainable growing practices for farmers
  • PPP every year for small-scale and marginalized farmers to help weather increased risks.
  • Sustainable revenue streams are needed to build and expand access to technical support, mentoring, and education.
  • Funding for local nonprofits that work with farmers to help farmers to write quality grant proposals that will more likely be funded.

Equity/Food Access

  • Funding to support Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) land access, diversified organic farming education, technical training, debt relief, etc.
  • Program focused on developing cooperative agricultural land trusts for beginning BIPOC, immigrant, refugee, female and youth farmers.
  • Online SNAP purchases eligible nationwide – for farmers and farmers markets.
    • Easy to use protocol when it comes to SNAP for purchasing CSA.
  • Reinstate 75% federal cost share for organic certification.
  • Expansion of food assistance benefits to CSAs/food box programs with online sales, subsidized CSA shares.
  • Language improvements, more support for small farms/socially disadvantaged farmers and opportunities for them to interact with ag boards/commissions. Increased access to resources/programs via improved multilingual outreach, engagement, communication, resources and programs via alternative channels, and collaboration with non-profits/groups already networked.

Research

  • Investment in organic research, education and outreach.
  • More research and case studies are needed that provide roadmaps for transition challenges

 

Impact Assessments

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