Why Farmers Choose the CSA Model

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is one of the best ways to support local farmers and producers. A CSA farm is operated a bit differently than those that sell wholesale or at farmer’s markets. At the beginning of each growing season, CSA farmers determine their estimated costs for the season as well as the number and types of shares they will offer based on what will be grown or produced that year. Once they’ve nailed down their offerings, the farmers offer a signup process through which customers can select their preferred share size and pay for that season’s share upfront. Then during harvest later that year, the farmers make weekly or bi-weekly deliveries to drop sites to be picked up by their customers. At Menomonie Market Food Co-op, we currently work with five local CSA farms that offer shares of produce, meat, goat milk soap, and even flower bouquets.

Two of the biggest reasons farmers choose this model for their businesses are it builds mutual respect between themselves and their customers and it offers them more security each season. Erin Link, CSA farmer and owner of EB Ranch in Ridgeland, explains, “The CSA model proactively supports rural farmers, which means supporting the rural economy and school systems. And that to me means giving much-needed support and recognition to the backbone and heart of this country.” When you purchase a share, you are ensuring that those local farms are here to stay for years to come. You are also agreeing to support the farmer’s business regardless of how the season goes. This is called “shared risk” and is an understanding between you and the farmer that what they grow or produce may not thrive that year due to unforeseen circumstances. “CSA means taking that shared risk with a farmer and standing in their shoes a little more often,” says Erin.

Another reason is it connects farmers directly to their customers. Farmers who sell wholesale don’t often get to see the connection customers make with their products. There’s a disconnect because the farmer just drops off the product, and grocery store staff are the ones who stock it out for customers. “There is a special magic that happens when you share life on the farm with your members,” explains Les of Racing Heart Farm, a CSA farm in Colfax. “Members get to know the farmer and what it took to grow their food, and that makes the food taste better. It also makes growing the food more meaningful to the farmer.”

The CSA model also gives farmers more flexibility when paired with selling wholesale or at farmer’s markets. Many farms grow or produce more food than would fit in CSA share boxes, and harvesting produce only once per week isn’t always realistic for peak ripeness. Selling wholesale, at markets, and through the CSA model allows produce farmers to harvest multiple times per week, resulting in the freshest fruit, vegetables, and herbs in CSA boxes, at market stands, and at stores.

CSA farming is rewarding but extremely challenging work, and a lot of the farmer’s challenges aren’t related to farming at all. It’s learning the business side of the farm—logistics, marketing, and organization—that can be the toughest part. However, overcoming those challenges so they can continue to feed their communities makes the CSA model worth it. “Knowing the people who are going to eat the food we grow and that they’ve made an investment in us for the whole season—what a huge honor!” says Les of Racing Heart Farm. “Personally, I love being the person at the end of our CSA pack line on harvest days who looks over the contents of the box to make sure everything is in its place, closes the box, and puts it on a pallet to go into the cooler. Seeing all the vegetables laid out as we are packing is really fun, and we’ve had lots of feedback from members who say that opening the box in their kitchen is like unwrapping a present.”

If there is one thing that I have learned while working at the co-op, it’s that farmers are some of the most passionate, hard-working, humble people you’ll meet. And you can regularly find our staff talking about how much we love our CSA farmers especially. They really are the best. Consider supporting them by buying a CSA share from them this season. You won’t regret it!

This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of our bi-monthly newsletter, The Morsel. If you’d like to read more stories like this one and stay up to date on the latest co-op news and events, pick up a print copy in-store on your next grocery run or find more news on our website here.

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