Assessing the economic and social viability of transitioning to Winter CSA production as an adaptation strategy to climate change impacts

Progress report for FW22-392

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2022: $24,950.00
Projected End Date: 12/13/2023
Host Institution Award ID: G348-22-W8613
Grant Recipient: Red H Farm
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information


Farmers face impacts of climate change including heat waves, wildfire, drought and flooding, diminishing farmer health, safety and well-being and farm economic viability. We need ways to adapt centering environmental stewardship, economic viability and farmer quality of life to avoid small-scale farmer attrition. This research explores the following questions: 1.) is growing long season storage crops for winter csas economically viable on small-scale diversified farms without undermining sustainable practices, 2) is there a market for winter CSAs, and 3) can shifting to these crops and market channel support farmer well-being and farm economic viability ?

This research is being carried out through investigating economic, social, and environmental factors including: 1.) enterprise analysis and labor tracking 2.) CSA member surveying and 3.) qualitative field notes focused on on-farm practices related to stewardship, health and safety, and quality of life including ability to shift out of fieldwork in unsafe environmental scenarios, and overall satisfaction/well-being. 

This research 

  • offers a case study of the viability of long season crops and winter CSAs on small, diversified farms
  • reveals if the crop and market channel shift facilitates health and well-being and adaptability to acute climate catastrophes
  • assesses a new market niche for sustainable agriculture practitioners  
  • reveals opportunities for farmers to collaborate through mutually beneficial CSA marketing
  • centers farmer well-being within diversified agriculture.  

Final outcomes will be shared through a report, video and presentations for extension agents, agricultural professionals and farmers in collaboration with UC Cooperative Extension, Community Alliance with Family Farmers and Kitchen Table Advisors. 

Project Objectives:

 1. Determining the economic viability of diversified, long-season storage and dried crop production on small-scale, high labor, diversified farms as an adaptation strategy to climate extremes (heat waves, fires, and droughts) and the untenable work conditions they create.

2. Determining if there is a market for winter CSAs in California and is there a gap in the market to be filled?

3. A look into farmer well-being - determining if a shift in crop focus to long-season storage and dried crops in a diversified system truly facilitates a reduction in fieldwork hours and physical labor during the increasing hot months of summer, and expanded fire season. Is this a viable system for farmers facing climate extremes and weather changes that mean where they farm today is a much different climate than when they initially began this work? Do these labor patterns feel more manageable, thus reducing farmer attrition as climate extremes worsen?


Timeline: April 1, 2022 - December 15, 2023

April 1, 2022-April 1, 2023: Primary Research conducted (CSA year 1).

July 2022: Presentation to aspiring farmers via Bay Area Farmer to Farmer Training

November 2022 - February 2023: CSA surveys conducted and data aggregated.

December 2022-February 2023: Year end records organized and documented. Historical comparisons analyzed. 

February 2023: Research updates for farmers and agency/organizational professionals: zoom presentations in English and with Spanish interpretation

[April 2023-Dec 2023: Continued research/documentation of CSA year 2 for continuity in case year 1 findings warrant future research]

June-September 2023: CSA year 1 research compilation, analysis & initial report writing; Presentation to aspiring farmers via BAFFT. Op-Ed for Civil Eats.

November 2023: Video created for Instagram Television and website. Guest blog post with UCCE.

October-December 2023: In-Person and Zoom Presentations to UCCE, CAFF & KTA Agricultural professionals and for farmers in the North Bay & Salinas Valley.



Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Lily Schneider - Technical Advisor


Materials and methods:

This research investigates whether transitioning to a winter CSA model improves economic viability on small-scale, diversified farms while maintaining good environmental stewardship and increasing farmer health, safety, well-being and quality of life in the face of climate change impacts in northern California. This research is being conducted on-site at Red H Farm and in partnership with the CSA farms in Northern California. 

Red H Farm's sales model is historically comprised of direct marketing through farmers market (75%) and restaurant or summer CSA sales (25%).  Red H Farm will transition much of its growing space to longer season, lower value, diversified crops such as winter squash, potatoes, onions, shallots, garlic, dry beans, popcorn, drying peppers, herbs for drying, and tomatoes and strawberries for processing or freezing to be distributed through a monthly, winter storage crop CSA program. We are employing Google Suite (forms, sheets and docs) for tracking, data collection, field notes, and analysis, and are incorporating comparative analysis of historical farm records to determine if this is a viable business strategy that maintains or increases farm economic viability, decreases field labor during extreme climate conditions, supports good environmental stewardship practices and supports farmer health, safety and well-being. 

Objective 1.  Determining if growing lower-value, long season storage crops is economically viable on small-scale diversified farms without undermining ecological practices.

Methods and Materials: Mixed methods analysis will be used including enterprise analysis, literature review, recordkeeping via excel/google spreadsheets, comparative analysis with historical farm records, and qualitative field notes.

This research question is being investigated through quantitative enterprise analysis taking into account existing, foundational research focused on cost of production including Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont’s Cost of Production Project, Pasa’s Financial Benchmarks for Direct-Market Vegetable Farms 2021 report, Know Your Cost to Grow and Oregon Tilth’s work supporting farmers using cost information for business decision-making. Most of this existing research does not take into account the added value that a CSA brings (community, farm connection, recipe sharing, newsletters, etc.) and how that added value can increase crop value when compared to wholesale or farmers market distribution. For this reason, these analyses do not directly translate to understanding if this crop selection and market channel is competitive. Overall year-end quantitative comparisons will bring tremendous value.

Through careful record-keeping using excel spreadsheets and comparative analysis to years past of revenue, costs and labor-hours we are learning whether or not this business model is competitive with previous models focused on higher-labor and primarily spring-fall crops sold through farmers markets. We are ascertaining if this model can pay a living wage.  Through record-keeping, qualitative field notes and historical comparisons we are learning if we are able to maintain the same level of good environmental stewardship including using no-till methods, cover cropping, compost applications, straw mulching, ferment and compost tea applications, drip irrigation, dry farming and the integration of pollinator and beneficial habitat, despite the focus on lower-value crops.   

Objective 2.  Determining if there is a market for winter CSAs in northern California.

Methods and Materials: Surveys (online using google forms and in person). These surveys will NOT gather personal, demographic, or other identifying information.

In regions that struggle with increasingly hot summers, wildfire and smoke, and drought, transitioning to winter storage crop production for a winter CSA is a compelling business strategy that may shift time spent in the field to months with less environmental stressors. Is there a market for this in California, where year-round growing and access to fresh vegetables is ubiquitous? 

This research question is being investigated through research and surveys of existing Spring-Fall CSAs in our network and across California with support from Community Alliance with Family Farmers to determine how many offer a winter option and how many close down for the winter (indicating a gap in the market). Using google forms and paper forms we are surveying current CSA and farmers market customers through our existing regional networks to determine the level of interest in winter storage crop CSAs if they were offered and what characteristics would be most appealing (weekly vs. monthly pickup, add-ons available, added value products vs. raw products, etc.). Survey questions were formatted for numeric and/or Likert scale responses to facilitate data aggregation and  trend analysis.  This will help us determine if there is a market for winter CSAs and how a farmer might build their model with potential client interest in mind. 

Objective 3.  Determining if shifting to long season storage crops for winter CSA distribution supports farmer health, safety, well-being,  and farm economic viability.

Methods and Materials: Qualitative field notes and farmer self-survey via google forms and docs, comparative analysis between research data points collected, and comparative analysis with years past. 

Central to this research is an investigation into whether this shift in model increases farmer health, safety, and well-being as well as farm economic viability. This assessment is being carried out through daily and weekly qualitative and quantitative field notes focused on climate conditions, hours and labor-type tracking, ability to shift out of fieldwork when environmental conditions become uncomfortable or unsafe, ability to take time off (measured against historical trends of the operation and standard holidays, vacation, and sick leave for the general public), ability to earn a living wage and overall satisfaction/well-being. Field notes will be recorded through google sheets.  Satisfaction/well-being records are formatted for numeric and/or Likert scale responses to facilitate data aggregation and trend analysis. These records can be qualitatively coded for major themes as well as translated into comparative charts and graphs showing trends, relationships between different factors and the relationship between climate events and farmer health, safety and well-being.


Research results and discussion:

1.Determining if growing lower-value, long season storage crops is economically viable on small-scale diversified farms without undermining ecological practices.

Based on the experience and findings during the 2022 season and the projections made building on that experience, we believe the Winter CSA model focusing on longer season crops may be economically competitive on small-scale diversified farms. Based on our records comparison shown in Table 1., we believe we can gross the same or similar totals in this model compared to previous models focused on Spring-Fall rotational production. There are several variables that make a one-to-one comparison impossible after just one season, including seasonal variability, staff changes, gains in marketing skills, and the fact that as a transition season, during 2022 the farm focused on both the Winter CSA AND farmers market. Thus, further years of research will be informative.  As the farm transitions solely to Winter CSA, more clarity will be gained. In the meantime, comparative analysis with historical farm records reveal competitive gross totals.  


Table 1. Gross Sales Comparison and Projections

2019-2020 1.2 acres half un-irrigated Farmers Market + Restaurants $45,000
2022 1.2 acres all irrigated Farmers Market + 36 person Winter CSA (3 months) $50,000
2023 projection of capacity assuming optimal scenario and crop planning based on 2022 findings 0.6 acres all irrigated  60-person Winter CSA (3 months) $27,000
Future years extrapolation assuming optimal scenario 1.2 acres all irrigated  120-person Winter CSA (3 months) $54,000


We continued to manage our fields using the same ecological practices - of note, in growing longer season crops, we only had to amend and compost our beds once at the beginning of the season, rather than multiple times throughout the season as practiced with heavy feeding rotational crops. While the farm did not create a living wage in 2022, it had unfortunately not in previous seasons, and wages remained consistent. 


2. Determining if there is a market for winter CSAs in northern California.

Data indicates that there may be a market for winter CSAs in Northern California. Two core pieces of data are being investigated. The first considers how many successful spring/summer/fall CSAs halt production in the winter, indicating a gap that can be filled for which there may be community level interest. The second considers whether individuals who show commitment to buying local food directly from farmers (via farmers market patronage or summer CSA participation) would consider joining a Winter CSA.

Of 39 CSAs found to be serving the greater Bay Area (3 of which are aggregators, not individual farms), 14 pause operation in the winter. This indicates that there may be a gap to be filled by a Winter CSA program. See Table 2. 


Table 2. Market gap as indicated by CSA farms that postpone distribution in the Winter

Total Farms Main Season CSA Winter CSA Farms that shut down, indicating gap
39 39 25 14

sources: Edible East Bay, Local Harvest, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Google


To date, 43 surveys assessing interest in a winter CSA have been gathered at the farmers market and online to current summer CSA members in Sonoma County.  Of those 43 respondents, 32 (or 75%) conveyed they were either likely or extremely likely to participate in a Winter CSA. See Table 3. Please see the survey summary responses revealing specific CSA characteristics of interest and reasons for interest or disinterest among survey respondents.


Table 3. Survey participant's likelihood of joining a Winter CSA

Likelihood of joining a Winter CSA Responses, out of 43
1 - Will not join a Winter CSA 2
2 - Unlikely to join a Winter CSA 8
3 - Likely to join a Winter CSA 15
4 - Very likely to join a Winter CSA 17


3. Determining if shifting to long season storage crops for winter CSA distribution supports farmer health, safety, well-being,  and farm economic viability.

Further seasons of study upon shifting the entire farm model to a Winter CSA (without also attending the farmers market) are necessary to confirm trends seen in 2022, but data gathered during this initial study period are promising. Individual labor hours were cut roughly 25% from previous year estimates. Exact hours in years leading up to 2022 were not carefully tracked and so this comparison is a rough estimate. An outstanding factor that may have had significant impact was an increase in staffing. However, in addition to reduced individual work hours on a per week basis, there was an increase by one-half to one full day off per week and unprecedented mid and shoulder season vacation time, including three weeks in July and three weeks in October. Anecdotally these large chunks of time away were possible because of an increase in staffing coupled with large portions of the field dedicated to low labor CSA crops that made tending the fields possible for one person without an increase in their weekly hours. In fact, in October, overall field hours were significantly reduced for both individuals working on the farm. 

There were two notable heat waves this season, one in the middle of August (temperatures hovering around 100 for three days) and one the first week of September (temperatures significantly peaking 100 for six days). During both I was able to reduce work hours spent in the field without repercussion. 


Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

Recommendations for sustainable agricultural production and future research:

Recommendations will have more merit after research seasons 2 and 3 are completed. Multi-year data will reveal:

a. economic trends and confirmations of projections

b. consistency of farmer well-being across climate events, seasonal changes, staff changes

c. proof of concept re: finding a market for the Winter CSA

Therefore, the core recommendation is for more years of study, for which a grant has been approved. In the meantime, preliminary recommendations based on year one results are as follows...

A Winter CSA model appears to be an economically competitive on a small scale diversified farm, particularly when assigning value to farmer well-being. We find this model allows for increased time-off, which is made more viable when working with others. Because the Winter CSA crop system allows for longer spans of time with reduced labor, fewer individuals can manage those parcels of land while others take time off. This leads us to conclude that farming in partnership or collectively, or making sure there are individuals with enough detailed information about the farm that they can hold the full picture for a specific period of time, is advisable. 

This model is also well-suited for individuals or operations who appreciate creating added value products, like dry goods and processed foods, which because they have higher value, make farming lower value crops more viable when combined and distributed. Interestingly, while our surveys indicate potential CSA members do not place high value on these goods, our experienced reality with the CSA is that these products are of very high value to members. Furthermore, crop values increase in the winter (ie. farmers market prices increase) making these crops more valuable when held and distributed over time.

Because storage crops are lower labor over the course of the summer season, we also believe this model can complement farms that continue to go to market, sell wholesale or run summer CSAs. It could be an additional income stream that may require less physically that earning that additional income from increased succession crops or adding an additional market. We found that Winter CSA harvest and distribution took 4 days/month across winter months - one day for dry good packaging, 2 for harvest, one for distribution. The other three and a half weeks during the winter months were nearly labor-free. 

This model may be well-suited to farmers who desire off-farm jobs and income, because it is less labor intensive than high rotation crops. Additionally, because the bulk of crops are storage, the distribution occurs on a monthly basis, allowing for the common winter down time for three weeks out of every month, December-February.


Education and Outreach

2 Consultations
1 On-farm demonstrations
1 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

21 Farmers participated
46 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

To date, multiple educational opportunities have been created to share the progress of this research. In July of 2022 I shared a presentation regarding the Winter CSA model with the Bay Area Farmer to Farmer Training cohort, or about 25 individuals coming from the Bay Area to visit Red H Farm. We shared updates and information about the CSA model via social media throughout the growing season and throughout distribution.  We hosted one private tour in July for participants of Climate Farm School who were interested in understanding more about the farm and CSA model. We hosted two zoom sessions in February geared toward farmers but also attended by agency professionals to share updates on our research. One presentation was in English, with twenty registrants, and one presentation was done with Spanish interpretation, with seven participants. Both sessions were recorded so that the links could be shared through our agency partners with farmers who were unable to attend. These sessions replaced our participation in the Small Farm Conference because we were unable to secure a workshop. We were unable to host an October farm tour due to extenuating personal circumstances, but we hope to host a tour in June 2023, when the fields are planted out.



Webinar Flyers for social media

Education and outreach results:

To date, we have directly engaged roughly sixty individuals in education around our research and the viability of monthly winter CSAs as a climate adaptation strategy. Seven of those individuals were Spanish-language only farmers. We have found several things to be valuable in our ability to successfully reach our educational objectives in sharing our research. The first, is having a wide network of colleagues and collaborators around the state who either are farmers themselves, or work directly with farmers. We are able to reach a much wider network of growers because of our relationships with agency and non profit professionals (specifically UC Cooperative Extension, Kitchen Table Advisors, Agroecology Commons and Community Alliance With Family Farmers). Second, it is crucial that we offer our outreach sessions with trusted interpretation. We were able to reach Spanish-language only farmers via our relationships with professionals working directly with Spanish-language farmers, and because we budgeted amply for interpretation and were able to - via our relationships with agency and organizational professionals - contract an interpreter who was well known and trusted by this community of growers. 

We find casual conversation, rather than overly formal presentations are valuable in communicating findings. We also believe that speaking transparently about financial matters is valuable to growers. In person communications on the farm also prove to be a very engaging way to connect, allowing people to see the crop plan in action and experience the methodological strategies that help make this model effective. 

5 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

In order to reach stakeholders a researcher either needs to have a vast following on social media platforms, and be an individual who the broader public looks to for insight and information, or that researcher needs to have solid relationships that create a larger web of learning. As a researcher I fall into the latter category. Having trusted relationships with agency and organizational professionals means that there is a network of folks who can be relied upon to disseminate information to a much larger number of practitioners. The five agency individuals with whom I am collaborating (from UC Cooperative Extension, Kitchen Table Advisors, and Community Alliance with Family Farmers) extend my reach to hundreds of practitioners and professionals. Further, making the findings and conversations available in multiple languages is crucial for the equitable sharing of resources and creating scaffolding for success for a wider range of practitioners. 

In the two webinars I have hosted to date, over half of the growers were not currently running CSA programs. I discovered some were unfamiliar with the CSA model. I was thus able to share information about CSAs in general, but also more specifically how a monthly winter model could fit in to existing production plans, be developed in collaboration with other growers, and provide better quality of life and work life balance. I believe being transparent is crucial in this process. I was honest about struggles I have faced as a grower, and how those struggles - both environmental and health - informed my decision to investigate this new growing model. 

8 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.