Building connections: Creating a broader public base for CSAs

Final Report for LNE06-242

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2006: $151,655.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $74,200.00
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
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Project Information

Summary:

Over three years the number of CSA shares sold to Maine families increased 61% from 4,000 to 6,500 and the number of farms offering CSA shares nearly doubled from 73 to 143. Of the 73 CSA farms in 2006, 60 continue to operate as a CSA. They increased the number of shares offered by an average of 24 shares each, or about 1,400 shares. 78 farms started a new CSA during the course of the last three years: 24 in 2007, 28 in 2008 and 26 so far in 2009. We estimate annual CSA sales at $2 million.

Introduction:

The Community Supported Agriculture model in the United States is now about twenty years old. It has evolved from a single model where shareholders wholly support the farm and share in the risks and rewards from season to season to many models of varying methods of payment, distribution, member involvement and share composition. In short, the CSA concept has evolved to meet the evolving needs of each farm and community supporting it, making it a winning strategy for farms looking to diversify their income stream and build a loyal local customer base. Recognizing that this method of direct marketing holds real potential for increasing farm viability, MOFGA and the Maine Council of Churches has worked together, and with other partners, to increase the number of CSA farmers in Maine, and to grow the number of CSA shares. MOFGA has provided technical support to CSA farmers, and created a directory of CSA farms for the general public. The Maine Council of Churches, working with individual churches and with partners like the Maine Sierra Club, has performed education and outreach on CSA opportunities available to the public throughout the state.

Performance Target:

By the Spring of 2009, at least twenty of Maine’s sixty existing CSA farms and twenty additional farms will expand their shares and product availability to reach an additional 1250 families.

We doubled our target, with 2,500 additional shares and 78 additional farms.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Anne D. Burt
  • Melissa White Pillsbury
  • Cheryl Wixson

Research

Materials and methods:

Throughout this project, we have engaged our farmer audience through multiple trainings on different aspects of starting and managing a CSA. We estimate that we have reached 225 farmers through these trainings with an approximate even split between experienced CSA farmers, farmers who are already experimenting with a CSA and those who are considering CSA as a viable option for their farm in the future. We have also been in direct contact with all of the CSA farms via phone, email and through farm or market visits. This has been a critical piece of outreach since it is through this communication that we collect and update information for the Maine CSA Directory. We are able to communicate regularly with most CSA farms in Maine through an email list and use this list to alert farmers of new tools and resources that become available to CSA farmers as well as marketing or training opportunities and other events of interest. We also communicate items of interest to a list of potential future CSA farmers and check in with them at least annually to see if they have started a CSA.

We have engaged a broad customer base through three primary methods of targeted outreach: development & distribution of a Maine CSA Directory (electronic, web & print formats), organizing & promoting an annual Maine CSA Fair event which has grown from one location and 20 farms in the first year to 11 locations and 75 farms by the third year, and through the Maine Council of Churches’ Environmental Justice Program’s direct outreach to congregations and other environmentally focused groups and events throughout the state.

Research results and discussion:
Milestone 1: 40 of Maine’s 60 CSA farmers share information on their potential new number of shares through a common outreach effort.

First we developed a survey that was initially distributed to the 60 known CSA farms and to other new & previously existing CSA’s as we became aware of them. Through this survey we collected information about the number of shares that farms offered year to year, as well as whether the farms were meeting their projected share numbers from year to year. After collecting survey information from over 100 farms, many in multiple years, we have learned that the majority of CSA farms are increasing the number of shares offered every year. Information collected from 32 of the original 60 farms show an average increase of 24 shares. We also learned that the majority of CSA farms are consistently able to meet their goals in terms of the number of shares they wish to sell, even when increasing the number of shares offered from the previous year.

Milestone 2. The Maine Council of Churches identifies at least 3 clusters of churches/parishes interested in acting as CSA distribution hubs, representing 250 new shares.

As it has throughout, MCC continues to create interest in its member congregations in purchasing food from local farmers through CSAs, buying clubs, and farmers’ markets. This began with a partnership between Hatchet Cove Farm and the UU church in Rockland where the CSA shares grew from 15 in the first year (2006) to more than 80 by year three. The shares have not only fed members of the church, but have also been given to the local food pantry. This church also, through MCC, became linked to the Midcoast Fishermen’s Cooperative in Port Clyde and formed Maine’s first Community Supported Fishery (CSF), where shares similar to a CSA would guarantee a market for shrimp in the winter of 2007-2008. This program expanded to the ground fish season in the spring/summer and today the year-round CSF is thriving with 10 other locations.

Members of this first CSA/CSF church have traveled to other churches and public programs across the state to share their experience and story. They have spoken in workshops at MOFGA’s Common Ground Fair and the annual Fishermen’s Forum, as well as smaller venues where the public is interested in starting a similar initiative.

It turns out that the Hatchet Cove Farm/Rockland UU partnership is the only formal farm-church relationship that has resulted in a cluster of CSA shares sold. Although one of the original goals of the project was to identify more of these ‘clusters’ for farms, it turned out that farms did not need formal relationships with clusters of ready-made customers to meet their sales goals. At the same time, MCC outreach has led to other opportunities for farmers while still raising awareness among congregations about the importance of supporting local agriculture.
In Kennebunk, MCC has worked with Rachel Seemar of Wildroot Farm to help her connect to congregations and the public in her community. This year she and her farm staff provided staffing at a “local foods” table at the Energy EXPO organized by one of MCC’s projects, Maine Partners for Cool Communities. Rachel also has come to programs co-sponsored by MCC and the Sierra Club at the UU church in Kennebunk and made connections through that venue.
This winter/spring MCC did an outreach in Bangor to the Hammond St. UCC. This was done in partnership with Food and Medicine, which is a program focused on providing food and medicine to union families and their surrounding communities. The organization is also concerned about farm labor practices and works with CSA farms that support and practice just labor conditions and laws. This church was the site for one of the 2008 CSA Fairs and in 2009 MCC is working with Maine Dept. of Agriculture on a pilot electronic buying club project to which we are trying to link Bangor congregations. Many CSAs in Maine are beginning to look at buying clubs as another marketing strategy and MCC is helping to link this initiative to area congregations.

Milestone 3. 40 new farmers interested in forming CSAs or supplying additional products to CSAs attend one or more training meetings.

We have organized a number of farmer trainings addressing different aspects of starting and managing a CSA over the last three years and have reached far more than the targeted 40 new farmers:

At MOFGA’s 2006 Farmer to Farmer Conference, the “CSA Customer Retention” workshop featured Kate Duesterberg of Cedar Circle Farm in Vermont and Amy Sprague of Wolf Pine Farm in Alfred, one of Maine’s largest CSA’s. Over 30 farmers participated in that session, and about 15 of the 30 were prospective new CSA’s.

MOFGA hosted a beginning CSA session at the Agricultural Trade Show in January 2007, which 40 attended.

In March 2007 MOFGA sponsored a peer learning discussion, attended by about 30 current and prospective CSA farmers, which afforded them the opportunity to bounce ideas and ask questions of their peers.

Every summer MOFGA hosts a series of Farm Training Project workshops for farm apprentices and beginning farmers, including a session on marketing. This provides aspiring farmers an opportunity to hear about successful farmers’ marketing strategies, many of which include or focus on the CSA model. Attendance at these workshops over the last three years has ranged from 25 to 75.

At the 2007 & 2008 Common Ground Country Fairs, we gave farmer-oriented presentations “How CSA Can Improve Your Farm’s Bottom Line”(2007) and “CSA: Learn the Basics”(2008). About a dozen prospective CSA farmers attended each session.

In February 2009 MOFGA hosted a CSA Conference with a “CSA Mini-School” track. These sessions introduced the concepts and practices of CSA farming for beginners and those planning to start a CSA soon. 70 new and future prospective CSA farmers attended the CSA Mini-School.

Milestone 4. 40 of 80 current and prospective CSAs attend advanced training on CSA planting and harvesting systems.

At MOFGA’s 2007 Farmer to Farmer Conference we were fortunate to have farmers from 2 innovative and successful CSA’s come and give presentations on their farming systems.

Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens in Vermont, runs a year-round CSA and offers a ‘localvore’ share option. He’s a very ambitious young farmer who has very quickly built his operation up to a larger scale than the typical diversified organic vegetable operation. We need to see this happen on farms in Maine to meet the growing demand for local, organic food. His presentation allowed attendees to learn about the kinds of equipment and inputs needed to make it happen on that scale.

Jeff and Amy Burchstead of Buckwheat Blossom Farm in Wiscasset, Maine run a highly diversified vegetable & livestock CSA. They are very strong in recordkeeping and business planning, and their presentation highlighted these strengths.

65 CSA farmers, prospective CSA farmers, and other interested parties were in attendance.

The CSA Mini-School at the CSA Conference in February of 2009 included a session devoted to CSA planting and harvesting systems, which 70 farmers attended. Three of the speakers at the conference had experience either farming for, or organizing multi-farm CSAs and addressed strategies for successfully planning & executing systems related to that model. Overall conference attendance was 110.

Milestone 5. 2500 families are exposed to the CSA model through organized outreach by the Maine Council of Churches and MOFGA: 1000 find matching farms.

We have used three primary methods for reaching a broad public audience with the CSA model:

1. CSA Fairs
In March of 2007 MOFGA co-sponsored, with the Maine Council of Churches and Slow Food Portland, Maine’s first CSA Fair, which was a huge success. About 20 farms came and set up information about their CSA programs and over 200 people attended to ‘shop’ for a CSA. To promote the event, MCC sends letters and full-color posters to all congregations in the fair communities and surrounding towns, and MOFGA reaches out to local media, sends posters to area businesses & sends email notices to its constituency. In February of 2008 the same group of collaborators organized a second CSA Fair, expanded from one to four locations supported by congregations in four communities: St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Hallowell, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Auburn, Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bangor, and First Parish of Portland Unitarian Universalist in Portland. About 40 farms came and set up information about their CSA programs and over 300 people attended. In 2009, we partnered with even more local food advocate groups and congregations to expand the event to 11 sites statewide, including participation from nine congregations. This year we had 75 farms participate across the 11 sites and estimate that more than 1000 people attended. Many of the congregations have already said they are eager to do the project again. We conducted a survey at several of the fair sites to determine the interest level in CSFs and their products and multi-farm/multi-product CSAs. We found the public very willing to take time to complete the survey and many people wanting to participate in these new local foods enterprises.

The CSA Fair concept started out in the first year as an experiment, but has turned out to be an excellent opportunity for members of the public to learn about CSA face to face with the farmers and make connections with farms that would otherwise be difficult to make. Farmers have been very pleased with the outcome of the Fairs, and we hope to continue to work with the various community partners to continue them in the future.

2. CSA Directory
MOFGA’s Maine CSA Directory publication has been posted online since March of 2007, with updates made regularly. In 2007, 1000 copies of the directory were printed and distributed to the public libraries in the state (about 300) as well as hospitals and health centers across the state (200+). In 2008 we doubled the number of copies printed from 1000 to 2000 and distributed most copies by late spring. About 500 copies were mailed to Maine Council of Churches congregations and synagogues across the state, another 500 to public libraries and health related agencies, and the remaining 1000 were distributed at MOFGA and MCC events and by request. In 2009 we printed 1000 copies, and have continued the same distribution strategy. The directory is also published annually in the spring edition of MOFGA’s quarterly newspaper, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, a subscriber base of over 6000. Downeast Magazine published the list in their March 2008 edition. In addition to a pdf download, the directory is also available for online viewing, to increase access to those with slow internet connections or those who only use public terminals for internet access and are not permitted to download files. CSA’s can be viewed geographically by county and direct links to email and websites of the CSA farms are active. The url to this information is: http://www.mofga.org/Resources/CommunitySupportedAgricultureinMaine/tabid/653/Default.aspx Our website counter logged over 15,000 visits to the main CSA page this year, through August 2009, so it is a primary point of contact for many eaters. Other organizations are regularly linking to the page as a way to provide this information to their members/visitors.

3. Maine Council of Churches outreach
MCC’s Environmental Justice Program distributed the CSA directory to nearly 600 congregations and their members, provided outreach materials and did presentations/workshops on local foods/CSA model to congregations, public health and mothers’ groups, Sierra Club-Maine Chapter (via farmers’ markets & newsletter), 4-H clubs, food activists, and citizens in hundreds of venues from churches to Green EXPOs around the state, and invited local farmers to share in presentations they’ve organized in communities and congregations that focus on building an environmentally sustainable and economically just, compassionate society.

Milestone 6. 20 CSAs add other farm products like cheese and grains to their farm-produced offerings.

Many farms are embracing CSA models beyond the traditional summer vegetable share. 20 farms offer fall or winter storage vegetable or pantry shares. 25 CSA farms offer meat, eggs or dairy products, either as shares, or as an option to purchase in addition to a vegetable share. Several farms offer CSA members specialty products from other farms (meat, eggs, berries, baked goods, maple syrup) that their own farm does not produce, either as part of their share, or as an option to purchase in addition to the regular share.

In February 2009, 110 current & potential future CSA farmers attended MOFGA’s CSA Conference with a track of workshops devoted to CSA Expansion and Development topics:
Travis Marcotte, the Director of Agricultural Development Services at the Intervale Center in Vermont presented on their multi-farm workplace CSA, The Intervale Center Food Basket. Elizabeth Henderson, author of Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture and also of Peacework Organic Farm and Genesee Valley Organic CSA (GVOCSA), a multifarm CSA in New York, shared her 20+ years of experience with organizing and growing for CSAs. A panel on alternative models of community supported enterprise included representatives from a community supported kitchen, a consumer initiated buying club & CSA and a community supported fisheries program. And Jill Perry, co-author of Local Harvest: A Multifarm CSA Handbook used the story of Local Harvest CSA, a successful multifarm CSA based in Concord, NH, to outline the basic considerations of a group or individual interested in starting a collaborative CSA.

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

We have prepared an annual directory which is available each year in print form and is updated regularly on the MOFGA website, www.mofga.org. (See Milestone #5 discussion for details.)

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

Both MOFGA and the Maine Council of Churches made significant commitments to this project over the last three years and we believe that the impact of our work is substantial. There are many stories in the Maine press today that focus on local farmers, the benefits of local foods, etc., and a significant portion of these feature farms that are using the CSA model or focus on the concept of CSA. The fact that CSA is now a regularly occurring topic in the popular media tells us that the concept has hit a tipping point of sorts and is no longer only known in the fringes of the sustainable agriculture community. We believe that our outreach during this project has made a contribution toward this paradigm shift.

A result of the popularity of the CSA model is that other food and farm-focused enterprises have adopted the marketing model in the form of Community Supported Fisheries, Community Supported Bakeries, Community Supported Kitchens, and others. The Community Supported Fisheries model is the most prominent of these, with an increase in CSF programs from the first one during the winter shrimp season of ‘07/’08 to now more than 10 programs across all seafood seasons/products. In addition to the Rockland UU congregation connection, this SARE project also helped inspire the genesis of CSF’s through Russell Libby’s presentation on the CSA model at the Spring 2007 Fishermen’s Forum, an annual gathering of Maine fishermen and those involved in policy and development work around Maine’s fisheries.

Another important outcome of this project is that MOFGA now has the state’s most complete and up-to-date database of past, current & potential future CSA farms containing information from 200 farms. This is an important resource in tracking trends and identifying needs on both the consumer and producer sides of the CSA relationship. We also use this body of data to build the directory of CSA farms, a critical resource for making connections between farmers and consumers.

As evidenced by the frequent calls and email inquiries on the subjects, MOFGA has clearly become a known source of information for those seeking CSA shares from a Maine farm, as well as those considering beginning a CSA program at their farm. The CSA pages on our website receive over 3000 hits per month in peak CSA shopping season (early spring). We plan to continue making these resources available, and to regularly update the Maine CSA Directory.

Through our CSA-focused farmer trainings and outreach over the last three years we have reached approximately 300 farmers. Of those, many were current CSA farmers who received further training on operating a CSA or took away new ideas to bring back to the farm. One change we have witnessed since the start of the project is that more farms are offering more diversified and year-round CSA share options. Others attending the trainings were farmers who have since started a CSA, and the rest were farmers or aspiring farmers, some of whom are sure to begin a CSA in the future.

Throughout the 3 years of the project, MCC’s Environmental Justice Program and Food & Faith Program has marketed the concept of linking congregations to their neighbor farmers and now fishermen. We have watched the numbers of Maine CSA farms and farmers’ markets grow dramatically, and most recently CSFs are springing up from Kittery to Eastport with many congregations playing leading roles as organizers and distribution sites. In addition to the CSF connection, the following projects are outgrowths of MCC’s continued outreach to congregations:

An Heirloom Bean Suppah pilot project in October 2009 will be held in 5-6 churches in Cumberland County in communities identified by Healthy Maine Partnership and others, and will host a bean supper that features heirloom Maine beans and dishes made from local ingredients. MCC, working with MOFGA, Healthy ME Partnership, Slow Food Portland and others, is linking the host church to local farms and the local farmers will be present at these dinners to talk with the public about their farms. The idea is to bring a new twist to a traditional event…make a bean supper a “local foods” meal, with healthier ingredients, and marketing the dinner to a diverse audience that will include not only bean supper regulars but also local and slow food advocates and young families.

The Maine Department of Agriculture approached MCC about the possibility of partnering to engage congregations in some areas of the state to facilitate the Senior Farm Share program. Congregations would help to link farmers and seniors and provide a distribution system that will assure that the local food gets to the participating seniors. Congregations might also play a role in helping seniors prepare meals from the fresh produce, and other ideas that may emerge from this partnership. This will be another way that congregation members will be exposed to CSA farms in their neighborhoods and may purchase shares for themselves as well.

The continued strategic outreach through new projects and avenues of engagement should result in a growing number of CSA farm shares and farms into the future. We know from conversations with the MCC family of congregations that congregation members are becoming more and more interested in local foods. We also know from conversations with farmers that the demand for their products, through CSA’s as well as other markets, continues to grow year to year. A challenge in the future will be to continue to grow the number of farms, and the capacity of existing farms, in Maine to meet the growing market for locally, sustainably grown food purchased directly from the producer. MOFGA, for one, is addressing this challenge through its apprenticeship and journeyperson new farmer programs. A promising indication of the future is that both of these programs have experienced a tremendous increase in interest and participation in the last several years.

Economic Analysis

The number of CSA shares has increased by 2,500 to 6,500 over the last three years, representing an increase in farm income from CSA sales from $1.25 million to over $2 million.

Farmer Adoption

For those farmers who can effectively manage the demands of a CSA and enjoy building relationships with customers, CSA can be a very viable long term marketing strategy for the farm. CSA provides income for the farm during a time of the year when cash flow is typically low, allowing farms to avoid the cost of borrowing money to cover season startup costs. CSA also builds a loyal customer base right in the farm’s community, providing free and effective advertising via word of mouth and creating a social network strongly invested in the longevity of the farm. An example of the benefits of strong community ties for a CSA farm played out recently on a CSA farm in Maine. The farmer became ill and was not able to farm for an entire season, but was supported by the community through fundraisers and many members paying for that year’s share even though the farm would not produce any food. There are also many examples of CSA memberships supporting farms through fundraising toward the purchase of farmland and other resources.

Only a few farms in Maine operate solely as a CSA, while most use CSA as part of a diverse marketing strategy aimed at reducing risk from dependency on one crop or market. CSA fits in very well with farms that are already growing for farmers’ markets, which also demand multiple successions of a diverse mix of crops throughout the season. Given the economic and social advantages that CSA arrangements can afford, the fact that we are seeing an increasing number of Maine farms adopt the CSA model in one form or another speaks well to the viability of these farms into the future.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

One change we have witnessed in the local food marketplace during the course of this project is the increased adoption of web-based technology to market and sell farm products. CSA farms are among the increasing pool of farms engaged in direct marketing who are looking to take advantage of technology that can help them market products to a local customer base, but many lack the skills and knowledge necessary to utilize this technology.

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.