Farm CSAs struggle in Maine after years of popularity

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LISBON FALLS — When Keena Tracy and her husband Zach Henderson opened Little Ridge Farm in 2008 and began a CSA program — offering pounds of farm-fresh carrots, green beans, tomatoes and other produce every week for a few hundred dollars for the whole growing season — people flocked to the place.

As the farm’s organic vegetables grew each year, so did demand. At one point a few years ago, Little Ridge CSAs were so sought after that the family farm couldn’t keep up.

“I had a really long waiting list. Long to me. It was 15 people deep,” Tracy said. “And I was even doing 10 more shares than I had planned on doing because I was having a hard time turning people away.”

Then, almost as suddenly as the farm’s CSA boomed, it busted.

“Last year my waiting list got a little shorter,” Tracy said. “This year I’m really struggling to get people to sign up.”

Prized even just a few years ago, CSAs have abruptly become the farming equivalent of “Words with Friends” — hot, then not.

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Experts and farmers say there are a lot of reasons for the downturn. Increasing competition is a big one. So, too, is the customer’s need for convenience over a relationship with their friendly neighborhood farmer.

That all leaves farmers reconsidering the future.

“I’ve seen some farms decide to end their CSA programs,” said Dave Colson, director of agricultural services for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

‘Bell curve’

Programs and details vary, but CSAs — short for community-supported agriculture — typically involve a customer buying a share of the farm’s harvest.

Probably the most well-known CSAs work this way: You pay a local farm at the beginning of spring. In return, you pick up a bag of produce from the farm each week during late spring, summer and early fall. Because most of that produce comes straight from harvest and because Mother Nature isn’t always fair, you might tote home a great array of vegetables each week or something like two pounds of leeks and a rutabaga.

Jill Agnew started what is believed to be Maine’s first CSA at her Willow Pond Farm in Sabattus in 1989. Community members already dropped by the farm for pick-your-own apples, so pick-up-your-own produce didn’t seem far-fetched to her.

“They could come and spend time and see where the food was grown,” Agnew said. “We could get to know them as families and people, as well as grow food for them.”

It was not, early on, an easy sell.

“There were only 45 in the country, so it wasn’t a concept that was known at all,” Agnew said. “So in the beginning, it was quite a struggle just trying to, oh, I’d say wean people off of the grocery store concept and getting what you’re choosing.”

Over the years, business picked up. Families started to see the advantages of a CSA: get months-worth of farm-fresh vegetables and support local farmers.

“I think people wanted to bring their children to the farm,” Agnew said. “They wanted to make the reconnection, and I think presenting an option to do that was really attractive to people. They could come to the farm every week. They could bring their kids. They could have a picnic. They could show their kids the animals, the garden. Those options just really weren’t available in our food system.”

As time went on, Agnew tweaked her CSA. She adjusted her payment options, including a work-share that currently allows six to eight customers each season to pay off half or all of their CSA by helping out on the farm. She offered her farm’s turkey, pork, chicken, lamb and eggs, giving families a more well-rounded stock of food. She also added blueberries, dairy and fish from other local farms and fishermen.

Other Maine farms started to catch on to the idea. CSAs were especially popular with new farmers and small growers who didn’t have the upfront capital to plant a season’s worth of crops. Rather than borrow money for planting — and pray for good weather, a good harvest and good sales so they could later pay off the debt — they sold CSA shares at the beginning of the season and used that cash instead.

“I could ask for 100 people to give me $400. Suddenly, I’ve got a lot of money to start with,” Colson said.

Two decades after Willow Pond Farm started the first program in Maine, Colson estimated hundreds of CSAs were scattered across the state. MOFGA helped organize CSA fairs to connect hungry customers with local farms that could fit their needs. MOFGA, the Maine Department of Agriculture’s “Get Real. Get Maine!” promotion and other groups compiled lists of CSAs to post online.

“At one point, we just decided we could no longer manage administratively tracking all the CSA farms in the state. It just grew to be so big,” Colson said.

To set themselves apart in the CSA crowd, some farms offered delivery or established drop-off points at area businesses so families didn’t have to drive to the farm every week if they didn’t want to. Others offered “value-added” items, such as garden flowers or pies from a local baker, or they expanded their season by providing root vegetables in the winter.

Others decided to buck the well-known CSA model in favor of something more gift certificate-like: Pay $100 up front, for example, and get $110 worth of produce to be picked out anytime during the season. That allowed people to get the vegetables they really wanted when they really wanted them, rather than those two pounds of leeks and a rutabaga every Thursday.

For a number of farmers, CSAs were a boon — a way to bring in new customers, get cash and sell goods without ever leaving the farm. Every season, the average CSA customer paid between $100 and $700 upfront, and farms could have dozens of customers.

But a few years ago, things started to change.

Farmers said they weren’t seeing new sign-ups at the CSA fairs, so MOFGA stopped organizing them. CSA waiting lists started dwindling, then disappeared altogether. Farms began having trouble finding new customers.

A few years ago, Little Ridge Farm had more CSA customers than it could handle. So far this season, it’s about 20 families short of its goal of 145.

“I kind of feel like we’re in a bit of a bell curve,” Tracy said.

‘Promotion is the thing’

Food Joy, a nonprofit, organic farm in Auburn, began offering a traditional CSA in 2012 and piloted a CSA/meal kit hybrid in 2017. Owner Karen Bolduc had no problem filling the 40 spots she had last year, plus a 30-person waiting list.

This year, she’d hoped to fill 100 spots. As of late March, though, only 19 people had signed up, and only three of the 30 waiting-list members confirmed they were still interested.

Bolduc said she’s optimistic she’ll fill the 100 spots by her April 18 deadline, “but I also have to be realistic about what will happen if we don’t.”

“I’ve never been interested in running a program that people don’t want or that isn’t helping people,” she said. “The way I see it, there are 60,000 people in the Twin Cities. If I can’t find 100 of them who are willing to subscribe to this program, I have to wonder if the program is worth running.”

Nezinscot Farm in Turner has offered CSAs for almost three decades. Because its program allows customers to pick up anything in the store, Nezinscot runs its CSA year-round and makes a push for new sign-ups each spring.

Although Nezinscot currently has about 60 CSA customers, close to its average, it’s been more difficult this spring for owner Gloria Varney to find people and convince them to join.

“It’d be nice if we had another 50 committed to the system,” Varney said.

It’s not the first time Varney has seen CSA interest change over the decades, but it’s the first time she can’t figure out why it’s happening.

“Usually that fluctuation occurs with the economy,” she said. “This year, a lot of it just doesn’t make sense.”

Experts and other farmers say competition probably has a lot to do with it. As CSAs became popular in recent years, more farmers started offering them. In some rural communities, several farms go after the same pool of customers.

And that pool may be shrinking.

Experts say fewer people seem to feel the need to sign up for CSAs. For some longtime customers, it’s because their kids have grown and the household no longer needs five or 10 pounds of fresh vegetables every week. For others, it’s because they can now get farm-fresh produce from farmers markets and grocery stores — options that didn’t exist in some communities until recently.

“I hate to say that it’s saturated, because I think it’s awesome that (local foods) are so available,” Tracy said. “But because it’s so available, people just have so many choices. Maybe joining a CSA is maybe too much of a commitment for someone.”

Farmers say convenience may also be an issue, especially for potential new customers. Some don’t like the idea of driving out to a farm every week, adding one more errand to their to-do list. Some don’t like to — or can’t — prepay hundreds of dollars for their food. Others aren’t adept at cooking and aren’t sure what to do with pounds of produce once they get it.

“The challenge with the traditional CSA model is that it really relies on the customer knowing how to cook from scratch,” Bolduc said. “This is something that the next gen didn’t necessarily get the benefit of. There’s a lot of boxes and mixes and microwaves and packages. A lot of those scratch cooking methods fell by the wayside.”

She tried to combat that with her Food Joy CSA/meal kit hybrid, a weekly package that contains farm-fresh ingredients tailored to specific recipes provided in the kit. After getting some feedback from her pilot program last year, Bolduc tweaked it. This year she’ll use recipes that don’t take so long to make, change the delivery day to make it more convenient and consult with a nutritionist and chef each week to make sure the recipes are both healthy and tasty.

By the end of March, though, that hadn’t helped much with sign-ups.

“I plan on doing every bit of marketing outreach I can to find every person willing to subscribe, and I really hope they’re out there!” she said. “But I guess I just want people to know that if this is a service they’d like to see continue, now is the time to support it.”

Other farmers have started offering different payment options to entice new customers and more are joining with other local businesses — bakers, beekeepers, cheese-makers — to enhance what they can offer. Maine Department of Agriculture officials said they’ve seen a greater number of farmers extend their seasons, add a winter CSA option or find other ways to stand out.

Patricia Verrill offered a CSA through her Harvest Moon Produce in West Paris for years until the farm shut down for a variety of reasons — including an enticing job offer for her — two years ago. She believes farms do a lot of things great with their CSAs, but one thing not so well: promotion.

“People might post on Facebook, but you’re reaching the same local crowds. You’re not reaching anyone new,” she said.

Verrill has missed farming and is looking at restarting the family business. In preparation, she’s been doing research on ways to attract customers.

Looking at the farms around her, she said, she’s come to realize too few keep their websites up-to-date or advertise where young families would see. Too many rely on word-of-mouth, occasional Facebook posts, emails and posters around town.

“Promotion is the thing,” she said. “You’ve got to be out there, you’ve got to be seen, you’ve got to be on their minds.  You have to have what they want.”

Some farms have decided to get out of the CSA business entirely. For them, selling at farmers markets and to restaurants can mean less hassle.

Because no one keeps firm records on CSA programs, it’s unclear how many have shut down. Colson estimated there were several hundred at the CSA peak a few years ago. MOFGA and the Maine Department of Agriculture’s “Get Real. Get Maine!” websites currently list about 350 between them, but not all active CSAs are listed on those sites and some of those that are listed aren’t active.

While some farms are dropping their CSAs, others are determined to make a go of it.

“I think (CSAs) are here to stay,” Colson said. “It’s like anything. You reap the benefits of the energy that you put in. Some people really like the interaction with people and they like the distribution days when there’s a whole pile of people around and they like keeping in touch, doing the social media aspects to create energy and buzz around the farm. Other people who are not so outgoing and really don’t particularly want to put that investment of time in are probably are not going to be so successful.”

Tracy wants hers to be one of the successful CSA programs.

“I hope it’s not going to be something that’s going to go away, because it’s definitely super rewarding for the customers, for the community. And for us farmers, it’s an excellent way for us to sell our produce,” she said. “Hopefully, people will start signing up again.”

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