CSA Boxes: Eat Local, Support Small Farms

As spring arrives, so do local Farmer’s Markets and Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions. CSA subscribers pre-purchase fresh produce directly from local farmers, who typically box or package the goods to be delivered or picked up monthly or at regular intervals  

This year, many small farms are relying on direct community support due to economic uncertainties.   

COVID-19 & CSAs  

“With the pandemic and the current crisis that we are navigating, there have been some significant changes that happened to the local food system,” explained Teagan Moran.  

Moran provides educational and program support for OSU’s Small Farms Program – working with aspiring to well-established farmers in Benton, Linn, and Lane counties.  

“Farmers are always adapting, and they are resilient even in the best of times. I think one of the silver linings of COVID-19 is that it has really shown a bright light on our local food systems,” she said.  

According to Moran, one of the best ways to support local farms is to buy directly from them. CSA, farm stands, and Farmer’s Markets are ways to ensure local farmers earn more profits, as they involve fewer middle steps.  

Moran emphasized that not all small farms face the same challenges, that these vary depending on location and market. However, area farms now face new disruptions due to the outbreak and its economic impact.  

The first is the loss or decrease in key markets. For example, many local small farms normally sell their products exclusively to regional restaurants or institutional food service cafeterias. With so many restaurants closed or limited to a smaller take-out menu, these farmers need to find other ways to replace lost income.   

“With restaurant sales down, we are expanding our CSA program this year and are still taking applications,” said Laura Bennett of Gathering Together Farm in Philomath. “We are now offering weekly VSA boxes, which stands for Vitality Supported Agriculture. VSA is our farm’s response to Covid-19, and unlike CSA, it can be ordered for a single week, and we also deliver locally straight to your home [due to] the quarantine.”  

Some farmers who supply food processing facilities have also experienced a loss due to decreased production. Direct-to-consumer options like CSA subscriptions are an alternative these farmers are exploring.  

In addition, many farms have experienced decreased efficiency due to adopting current safety and social distancing guidelines. For example, a farm may have one person planting in a small area when normally two or three people would have worked together.   

On many farms, workers may speak two or more languages, causing communication barriers with the use of protective face masks.  

Some small farms may only have one or a few team members, making the possibility of anyone getting sick or needing time off adding extra strain in such a labor-intensive industry. Moran noted a lack of health insurance among small farmers increasing insecurity when there is the chance of an outbreak.  

“Farms are so labor dependent and there are such slim profit margins in farming,” she said. “We’re talking tiny profit margins with a lot of upfront investment of costs.”   

In response to consumer needs, some farms adopted additional packaging for the sake of hygiene, resulting in additional expense. Before COVID-19, those who shopped through CSAs, farm stands and farmer’s markets often appreciated the minimal use of plastic and packaging. Although the transmission of COVID-19 is not currently associated with food, many people are more cautious, and as a result, many farmers individually package items they may not have packaged before.   

Small farms also have more trouble accessing small business emergency support. Moran explained that some of the federal programs require the business to be the primary income source, while many small farmers supplement their income with work outside their own farm. She noted this is a rapidly changing situation.  

Benefits to Farmers  

Selling directly to consumers is essential for many small farms adapting to an uncertain market.   

“CSAs are the most direct to the consumer that a farm can go. They are on a parallel with farmer’s markets,” said Moran. “However, a CSA is an assured sale that’s literally going from the farm, into the box, and to the consumer.”   

Depending on the pricing model, some farms require upfront payment for the entire season while others accept incremental payments. Either way, the farmer knows their pre-sales and may plant and harvest according to that need. The farmer and their team also receive a predictable income they can plan around.   

“The CSA creates a mutually beneficial relationship between us farmers and those we feed,” said Rachel Ashley of Rainshine Family Farm in Philomath. “We really enjoy welcoming new members into our food community, and very much appreciate the solid friendships that the CSA has enabled us to form.”  

Spring and Summer are very busy times for farmers as they plant, tend, and harvest crops. Since many consumers crave seasonal produce, it is also the time when a small farming business needs to focus on marketing. A well-supported CSA enables farmers to spend more time growing food and less time marketing and distributing it.    

Benefits to Consumers  

CSAs offer consumers access to high-quality local produce at more affordable prices than they may find in a grocery store. Moran noted that grocery stores frequently sell produce that was bred to travel long-distances and ripen artificially. The flavor is a secondary concern.  

“CSAs offer access to a fresh and healthy variety of foods,” she said. “You have access to foods the grocery stores can’t provide. Your local farms are able to grow a diversity of heirloom varieties and the food you get is a lot more fresh.”   

Consumers get the added benefit of supporting their local food economy and establishing relationships with those who produce the food. Additionally, consumers interested in environmentally friendly practices, humane treatment of livestock, or healthy working environments may prefer sourcing their food from a local small farm.  

Since CSA contents vary depending on what is in season, customers often learn more about their local environment and end up trying new fruits or vegetables. Many CSA programs include recipes, newsletters, and tips on how to serve seasonal produce.  

“There’s joy in getting this exciting box,” Moran exclaimed. “There is a little bit of the unknown about what is going to come next week.”   

SNAP recipients may qualify to participate in the Double Up Food Bucks program if they choose a CSA that is set up for this program. Moran explained that CSAs were recently included alongside Farmer’s Markets.  

Community Benefits  

 Moran pointed out that supporting small-scale local agriculture ensures the continued existence of a thriving local food economy. This is beneficial even in the best of circumstances, but Moran pointed out this is crucial if a crisis ever disrupts the national food supply chain.  

Locally-grown food also tends to have a lower environmental impact. Moran explained that typically there is less fuel and refrigeration used, less packaging, and less food waste – especially when consumers buy directly from farmers.  

Making the Most of Your CSA Box  

Moran, along with four local farmers, offered these tips for consumers considering CSA boxes:  

“First, identify your household’s needs and find out how many people the box feeds,” said Moran. Some CSA programs offer half shares, less frequent delivery options, or even single boxes.   

Rachel Ashley of Rainshine Family Farm added, “Get inspired about eating and cooking with fresh vegetables! Challenge yourself to eat vegetables with most of your meals.”  

Next, be sure to check out any content provided by your CSA. “We put together a very thorough newsletter with every CSA and VSA box we pack” which includes produce descriptions, recipe ideas using the box contents, and “a short story from that week down on the farm,” said Laura Bennett of Gathering Together Farm.  

Tal Singh from Riverland Family Farms reminded: “Practice social distancing and other safety guidelines provided by state or federal authorities when picking up your CSA or Pre-order boxes.”   

Lastly, Liz and Chad Shinn of Camron Ridge Farmstead in Jefferson offered, “Be open-minded, willing to try something new, invest time learning to properly store vegetables, and talk with your farmer.”  

How to Find a Local CSA  

  • Use the Local Harvest website to search for CSA’s and other ways to buy directly from local farmers. Although this is a national site, the local search includes dozens of farms offering CSAs in Corvallis and surrounding areas.
  • The Corvallis Farmers Market website features local farms that sell at the markets and also have CSA and home delivery options.
  • For carnivores who wish to purchase direct, the Oregon Pasture Network includes a searchable product guide.  

Special thanks to Gathering Together Farms, Rainshine Family Farms, and Camron Ridge Farmstead for contributing the featured photos.   

By Samantha Sied