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FOOD & DRINK

Out of the box: After 25 years, community supported agriculture farms adapt to a changing market

  • 15 min to read
VERMONT VALLEY

The Vermont Valley Community Farm in Blue Mounds is ending 24 years of community supported agriculture (CSA) this year, as owners Barb and Dave Perkins retire.

For the first time this past growing season, Crossroads Community Farm in Cross Plains did something quietly revolutionary. It offered consumers a choice.

Crossroads operated as a traditional community supported agriculture (CSA) farm for more than a dozen years. Everyone got more or less the same box of veggies, no swaps or changes.

Armed with new software, owners Cassie and Mike Noltnerwyss tried something new. Each Friday, every CSA member got a list of the 10 to 15 items that would show up in their box if they didn’t change anything. They had until Sunday night to make different choices.

On the farm, picking and packing became a bigger logistical challenge. Some members struggled with the software. Diehards were skeptical.

But overall, members loved it. Each week more than half of Crossroads’ 410 share members made a change, swapping curly kale for carrots or kohlrabi for extra sugar snap peas.

“Convenience and choice, that’s the currency of our culture,” said Cassie Noltnerwyss. “Organic’s everywhere now. If you wanted high quality organic food 15 years ago, you got it from us. But market channels have changed a lot.

“As farmers, we’re realizing we’re not the only game in town.”

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A winter/storage share of vegetables contains squash, onions, potatoes and more at Vermont Valley Community Farm in Blue Mounds. 

In the CSA model, economic risk and reward are shared between a local farmer and the people she feeds. Members pay a flat fee in advance — from $300 for a small or half share to $700/full — for 20 weekly deliveries of whatever the farmer grows.

This model has been an important part of how Wisconsin cooks for more than 25 years. Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC, now called FairShare) was founded in 1993 with eight farms. In 2018, the association included 50 organic farms from north of Wausau to the Illinois border.

FairShare’s most recent data shows that sign-ups range from 8,000 to 9,100 per year, with smaller shares gaining popularity.   

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Winter produce on display at Tim Zander's Two Good Farms table at the Eastside Farmers' Market at the Wil-Mar Center in Madison.

CSA is good for farmers. It helps their cash flow in the off season and builds a community of support around the farm. For consumers, picking up a CSA box is still the easiest connection to fresh, local food at its seasonal peak, without having to do the farmers’ market shuffle on Saturdays with game day tourists.

Early on, farms started adding options, like egg shares, flower shares, fruit, coffee and cheese to make their boxes more attractive. They offered menu-planning services, swap boxes at pickup sites and on-farm events.

It hasn’t been enough. Farmers worry that the number of new CSA members isn’t growing enough to sustain new farms and the growth of existing ones. Retention from year to year is down. Farm shares don’t fill up in March anymore. Recently Vermont Valley, one of the state’s largest CSA farms, announced it won’t offer shares in 2019.

This has farmers turning to new ideas. Some, like Crossroads, have focused on giving more choice, whether by letting members build a box online before it’s delivered or selling market shares, where participants pay in advance and shop from a credit at the farmers’ market.

Some farms emphasize convenience. Workplace drop sites are popular with younger CSA members. One farm charges Milwaukee-area members 10 percent extra to drop a box at their homes. Half of their members take them up on it.

 

Pizza Power! Seriously, I’m like the Andre the Giant of Pizza night.

A post shared by Tony Schultz (@stoneyacresfarm) on May 25, 2018 at 10:15pm PDT

Still other farmers have emphasized the community element, adding pumpkin picks and potlucks and maintaining a robust social media presence. Pizza nights were so popular at Stoney Acres in Athens, Tony Schultz had to build a third oven. This season he introduced an onsite microbrewery.

Down the road from Schultz, Kat Becker at Cattail Organics is developing a partnership with a health insurance company. People with a “prescription CSA” share could work with a nutritionist as part of a treatment plan for heart disease or diabetes.

“There’s a widespread feeling the CSA market is saturated or the customer base is being lost,” said Becker. “I don’t actually think it’s real. The main value system of CSA is the shared risk and shared reward between farmers and eaters.

“10 years ago, if people could get high quality food anywhere, they were happy,” Becker said. “Now people are expecting more which is totally reasonable. There’s an evolution. New farmers need to do a better job.”

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The Vermont Valley Community Farm in Blue Mounds operated as a CSA farm for more than 20 years. 

Take your pick

Sign up for a weekly box of vegetables from a CSA, and it’s like a line from a children’s book: You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.

Extra cabbage this week? Not enough tomatoes for canning? Hate beets? The box is the box. You paid for it back in March. Better find a beet-loving buddy and a recipe for sauerkraut.

Customization is a dirty word among some CSA farmers, particularly ones that are still seeing robust sign-ups in the spring. The technology costs money, usually a percentage of share sales, and it’s a logistical headache. Crossroads was doing fine when Cassie Noltnerwyss started pushing for change.

“My husband and I argued about this for several months,” she said. “He said, ‘No way, people are happy, we’re still selling out. We’re doing fine.’

“My argument was, if we’re going to do this for another 15 years, I don’t think the traditional model is going to carry us through. If we were young farmers starting ground up right now, there’s no way we wouldn’t offer customization. It’s just because the software didn’t exist before that we didn’t.”

 

A post shared by Crossroads Community Farm, LLC (@crossroadscommunityfarm) on Jun 11, 2018 at 2:28pm PDT

The challenge comes with how to get variety to consumers in a way that doesn’t add an extraordinary amount of labor to farmers’ already busy schedules.

“From the farmer perspective, they’ve done a crop plan that says they need 100 bunches of turnips, 200 heads of lettuce,” said Claire Strader, organic vegetable educator at FairShare CSA Coalition. “When you introduce choice, it’s interrupting a bunch of systems on that farm. It’s changing the crop plan, and it changes the technical aspects.

“How do you enable your CSA members to trade out the turnips they don’t want for radishes they want instead? How do you make choice for the member manageable while fitting into a business model for that farm?”

Flexibility is in demand partly because there are more choices for organic produce than there used to be. In Madison, shoppers can find a farmers’ market every day of the week during the growing season.

Walmart and Aldi now sell organic produce from less diverse but more efficient California monoculture farms. All of this means conscientious consumers are more likely to spread their food dollars around.

Simultaneously, as a culture, Americans are cooking less and less. In 2010, the USDA reported that for the first time, people spent more money in a year on dining out than on groceries. That disparity has been trending up since the 1970s.

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Tim Zander of Emerald Meadows and Two Good Farms brings in a bin of brussels sprouts to his table at the Eastside Farmers' Market at the Wil-Mar Center in Madison.

Tricia Bross of Luna Circle Farm in Rio has been farming for 29 years. This year she stopped offering a CSA box in favor of market shares only.

“I started seeing a diminishing of people who wanted to do CSA boxes, but my farmers’ market sales have been up,” Bross said. “When I first started I felt like there was a partnership. The people that were eating my food wanted to see my farm succeed. They were interested in me and in the farm.

“As time went on it was more about, ‘We want to figure out how to eat better. We want local food, but we’re going to jump from CSA to CSA every year.’”

Farms are as individual as their farmers, and Bross liked the face-to-face interactions at the Dane County Farmers’ Market better than writing newsletters to people she didn’t see. She now offers two market shares for $300 and $500 per year that people can spread throughout the season.

“They come when they want to,” she said. “So when they’re out of town or having a busy week, maybe they’re not cooking that week, they don’t feel guilty ... they get what they want, what their family is going to actually eat.

“Finding something they will eat is better for everybody. Adults are picky too.”

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Carrots on display at Tim Zander's Two Good Farms table at the Eastside Farmers' Market at the Wil-Mar Center in Madison.

Becky Breda runs Emerald Meadows Farm in Columbus with her husband, Tim Zander. This year they offered two market shares in Sun Prairie and in Monona, which a small fraction of their 180 members participated in.

“The market share is a good idea,” said Breda. “It’s easier for us. If we do market shares we don’t have a delivery driver out on the road.”

Offering a market share splits the difference between the traditional model where farmers get money in advance, and what Breda has heard from new CSA members about keeping their options open.

“They want to jump around from farm to farm, because they want to spread their money around,” she said. “They want to see what other farms offer. They don’t want to be tied to one farm.”

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At right, Tim Zander of Emerald Meadows and Two Good Farms helps Elizabeth Steinhoff of Madison during the Eastside Farmers' Market at the Wil-Mar Center. 

Special delivery

When Three Sisters Farm started offering at-home delivery in 2011, only six or seven people got a CSA box. Jeff Schreiber and Kelly Kiefer sold at farmers’ markets for most of their income and kept their day jobs.

Now the couple delivers half of the 120 shares they pack each week from their Campbellsport farm right to members’ front doors. As of this year, 100 percent of their business is CSA.

“It is nice to get off the farm,” Schreiber said. “Many people would argue our efforts are better spent farming, but it does give us a way to connect to our members’ lives.

“My wife is more personable. She will stop and talk to a lot of people on the home delivery route.”

 

Our 4th harvest of tomatoes and some produce from our CSA farm.

A post shared by maggie mae (@midwestsultimate) on Sep 27, 2018 at 4:14pm PDT

Like Crossroads, Three Sisters also offers choice. This, Schreiber said, lets them “be a more lean kind of farm ... to do more with less.”

A quarter of their members opt for a standard preset share. Three Sisters can put goodies in those boxes, like the first hothouse cucumbers or the last of the strawberries. They worked choice into their crop plan.

“Before we had to grow 100 fennel to fill 100 boxes,” Schreiber said. “Now we have the data after five years that we don’t have to grow that much fennel. Nobody’s going to choose that much fennel.”

Millennials, Schreiber said, are moving away from CSA and toward the market because a younger generation would rather partake in “a more robust local food system.”

“If we’re going to be relevant we’ve got to better meet people’s needs,” said Schreiber. “It doesn’t meet people’s needs to get random vegetables they don’t care for. We’ve always been passionate about the CSA model but ... why give people things they don’t want? That doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”

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Tim Zander, with Two Good Farms, weighs a container of brussels sprouts for a customer during at the Eastside Farmers' Market at the Wil-Mar Center in Madison.

CSA drop sites have arguably never been as convenient as a trip to the grocery store. But for small farms with minimal staff, at-home deliveries can be tough to coordinate, even as meal kit services like Blue Apron encroach on that consumer dollar.

A step before door to door service is workplace CSA, for which a farm drops off a minimum number of shares to a group of employees.

Sometimes the drop-off is available to employees only — this has been the set-up, for example, between Wholesome Harvest in Fort Atkinson and Aprilaire, Nordic Consulting, Trek, Fiskars and Sub-Zero, among others. Tipi Produce’s delivery to the Waukesha County building is for county employees only. Driftless Organics has one workplace CSA, at a Blue Cross/Blue Shield building in Minneapolis.

Small Family Farm in La Farge once had workplace pickups in Dubuque, La Crosse and Madison. Every one of those workplace sites has declined in numbers.

Owners Adam and Jillian Varney are focusing now on business drop-offs that are publicly accessible, like Regent Street Market, Bloom Bake Shop and SuperCharge! Foods.

“We really jumped on the workplace CSA thing when it was popular,” said Adam Varney. “We still have employee-only pickup locations but they are not our best locations.”

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Sara Rioldi, CSA delivery (copy)

In this archival photo from 2013, Sara Rioldi, corporate accounting manager for Aprilaire, checks the contents of her community supported agriculture box from Burr Oak Gardens. Aprilaire enrolled 52 employees, most of them new, in CSA shares in 2013.

Take two carrots and call me in the morning

One major boon to CSA in Wisconsin (less so in other states) was a $200 in reimbursement an employee could get toward a CSA share, as a carrot for eating healthy. The financial incentive was a major boost for farms — if two families split a small or every other week share, the vegetables were essentially free.

“A huge spike in membership for our farm and all the other farms was the HMO rebates,” said Barb Perkins, a co-owner of Vermont Valley Community Farm, which at one point offered about 1,300 shares a year. “Now that the rebates are almost all gone, we’re back to the core members, people that are dedicated to the concept.”

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Barb and Dave Perkins founded Vermont Valley Community Farm in Blue Mounds in the early 1990s as a CSA-only farm.

Health insurance rebates were a selling point for new CSA members. But despite raising rates, Quartz (the umbrella for Physicians Plus, Unity Health, and Gundersen Health Plan) recently got rid of the CSA benefit, offering Amazon gift cards instead. Locally, Group Health Cooperative (GHC) and WEA Trust still offer rebates.

The lack of rebates has taken its toll on some farms more than others. Jillian Varney said she tries to engage Small Family Farm’s 450 members through the newsletter, to “get them to feel like they know us and have relationships with us ... to fall in love with the farm, rather than doing it for the vegetables only.”

“When we first started getting into CSA you didn’t even really have to try to get members,” Jillian said. “You put your name on the FairShare website and members rolled in. Now farms are having to work harder.

“We need to step it up, as far as proving that we’re professionals at this. I’ll start to worry when we don’t reach our membership goals, when we put in everything we can do and we’re still not getting there.”

 

A post shared by Small Family CSA Farm (@smallfamilycsafarm) on Jun 21, 2018 at 7:49am PDT

Farmers have been looking into new models of working with health care providers. In Boston and Portland, Oregon, doctors “prescribe” vegetables to patients, to be redeemed at farmers’ markets, in community gardens and with CSA shares.

Inspired by this model, Kat Becker at Cattail Organics has been working with a northern Wisconsin HMO, Aspirus Arise, on getting vegetable shares to people in the Wausau area who are struggling with high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and other health issues.

Becker doesn’t know yet what the program will look like or how many farms it will ultimately include. But she’s excited to work with nutritionists and pack a box for a diabetic patient, for example, who might need a share with extra greens and no potatoes.

Becker wants to be realistic about how CSA fits into a daily diet.

“Most people, they eat out, their kids take school lunch, they buy popcorn shrimp at Sam’s Club,” Becker said. “Most people don’t eat in a purist way. The idea that people are going to switch to an all local diet is not what we should be aiming for.

“I used to try to have no non-seasonal things in my recipes,” she added, “but now I’m like, ‘Go buy lemon and make a vinaigrette.’ Seeing ourselves as part of how people eat rather than thinking of ourselves as the only source of food is a transformation.”

Party on the farm

For Tony Schultz, the future of his farm is all about pizza and beer. Every Friday and Saturday night from the middle of April through the beginning of November, Stoney Acres hosts a popular pizza night about five miles north of Athens (population 1,100).

“I have three ovens going now,” said Schultz, who started with one brick oven in 2010, built another in 2013 and added a third in 2016. “I had a night where I had to make 450 pizzas. I had drunk people yelling at me at 11:30 at night, waiting from their pizza.”

Earlier this year, Stoney Acres added a 1,650 square foot beer hall. Schmidt worked with brewer Josh Wright to make pale ales and kolsch. He’s planting barley and hops next year to feed the beer, which is an extension of how he makes the pizzas using his own eggplants, peppers, Berkshire/Red Wattle pigs and beef.

“Pizza is the majority of my income now,” Schmidt said. “I still think of CSA as the backbone. It disciplines me as a farmer, and the farm work is based on CSA. But with tomatoes or basil or even arugula, I have pizza in mind when I plant.”

Schmidt believes the Wausau area can handle 500 CSA shares if farmers make a strong connection, “if you’re not a flaky farmer and don’t give everyone beets five weeks in a row.”

“If the CSA box is beautiful, bountiful and valuable, I think CSA can sustain because of the connection to the farmer and the unique experience,” Schmidt said. “It’s an exchange that transcends the purely economic. It’s deeper than that.”

Growing in a new direction

When Vermont Valley Community Farm announced that it would cease operating as a CSA farm at the end of this season, the letters flooded in.

“We’ve been getting lovely handwritten notes, lots of emails, and the first sentence is ‘we’re really sad you’re not continuing,’” said co-owner Barb Perkins. “They write how our farm was meaningful for their lives and impacted the choices they made, their children ... and then the last line is, ‘We are so happy for you. Congratulations.’”

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The Perkins family, Barb, David, Eric, Jesse and Jonnah at the Vermont Valley Community Farm in Blue Mounds. 

Barb and Dave Perkins are retiring on the strength of 24 years of CSA. To some in the industry, that’s proof positive that the model works.

“There’s been (a) question around, ‘Can small scale diversified models make it?” said Strader at FairShare. “Vermont Valley is a hearty example that it can be done well.”

The Perkinses moved from Madison to a farm near Blue Mounds in 1994. From the start Vermont Valley was CSA only, unlike many farms that also sell at farmers’ markets and wholesale. At its peak the farm served 2,500 families with 1,280 shares. (The Perkins family also has a separate seed potato business.)

“We set our price, we set our product, we set our delivery system, we get paid up front,” said Dave. “In other agriculture, it’s just the opposite. We’re going to fail with a crop every year, but it doesn’t matter because we’re going to have a nice box.”

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Tools and supplies in one of the work areas at the Vermont Valley Community Farm in Blue Mounds.

Even with flooding, drought, bugs and disease, CSA farmers say growing the vegetables is the easiest part. What’s harder is coming home from long days in the field to write newsletters and return calls, or more recently, keep up with posts to Instagram and Facebook.

That part is important, because a connection to the farm is CSA’s calling card.

“CSA is complicated. You’re not just farming,” said Dave. “You’re giving people a connection to where their food comes from. The vegetables ... they kind of don’t really matter? If you fail at the CSA connection, all you’re doing is selling a box.”

Barb was quick to add that if they did a bad job with the vegetables, of course, people would leave.

“People join for the vegetables,” Barb said, “but they stay with the farm because it’s more than the vegetables. They made this deep connection. They’ve connected with members of the family, the festivals they come out to, bringing their kids and their grandkids out so they can learn where their food comes from.”

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Career farmer Jesse Perkins at Vermont Valley Community Farm in Blue Mounds prepares a lunch in his parents' home. 

Vermont Valley set standards for how to do CSA in Wisconsin, and in doing so the Perkins gave their lives to it. The decision to end CSA was a tough one for the next generation — sons Jesse and Eric grew up farming, and it’s the only career Jesse has ever known.

“The farm isn’t really a job, it’s a life,” said Jonnah Perkins, who joined her husband, Jesse, on the Vermont Valley farm in 2009. The two live a few miles away from the Blue Mounds farm with their two young sons.

“It’s physically, emotionally, mentally, financially all-consuming,” Jonnah said. “We needed to decide, do we want to dedicate our lives to CSA? Or do we want to see if we can do another version of farming and explore these other opportunities?

“CSA was a decade of my life and 15 years of Jesse’s life,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like we gave up on it, it just feels like we’re choosing another way.”

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Jonnah Perkins, systems administrator and creative manager, joined Vermont Valley Community Farm in 2009. 

At Elderberry Hill Farm near Waunakee, Eric Elderbrock also chose another way. Early on, he was so excited that people wanted to join the farm that he let it get too big. While he felt proud of his share boxes, he worried constantly about what he’d have ready for them.  

“I would imagine worst case scenarios,” Elderbrock said. “Oh, no, the tomatoes have a lot of disease this year. Are we going to have enough this month that people will be satisfied?”

The elimination of health insurance rebates took its toll on how affordable the vegetables seemed to people. And he felt tension in balancing the glossy brochure view of farming with the “muddy, dirty, chewed-on” reality.

“From CSA members, there’s a lot of desire for this to be a positive experience, to imagine it as an idyllic beautiful place,” Elderbrock said. “There’s a lot of times when weather sucks and you lose a crop or there’s bugs. I always felt a tension on how to talk about things that were a struggle.

“There’s an image of farming you have to give to sell your product and compete.”

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Tim Zander, with Two Good Farms, (right) during the Eastside Farmers' Market at the Wil-Mar Center in Madison.

Does CSA have a healthy future? Most farmers say yes, even as it changes its look. Consumers still say they want fresh, healthy food, and as marketers get in the mix, identifying that gets harder.

“When you’re a member of a farm, there’s all this community-minded stuff — you get to know the farmer, you get a newsletter, you know the name of their dog,” said Strader. “But it’s also that you know you’re getting what you signed up for. You’re getting local, organic food.

“It is difficult to be assured of that anywhere outside of CSA.”

All the farmers in FairShare have been to grocery stores and seen their names on products that are not theirs, Strader said. It happens in restaurants where they sold something one time and their name is still on the chalkboard or listed on the menu.

This misrepresentation doesn’t have to be malicious to have a negative impact. When people believe the food they want is more available than it actually is, the farms that grow it lose.

“How do we help CSA members make informed and easy choices about the kind of food they want to eat? It’s not enough to say you want local and organic,” said Strader. “From what they can tell you can find it anywhere.

“We’re in the difficult position of helping people identify the authenticity of what they really want.”

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Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.