Community supported farms fill a food niche in Minnesota

SPRING VALLEY, Minn. — Community-supported agriculture farms in the Midwest have been putting fresh boxes of produce on the doorsteps of their urban and suburban neighbors since the 1990s. The volume of farmers trying their hand at the cooperative-based business formula has mushroomed, and CSA-grown boxes are getting delivered in all types of neighborhoods today.

CSA farms — otherwise referred to as subscription farms — vary in organization and the products they deliver. All of them are sustained by members who subscribe and pay upfront for a share of what’s produced in a growing season. Members get a portion of every week’s harvest, which can be either delivered or picked up.

The methodology of CSA operations is simple: to provide growers with much needed capital at the beginning of a growing season, and to allow for community members to know exactly where their food is coming from.

“I farm in the CSA model because I think food is one of the most intimate tangibles we have on this planet,” said Norm Gross, a farmer with Earth Dance Farm in Spring Valley. “CSA helps personalize that intimacy, and helps bridge the gap between the grower and consumer.”

According to Brian DeVore of the Land Stewardship Project, collecting subscribers before the growing season allows for CSA farmers to get the necessary cash flow for running the operation, and allows farmers to concentrate solely on the crops instead of the marketing end of the business.

“Although a lot of farmers do it, it can be hard to raise vegetables knowing then you have to go to the farmers market each week and try to sell what you produced,” DeVore told Agri News . “With the CSA model, you can plan ahead since you sold your shares ahead of time.”

CSA farms have been operating in Minnesota for more than 20 years, said DeVore, and he credits LSP for helping to get the CSA movement rolling.

Many farmers who graduate from LSP’s Farm Beginnings training program end up starting their own CSA operations, he said. And LSP manages one of the more thorough CSA indexes in the Midwest, which they’ve been updating for the last 25 years, DeVore said. In the last directory, which covers Minnesota and western Wisconsin, there were 65 CSA farms operating the region.

DeVore said that for at least the first decade of their existence in Minnesota, CSA subscribers exclusively came from urban and suburban communities. But recently he’s noticed that CSA membership has started to diversify.

“The trend that I’ve seen in the last few years that’s kind of exciting is that we’re seeing more and more CSA memberships coming from outstate Minnesota, smaller communities and rural areas,” DeVore said. “So the word has really gotten out to people in other parts of the state.”

CSA farms have also diversified in what they deliver. The majority of CSA operations offer only vegetables and sometimes fruit, DeVore said, but more are now offering other goods such as honey, eggs, cheese and more. There are also CSAs that reach out to livestock farms nearby to partner with and sell their meat.

LSP Bridge to Soil Health organizer Sarah Fillius worked for one of the oldest CSA farms in the state, Philadelphia Community Farm in the St. Croix River Valley. She said while CSA farms seems to be growing in the Midwest, they are also facing competition from the emergence of corporate food box delivery services like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and others. There’s also more farmers markets popping up in communities.

“There’s just a lot of different new ways for people to get their vegetables,” Fillius said.

DeVore said another hurdle for CSAs is a number of first-time members expect the boxes to contain partially prepared meals.

“That first year, they’re a little surprised the food does not come pre-packaged, cut up and prepared for you,” DeVore said. “It’s whole foods, so you have to figure out how to prepare, store and deal with food that’s fresh from the garden. It’s a learning curve.”