Wis. community farm programs adapt amid the changing market

MILWAUKEE — Tim Huth loads up his truck with vegetables, meat and other food twice a week and drives it to two distribution sites in the Milwaukee area.

There, members of his organic community-supported agriculture farm in the town of Sugar Creek visit the truck to grab groceries.

There’s no checkout line. No money exchange. No inventory form to see what everyone has taken.

“You show up,” Huth said. “You basically take anything you want.”

His fledgling choice program at LotFotL Farm — “living off the fat of the land” — isn’t a free food pantry. Customers have to buy a membership plan at the beginning of the season, the Janesville Gazette reported.

But the program is designed to maximize flexibility for his CSA members at a time when this model of agriculture is struggling to retain customers.

Nationwide, the number of CSA farms fell from more than 12,000 in 2012 to about 7,000 in 2015, said Lydia Zepeda, a consumer science professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

State-specific data is not available for the same time period, but U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show a loss of 45 Wisconsin CSA farms between 2007 and 2012.

Huth started doing CSA in 2008 with 80 members. The business grew steadily for several years, peaking at 550 members in 2014.

Then membership plummeted.

“When we started, organic food was hard to find. It was often perceived to be a lot more expensive, so people came to the farms. That was really their option,” Huth said. “Fast forward to today, you can go to Kwik Trip and things there will have a certified-organic stamp on them.”

Even nonorganic operations have recently struggled to compete as local produce becomes more available. While it’s hard for anyone to argue that accessibility of fresh food is a bad thing, the changing market is forcing CSAs to adapt.

CSA came to the United States in 1986 when two New England farms launched operations. It gradually spread to the rest of the country and reached its peak popularity in the late 2000s, Zepeda said.

A typical CSA farm recruits members, who pay a fee before the growing season in exchange for a regular box of vegetables. A farm might offer weekly or biweekly distribution options or allow its customers to select the size of their boxes.

In the most traditional form of CSA, members’ boxes contain whatever vegetables happen to be ripe at that point of the season.

High machinery costs make it difficult for most aspiring farmers to grow commodity crops. CSA startup costs are far less, making it an attractive entry into agriculture, said Janet Gamble of Turtle Creek Gardens in Delavan.

Prepaid membership fees help, too. But the advantages of CSA have also led to an oversaturated market, she said.

“There was a huge surge of growth with lots of startup farms. All of them choose the CSA model because it’s cash up front,” she said. “You can cash flow your operations. It gives farms working capital. It’s a favorable type of business model.”

Gamble got involved in CSA farming in 1994 in Hartland and started her existing farm in 2010. Some of her customers are still with her from her early days.

But her membership base is getting older. She’s struggled to retain people or find replacements if they leave.

CSA members have to enjoy cooking and prioritize time to do so. And they cannot be picky eaters. If they get stuck with vegetables they don’t like, they’ll waste food and be more likely to drop out of the program, she said.

To help compensate for wobbly revenue, Gamble this year planted hemp and pumpkin oil seed, though the oil seed rotted after a heavy rainstorm.

She has also partnered with a handful of other local farms that buy and sell goods from each other. That way, they’re collaborating instead of competing to grow the same products, she said.

They’ve done something similar in the past, but this is the first summer they’ve been more conscious about working together. Further refining the network in the future could help the farms reduce labor and other overhead costs, Gamble said.

Most CSAs do have revenue streams besides member boxes. They often do wholesale, sell their food to restaurants or rent farmers market booths. Wholesale is Turtle Creek’s biggest moneymaker, said Gamble.

But those strategies don’t give farmers direct interaction with the people who eat their food. For many CSA farmers, that’s why they got into agriculture in the first place.

Lauren Rudersdorf started Raleigh’s Hillside Farm in Brodhead five years ago. One of her reasons for doing CSA, besides its financial viability and low risk, was to develop a relationship with her customers, she said.

She believes interacting directly with farmers and having a better understanding of the food system can help people lead healthier lives. Retention can sometimes be tough, but Raleigh’s started with eight members and has since expanded to 180.

The farm offers two box sizes and three delivery options to give customers more choices. Like Turtle Creek, Raleigh’s also partners with other nearby farms to offer apples, flowers, syrup and coffee, Rudersdorf said.

It’s easier for her and her husband to adapt. They’re young and so is their farm. Older CSAs might have difficulty changing established business practices, she said.

Despite some farms shutting down, Rudersdorf thinks CSAs still have a strong long-term outlook.

“I really think CSA is one of the best models for both farmers and consumers because it’s mutually beneficial for everyone,” she said. “There’s such beautiful community and possibility there.

“I know it’s changing, and I know it’s scary that it’s changing. But I really believe that to be true.”

Those changes helped Huth regain his optimism.

He started the choice program at LotFotL last year.

Depending on which package a customer buys, that person could grab fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs and bread during a weekly trip to the truck, Huth said.

The added food options come thanks to collaboration with other farms. It’s like a regular visit to the grocery store each time a person steps inside the 14-foot trailer — except that customers grab whatever they want, and they aren’t paying for each individual item.

Huth initially had customers fill out an inventory sheet so he could see whether the idea would work out financially. Some of his farm friends had warned him people would hoard food and cost him money, he said.

But it was a profitable move that excited members and improved retention.

He dropped the inventory sheet this summer. No need for rigidity in a system he described as “a middle finger to efficiency in exchange for a thumbs up to stability.”

Letting people make their own choices has reduced waste. And regularly seeing his customers face-to-face has restored the community aspect of community-supported agriculture, he said.

Huth still offers traditional boxes, but he plans to phase those out soon.

Choice membership is more expensive than boxes. It’s not unrealistic for Huth to drop the boxes and generate the same revenue he did when membership soared several years ago.

“We’ve just come out of three years of having the thing we spent seven years building shrink and shrivel and dwindle. It’s really difficult to carry any kind of momentum and excitement in a context like that,” Huth said. “This program, though, for us, it’s the thing I look forward to most during the week.”

“I feel a lot more optimistic now. This is probably the best I’ve felt in three-and-a-half years.”

The Janesville Gazette