I have been doing a lot of thinking about the future of CSA farms over the past few years. With CSA Day 2017 upon us, I wanted to take time to reflect on where we are, where we are going, and why we are doing this.
I am passionate about CSA farming because I see the special connection between farmers and eaters, but also see a path to an economically sustainable small-to-medium scale farm. I believe that economic sustainability is tied extricably to agricultural sustainability and that CSA is an important part of that puzzle because it allows a farmer to control his or her market with a degree of certainty and margin that no other marketing channel allow.
In addition, CSA is the most direct connection that an eater can have with his or her farmer and is a connection to the land that an eater can’t get in any other way. Through CSA, we imbue food with meaning, story, and connection. In a world of intractable problems, being a CSA farmer or CSA member is an act we can take to make life better for our land, economy, and community as a whole.
The CSA Market Right Now
However, CSA only touches a tiny minority of households. I was focused on this fact through the Local Food Marketing Practice Survey that was released in December by the USDA (hat tip to Elizabeth Henderson for emailing the data to me). This data is for the United States only, but I think the lessons can be applied anywhere in the world.
They list the total sales of all 7,398 CSA farms at $226,000,000 in 2015. In a lot of ways, I look at that data and think CSA has been a huge success in 30 seasons in the United States. This is a concept that has resonated with the public without any corporate, governmental, or moneyed interests behind it.
On the other hand, let’s look at that data in terms of the overall food marketplace.
If we take the average share price data from our CSA Farming Report of $450, then we get the number of approximately 500,000 CSA shares sold in 2015.
There are 124.6 million households in the U.S., so that means approximately 0.4% of US households purchase a CSA share each year.
So, despite the huge success of the CSA concept, it is still very niche. Looking at these numbers, I can’t believe that 0.4% is the ceiling of CSA.
I think CSA farming is so important for farmers and eaters, so I am setting a goal of growing the overall CSA market by 10x, to 5 million households, by 2030.
Even with this exponential growth of CSA, we will still be serving only 1 in 25 households in the United States. That is still a small slice of the population and I believe that is possible for us to get there.
However, what got us to 500,000 CSA members, will not get us to 5 million. We need to reimagine what CSA is to appeal to a much wider demographic and we need to get better at articulating the values of CSA. Your customers and potential customers work hard for their money too, so we must appeal to their values and their interests as we plot a way forward.
While we reimagine CSA, we can’t lose sight of what has made CSA such an impactful concept. I believe that if we simply compete with the grocery stores or the Blue Aprons of the world, we lose. CSA must be about more than a simple box of food.
What will this growth of the CSA market mean for your farm? What will this growth mean for the overall local food market? How do we get there?
I ask these questions, but I don't have the answers. I have some guesses. However, I believe that reaching this goal it is possible if we all work together on the local, regional, national, and international scale. I want to start the conversation with you because I believe that this growth is essential for a thriving local food economy and, I worry that if don’t radically grow CSA, it will become more niche and eventually wither on the vine.
I firmly believe that when we all do better, we all do better. Your success is my success.
I would love to hear from you: how do you feel about this goal? Is it reasonable? Do you have ideas on how we can get there?
I look forward to growing with you over the next 13 years!
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