At the end of 2019, farmers Krista Fayette and Stephen Rosenthal, owners of New Roots Market Garden in Marshall, decided to discontinue the community supported agriculture program they started in 2017 to focus on sales at three local tailgate markets. “We really didn’t have a lot of year-to-year returns and had to seek new members each spring,” Fayette says.
Then COVID-19 hit, dramatically compromising traditional food supply systems and putting tailgate markets into turmoil just as they were preparing to reopen for the season. Almost overnight, Fayette and Rosenthal turned to Plan B — or Plan CSA 2.0/2.0.
“We had been planning and planting solely for markets, and then no one knew if we would have markets,” Fayette recalls. New Roots began hearing from former CSA members as well as potential customers who were totally new. “We got to nearly 40 members almost right away, so we started planting for a CSA.”
At that time, small farms all over the country experienced a similar surge in demand. Those with established CSAs scrambled to meet an influx of members; those who grew exclusively for weekly markets or restaurants pivoted to create the systems and product diversity needed to support CSAs.
A year later, as the world returns to some sense of normalcy, the desire for the reliability and convenience of a CSA is holding fairly steady, and Western North Carolina growers have refined systems and made adjustments accordingly.
Every farm creates its own CSA model, but in general, members pay in advance to receive one box of fresh produce a week or every other week for a set number of weeks. CSA members don’t want a box filled with just sweet potatoes and turnips or zucchini and yellow squash, so offering a wide array of products is key. To expand its range of offerings, New Roots began partnering last spring with Black Trumpet Farm to add mushrooms to its CSA.
Fayette and Rosenthal also decided that with the pandemic causing so much general uncertainty, they would operate the CSA on a month-to-month basis rather than offering a 36-week share. “People really appreciated that option, and we ended up with a waiting list. It gave us a lot of flexibility, which everyone needed last year,” says Fayette.
In addition to the word “pivot,” “flexibility” was a heavily used addition to the pandemic lexicon. Danielle Keeter and Mark McDonagh, who operate Mighty Gnome Market Garden on three-quarters of an acre in Madison County, started their CSA in 2017 and love the one-on-one weekly connection with members, says Keeter. Client feedback soon inspired the pair to add an online shopping option for CSA customers who prefer to choose their own produce. By 2019, they had a thriving CSA of about 20 members, were doing a couple of weekly markets and had erected five hoop houses to grow more produce and help extend their season.
That investment proved prescient in spring 2020, Keeter says, when an instantaneous jump in demand nearly doubled Mighty Gnome’s CSA membership. “People were terrified about going into grocery stores, markets were uncertain, people were really concerned about food security and wanted to lock in fresh food for the season,” she explains. “It really bolstered our CSAs, which was comforting to us because it was superscary for a while.”
Melissa Harwin and John Kunkle established Highgate Farm in Madison County as a market garden and homestead in 2006 with 4 acres under cultivation. In 2019, they invested in infrastructure that helped meet the demands of a crisis no one saw coming.
“We put up a barn with a loft, and that made it possible for us to go from 24 members of our CSA in 2019 to the 73 we ended up with in 2020,” says Harwin. “For the first time since we started our CSA in 2016, we had indoor space for processing produce and packing boxes, and that made all the difference.”
The barn also provided storage space for the produce boxes themselves, another unexpected challenge. “We had always reused the boxes we pack the produce in, but with COVID, we couldn’t do that anymore,” Harwin recalls. “We went from 24 members reusing boxes to 73 members with new boxes each week.” Highgate ordered eight pallets worth of ¾-bushel waxed boxes and stored them in the barn.
Aside from supply chain concerns and safety anxiety, farmers say restaurants being closed and people working from home led to more people cooking, and many of those home chefs were not living by vegetables alone.
In March 2020, Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview had 140 members in its meat-based CSA; within two months, that figure leapt to over 400 members. “We had to create a whole new inventory space in our walk-in freezer to accommodate the numbers,” says CSA director Jennifer White. “Our butchery switched gears to build a CSA inventory, and an online subscription process was created to make payments easier.”
White says that this year, as the world tentatively makes steps toward “normalcy,” membership numbers have dropped somewhat but are still well above pre-pandemic numbers at 335. The farm has contracted with Leading Green Distributing to deliver shares and plans to purchase a refrigerated truck to take CSA boxes to markets this summer.
New Roots, Mighty Gnome and Highgate also planned — and planted — for an anticipated healthy tailgate market season and for maintaining the continued consumer embrace of CSAs in 2021. Harwin says that in mid-April, Highgate still had spots open for its CSA, but inquiries were coming in every day. And she is ready for tomato fans. “This year we will double the growing space and number of plants for slicing tomatoes, because people love them,” she says.
Keeter says this spring is not quite as frantic and stressful for Mighty Gnome as in 2020, and she intends to cap CSA membership at 40, up from 34 last year. “Our highest goal has always been to make the best CSA, so until we get more land — which we’re working on — we’ll keep our numbers at a level to achieve that.”
New Roots will be back at three markets this year and has delayed its previous plan to suspend its CSA, which is capped at a membership of 30. “Our members were so grateful in 2020, we felt guilty even considering dropping it,” Fayette says.
To find a local CSA program, check out ASAP’s Full Share guide at avl.mx/936.