As the coronavirus wreaks havoc on Wisconsin’s agriculture economy and snarls supply chains, Chippewa Valley farmers say a farm-to-table program is gaining in popularity: “farm shares,” or community supported agriculture programs.
“The Chippewa Valley is a really special place for a diversity of food products and producers,” said Caleb Langworthy, who owns Blue Ox Farm in Wheeler along with his wife, Lauren.
Farm CSAs typically sell shares of their crops directly to consumers each growing season. Customers pick up — or are delivered — a box of vegetables, fruits, meat or other farm products regularly throughout the season. Some CSAs even hold farmers market style events, where consumers can visit the farm and pick out the products they want to take home.
Wisconsin farms have been hit hard by the novel coronavirus’ economic impact. The state’s dairy sector saw a $66 million loss in milk revenue in February and March; 25% of the Wisconsin hog market was lost as of May due to restaurants closing; and the state’s beef industry is projected to lose between $180 million and $200 million this year, according to a May 20 report from the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. Potato, cranberry, soybean and especially corn growers are also projected to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in 2020.
But small local farms in the Chippewa Valley say their CSA programs are seeing a boost this spring.
“This year we’ve had more demand for produce,” said Shawn Bartholomew, who farms at Chippewa Valley Produce in Elk Mound, which offers a seasonal CSA of fresh vegetables, fruit and herbs. “We are sold out for our summer CSA. I’ve never gotten people still emailing us this late in the year. People are still reaching out to ask if there are shares available.”
Blue Ox Farm has also seen a run on its beef CSA shares this year, Caleb Langworthy said: “We’re sold out of our beef already, which is a little unusual for us.”
Blue Ox Farm offered a traditional vegetable CSA for about 10 years, but for the last three years has switched to lamb and beef CSA shares instead. Each year customers can sign up for a share of their flock.
Typically Blue Ox Farm CSA customers pick up their boxes at a public location, but as more people stay in their homes due to the virus, Caleb Langworthy has dropped boxes off at customers’ doorsteps instead, and has taken payments using online apps like Venmo or PayPal.
“Since they’re getting their share from us all at once, we really think that’s a service we can provide,” he said.
Sunbow Farm in Eau Claire — the longest-running CSA in the Chippewa Valley, beginning in 2004, according to owner Kristina Beuning — has taken on 125 families this year, instead of its usual 100. The demand has been “overwhelming,” Beuning said in an email to the Leader-Telegram.
“Our members have been extraordinarily generous and we now are able to add, free of charge to them, four families who lost jobs because of the pandemic,” Beuning said.
Bartholomew and Chippewa Valley Produce owner Dusti Larson have offered up to 110 CSA shares for the several years since they started the program. Each share lasts about 14 weeks, and the farm usually designates a weekly time and public location for customers to pick up their boxes, Bartholomew said. In boxes, customers may get broccoli, green beans, heirloom tomatoes, cantaloupe, watermelon, basil, radishes, potatoes, onions and more. The CSA continues even after the weather cools, with produce that can withstand frost — kale, spinach and carrots included.
Customers enjoy the produce’s freshness — veggies, fruits and herbs are harvested either the day before or the day of delivery — and that Chippewa Valley Produce doesn’t use herbicides or pesticides, Bartholomew said.
“Our produce is grown at the highest standards we have,” he said. “We eat the produce, and our kids eat the produce.”
Sunbow Farm grows all-organic produce — a wide range of spring, summer and fall crops — and also doesn’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizer, Beuning said. Its boxes are custom; members can use their dollar value to pick out what produce they want each week.
Selling produce, meat or other products through a CSA might be a supplement for some operations, but it gives farmers a better profit margin than selling to larger companies, Caleb Langworthy said.
“That increase in margin is really helpful, because nobody’s really making it rich farming,” he said. “That difference of making the 20% that a store might mark up is just really crucial to a farmer’s bottom line.”
By buying a CSA, most people understand more deeply the relationship between their food and their land, Langworthy added.
“I’m going to produce a different tomato than a farm down in Eleva, because we’re in different soil and different climates,” he said.
CSAs find success in tough ag economy
There’s been an upside for farm CSAs to the economic fallout caused by COVID-19, Bartholomew said.
“I think with COVID-19, people want to secure their food source,” he said. “By supporting your local community by buying into a farm share or CSA share … but you’re helping your local community and you know it’s going to be here.”
Bartholomew believes more people have begun starting their own gardens during the pandemic, since potting soil, fertilizer and seeds are in especially short supply this spring.
“Everything’s been delayed,” he said. “It’s a negative for us, but it’s great to see people are out there having their own gardens and trying to eat better food.”
CSA owners said they see plenty of repeat customers year after year, and enjoy the chance to meet their customers at farm days.
“They just want to come out and see what we’re doing … and experience it firsthand,” Caleb Langworthy said.
Caleb Langworthy credited “a really tight-knit CSA” community in western Wisconsin for Blue Ox’s success.
“In our little world we stand on the shoulders of giants,” he said, especially praising Spring Hill Community Farm in Barron County, which has been in business since the 1990s.
“It’s not just about growing produce,” Bartholomew said. “Anyone can grow produce. It’s about building that community of people that support farming.”