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CSAs see interest spike, new members join

With many concerned about the security of the U.S. food supply chain as COVID-19 continues to spread, the local food movement has increasingly been in the spotlight.

That goes too for farms offering community supported agriculture, which saw heightened demand when stay-at-home orders went into place, causing many CSAs to sell out of shares weeks ahead of schedule.

Cattail Organics near Athens in Marathon County; Oxheart Farm near Hager City across the river from Red Wing, Minn.; and Raleigh’s Hillside Farm near Evansville in southern Wisconsin each sold out of their shares of produce for this growing season well ahead of schedule, and they’re far from alone.

“There is so much to love about CSAs, and these factors are just underscored by this pandemic,” said Carrie Sedlak, executive director for FairShare CSA Coalition, noting that farmers are adapting in a variety of ways to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, despite many farms expanding their CSAs from the previous year or allowing more members to join this season than they initially intended, there’s more interest than most CSA farms can satisfy.

“There’s absolutely more demand than we could meet,” said Lauren Rudersdorf of Raleigh’s Hillside Farm, which typically delivers to 400 customers but still sold out of shares a month earlier than usual.

Contributing to that demand increase is an influx of new CSA members.

“Once the state shut down, people started joining CSAs who hadn’t been in CSAs traditionally,” said Kat Becker, who offers a three-season CSA at Cattail Organics and regularly delivers 80 boxes a week among 125-135 shareholders during the main season.

With the surge in interest from COVID-19, now is CSAs’ “time to shine,” said Emmet Fisher of Oxheart Farm.

For many of those new members, this year might be their first experience working within the CSA model, which sees boxes of seasonal produce provided to shareholders for pick up on a regular basis (weekly, every other week, etc.) at neighborhood sites or the farm itself during the growing season.

Some new names this year may also be former CSA members who have decided to rejoin one or regular farmers’ market attendees deciding to take their support of local farmers to another level.

While the increase in interest can be a boon for CSA farms, especially for those who are able to convert at least a small portion of wholesale that might otherwise go to currently shuttered restaurants to CSA shares, farms also want to make sure that new CSA members know about the investment they’re making upfront and are sure that CSA is the right fit for them.

Some people find that they love the way CSAs are set up and the variety of produce they get over a season, Becker said, while others find the concept more challenging to work within.

Claire Strader, organic produce educator for FairShare CSA Coalition and UW-Extension Dane County, said that while she thought it was great that a lot of new members were coming to CSAs, there are several reasons why it might not be right for someone, not the least of which is cooking ability. While some CSAs allow a degree of customization of their boxes, produce at a given time is still typically limited to what is in season, and if someone doesn’t have the skill or interest to be able to cook with the assorted produce that they’re given at a particular time, they might find that the CSA model doesn’t suit them.

Farms in turn try to provide the education they think their shareholders, new or returning, need to have a successful CSA experience, including offering recipes, previews of what CSA members can expect in a given delivery, farm updates and individual advice as needed. FairShare CSA Coaltion also provides resources for those interested in learning more about CSAs on its website, csacoalition.org.

Offering strong communication channels and clear instructions is essential to capitalizing on new interest and keeping retention rates high in future seasons, Becker said.

Rudersdorf, who not only offers several avenues of engagement for their shareholders but also a podcast and class for farmers interested in starting a CSA, said that for CSA members, it’s important to “learn what your farmer’s language is” as well.

Socially distant deliveries

Strader said that some of the appeal of CSAs for new shareholders this year is that getting CSA boxes has traditionally been a socially distant process, which can be an attractive option in the midst of COVID-19.

Most CSA produce is delivered to drop sites throughout neighborhoods, such as grocery stores or residences that open their porches or garages as a pick up site, or available for pick up at the CSA farm itself. Boxes of produce can often simply be set out ahead of a scheduled pick up time, and shareholders can show up, pick up just their box, and indicate receipt of their box on a check off slip, with little to no face-to-face contact.

Even though the typical method of delivery of CSA shares already aligns closely with social distancing guidelines, many CSAs are still taking extra steps to fully ensure the safety of their customers.

At neighborhood sites, CSAs are testing options such as providing longer pick up hours, encouraging one person at a pick up spot at a time, trying different ways to avoid sharing pens when checking off receipt of boxes, and offering hand sanitizer, among other things to further reduce physical contact and closeness.

For Oxheart Farm, which has on-farm pick ups, they’re considering many options, including having hand sanitizer or hand washing stations, requiring masks or requiring shareholders to pick a specific time slot to avoid any crowding, as they continue to see how their current spring share distribution, which has operated similarly to a drive-thru, works before the main season begins in June, Fisher said.

Some farms have also started offering home delivery, especially aimed at populations that are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

“Farms are really talking a lot with each other about how to develop those systems,” Strader said.

Building local relationships

But becoming a part of a CSA is about much more that just having a reliable way to get produce in a time where local supply chains are being particularly counted on as many voice concerns about the stability of the food supply chain nationwide.

For Fisher, joining a CSA may be better described less as food security and more so as food sovereignty because the model creates “an investment in ownership by the people who are consuming the food.”

When customers are truly invested in the farm, they become more than just customers, Fisher said.

The shared risk of CSAs — when the farm does well or not as well, so do shareholders — is a defining principle of the model that benefits from having strong relationships between both parties.

As bad and good years balance out over time, Rudersdorf said, it provides an opportunity to further encourage long-term investment from members.

The relationship goes beyond that shared investment, though.

Whether it be in-person conversations during an on-farm pick-up; socializing at an on-farm event for shareholders; calling or emailing for information or advice; or reading emailed newsletters, farm updates and recipes, there are often many ways for members to engage with the CSA farmers.

“These elements create a strong bond between a CSA member, their food, and the family that grows that food,” Sedlak said.

Those bonds are a large part of what keeps CSA members like Lindsey Buscher, who is a member of Raleigh’s Hillside Farm’s CSA and its core team of members, invested in the farm year after year.

“As soon as we learned about what it means to be a CSA member, it quickly became an essential part of our lives and how we wanted to raise our two boys,” Buscher said.

“I love that we have been able to develop such a wonderful friendship with our farmers and the community that they (especially Lauren) have worked so hard to build and nurture and expand year after year,” she added.

Those connections, especially as customers become more invested the longer they are a part of a CSA, are mutually beneficial.

Sedlak said, “The contents of a CSA box are grown with incredible care and when you buy from a CSA you support your local economy in a powerful way, while also literally helping to ensure that small, local farms can survive and thrive.”

Rudersdorf added that as a farmer, it has been “really wonderful” to be able to build those kinds of relationships with CSA members over time.

Thirty-six questions

I click on the article “Want to Fall in Love with Your Partner Again? Science Says to Ask Them These 36 Questions” for the same reason I’m wearing pajama pants at noon on a Tuesday: I’m abiding by safer at home.

For much of his career, social psychologist Dr. Arthur Aron’s research focused on the science of love. His 1993 study “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness” explored whether intimacy could be developed between two strangers. One group of participants simply made small talk with a partner; the other group asked each other 36 questions that became increasingly more personal. For what in your life do you feel most grateful? If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be? Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it? Share an embarrassing moment.

Finally, these partners spent their last four minutes together silently looking into one another’s eyes. Aron reported, “When I came in towards the end of each set of questions, there were people crying and talking so openly.” You don’t need to be a scientist to figure out which group felt more bonded with one another after just 45 minutes. The results were used to better understand prejudice and to improve relationships between police officers and community members.

Only recently has the study been applied to igniting or rekindling romance. In 2015, Mandy Len Catron’s New York Times story went viral after her new love affair was inspired by Aron’s 36 questions. She wrote, “Ours was the kind of accelerated intimacy I remembered from summer camp, staying up all night with a new friend … But rarely does adult life present us with such circumstances.”

Until COVID-19. One recent Saturday night, my husband and I sit at our counter with drinks and ask each other some of Aron’s 36 questions. When shared with a romantic partner, these become part Cosmopolitan quiz, part pre-marital inventory. What do you value in a friendship? What is your most treasured or terrible memory? How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?

Bruce reads aloud, “If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?” He smiles: “I know what I’d want . . . for you.”

“Like you’d live to see it,” I tease back. I can’t help but think we’re in our own private “The Newlywed Game” though less cringe-worthy because it’s just the two of us.

I read, “Tell your partner what you like about them.”

Bruce answers, “You’re nice and so competent.” I groan. Is this a Yelp review of his favorite dental hygienist?

“Wow,” I say sarcastically. “That’s something.”

“It is,” he says. “You’re nice to everyone.” He adds, “And anyone who knows you knows a little bit about the good things you do, but I know them all.”

I tell him: “You always say the right thing to me or to your kids or even to strangers.” I tear up. “You know how to make anyone feel better.”

Next I ask, “Anyone living or dead you’d invite for dinner?”

“Besides you?” he responds. We’re pathetic.

“I’d have my parents over,” I say. I wipe my eyes as I describe seeing them one more time. “My mom is probably less critical now that she’s dead.” I laugh. Bruce didn’t know her; he has no idea how funny this is. Still, he chuckles.

Crises — like the recent pandemic — create waves of vulnerability that sometimes speed up the usual trajectory of our lives. Consider all of the instant and intense romances during wartime or the slew of children conceived within days of watching the Twin Towers fall.

One year from now we could easily count another baby boom or even an uptick in divorces. But as social distancing throws us together in ways we didn’t expect, what’s immeasurable is the evolution of not just romantic bonds but deeper connections among family and friends. Dr. Aron reminds us, “Relationship quality is the biggest predictor of human happiness, more than wealth or success.”

Not without risks, of course. Brené Brown, whose TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” has been viewed over 47 million times, explores the leap of faith it is to care intensely about someone. Instead of considering the risks (rejection, heartache), she recommends instead thinking, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.”

We all have moments when we believe we’re unlikable and downright unlovable. Fart like a raging vegetarian? Cackle when you’re tipsy? And that’s just me. Brown points out, “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness . . . it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

The scholarship of caring could easily be wrapped up by an old Eagle’s song: “You better let somebody love you, before it’s too late.” More appropriate these days may be Camus’s line from The Plague: “A happiness that forgets nothing.”

After another drink, Bruce and I take these 36 questions to a new level: we choose one and answer how we think the other might. I describe what Bruce would say about his “perfect” day. He responds, “That sounds a lot like many of our days.”

Bruce tells me what he imagines I would want to be famous for. He’s absolutely right. I tell him what I know he’d want: “You’re at a small jazz club and someone in the band calls you up on stage from the audience. You sing the crap out of a song, and the crowd goes wild.”

He says, “I got no secrets.”

As the night goes on, Bruce asks, “Shouldn’t there be questions on what annoys you about a partner? Or at least something you’d like to change?”

“We’ll add our own next time,” I say. We have only time and each other on our hands.

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COVID-19 relief questions remain

Efforts to get COVID-19 relief funds in the hands of farmers continue to progress, according to Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection interim Secretary Randy Romanski, though maybe not as quickly as many in the agriculture industry would like.

Gov. Tony Evers said May 12 during the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s Dairy Signal webinar that he hoped an announcement on how funding provided by the CARES Act would be distributed would be announced in a day or two.

However, during the May 14 Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection meeting, Romanski said meetings about the funding were still ongoing.

“We’ve fielded inquiries from organizations representing farmers ... and had discussions about how an aid package would be delivered, how quickly an aid package could be delivered and what is the best way to get dollars into the hands of farmers,” Romanski said. “What the delivery method would look like, there have been a variety of mechanisms that have been proposed.

“From the governor’s perspective and from ours and what we’ve heard from the industry, we would like to see the dollars get out as quickly as possible.”

The first stage of federal funding for COVID-19 relief included $1.9 billion from CARES Act funding. That money was initially itemized in response to needs in the health care industry, but came with limited federal guidance, Romanski said, leaving the state scrambling to figure out how the money can be spent.

“From the very beginning, the governor, realizing the challenges agriculture was facing as a result of COVID-19 response, indicated that he was supportive of using a portion of that funding to provide assistance to the agriculture industry,” Romanski said. “The governor has been engaged with us in conversations with the agriculture industry to determine how best to do that.”

Still, Romanski said, he remains optimistic an announcement on what portion of that $1.9 billion would be earmarked for agriculture and how it could be distributed would be announced soon.

Romanski said Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation has taken part in DATCP’s communications with stakeholders in the agriculture industry, helping the representatives understand just how important this funding is to farmers.

“It’s helped them understand the stress points and anxiety levels for Wisconsin agriculture,” Romanski said. “It’s also helped them develop ideas for delivering future aid to Wisconsin agriculture.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin has proposed legislation that would provide more flexibility to states when distributing relief funding, allowing the states to identify areas of need, Romanski said.

“Those resources with that type of delivery mechanism would really help Wisconsin and other states target those dollars where they could have the most impact,” he said.

Romanski said DATCP is continuing to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on ways to keep cash flow moving on farms in Wisconsin. On April 1, DATCP sent a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue asking the USDA to buy excess commodities and pass along details on the coronavirus assistance program that included those purchases and distribution to the food insecure.

Romanski said because of partnerships already in place between DATCP and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Pork Producers Association, Hunger Task Force, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Feeding Wisconsin, and others, he envisioned Wisconsin agriculture playing a strong roll in that distribution system.

That, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to have played out in quite the way Romanski would have hoped.

Of the initial $1.2 billion the USDA made available as part of the Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program, Farmers to Families Food Box Program, Wisconsin farmers saw only $9 million of that come their way.

In the Midwest region, Gourmet Gorilla, a school lunch provider based in Chicago, received a total of more than $27.5 million from the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, and, Romanski said, a wedding-event planning group in another state was awarded about $35 million.

“It appears that Wisconsin is underrepresented on that list, and that’s initially disappointing,” Romanski said. “There are a lot of questions. But we’ll continue to work with USDA to see what the plan is for the additional funding that’s available and what else we can do to see that Wisconsin plays a strong role in the food-distribution system.”

An old barn surrounded by farmland soaks up some sun near Newton in rural Manitowoc County.