As the demand for locally-grown food grows in the United States, more farmers are bypassing the middleman to sell directly to customers. And they're doing it using a simple business model which provides guarantees for both the farmers and the people who buy their food.
Most Americans buy their meat and produce from a grocery store or other third party, far removed from the original grower or producer. However, with the community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, customers pay farmers a subscription fee up front - usually in late winter or early spring - for a share of produce or meat they’ll receive throughout the year.
It's the business model Margaret Evans and her partner Kevin Brown chose for her Groundworks Farm. Located in the northeastern state of Vermont, the farm is one of a growing number of CSAs nationwide.
In Vermont, the number of farmers entering into community-supported agriculture (CSAs) agreements with customers tripled in 2010.
Evans says selling shares helped lessen the risk of starting a new farm.
“We saw that this was a way that, not only could we do something we love, but we could make a business out of it," she says. "And a lot of people have it in their heads that they can’t really make a living farming and we believe we can. And the CSA model is a way that we can do it on a smaller scale, too.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are nearly 13,000 CSAs operating in the United States. In Vermont, the number of CSAs grew from 28 in 2000 to nearly 100 in 2010.
“I can think of about 15 small vegetable farms that have started up in the last two years in our county," says Tara Kelly, executive director of the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL).
The nonprofit organization aims to expand new markets and improve distribution and processing for local farmers in central Vermont.
Groundworks Farm CSA members Jill Maynard Nolan (in white) and Meredith McCartney Smith pick up vegetables.
“Just in the last couple years, we’ve had an explosion of newer farmers in our area that are responding to the fact that there’s an increased number of people interested in local food,” says Kelly.
Nancy Gondella, of Wallingford, Vermont, is one of them. That's why she became a Groundworks Farm client.
“I think it’s nice to support local businesses and also to have fresh produce, locally grown," says Gondella. "So I thought I’d give it a try and, just based on the things that I got today, it seems pretty cool.”
The Hathaway family has been raising beef on their Vermont farm for three generations but didn't offer a beef CSA until last year, in response to customer demand.
Owner B.J. Hathaway says it’s been good for both his bottom line and his customers' wallets.
“I mean, it’s 24 months from the time these little guys are born to when that beef is available for sale. So it’s not like chickens that you raise in six weeks or pigs that are ready in nine months," he says. "It’s a long-term deal here and to manage that whole chain, a known set of sales has value to me and in that way I can pass along a little bit of a price advantage to the consumer.”
Vermont leads the United States when it comes to per capita direct-to-consumer farm sales - purchases at farmer’s markets, farm stands and CSAs.
Those sales totaled nearly $30 million in 2007. But it’s still only 2.5 percent of the total food purchased by Vermonters.
Nationwide, direct annual sales per farm average only $8,000, leaving plenty of room for growth.