If you wanted to eat fresh, organic produce 15 years ago, your options were pretty limited.
You could go to a farmers market or a co-op or sign up for community-supported agriculture — often called a CSA program. It requires paying upfront for a share of a specific farm’s produce, typically delivered weekly throughout the growing season.
But, over time, big grocery chains and subscription box services have entered the same space, putting pressure on smaller producers, said Ryan Pesch, a community educator with University of Minnesota-Extension.
“More people are foodies today than they used to be. So maybe it’s popular to talk about ‘eating local,’” Pesch said. “But in this competitive landscape, that doesn’t actually translate into buying from local producers.”
Despite the pressure, there are more than 90 Minnesota farms with CSA programs working to remain competitive, according to Minnesota Grown farm directory.
And many of them are using technology to do so.
For TC Farm — a meat CSA run out of its founders’ home in Minnetonka; the farm is in Montrose — technology makes it possible for 15 farms to serve nearly 600 families in the metro area while maintaining tight quality control and providing options to customize orders.
Members can log in to a personal dashboard with attractive, visual controls that let them select what specific packages they want to receive, or what general percentages they want their order to follow. Options include pastured eggs, pork, beef, chicken, bacon, brats, deli meat, and a range of organic, pre-prepared dishes, like smoked chicken wings and (new this month) meatloaf.
“That’s really what this is about: How do we make the experience of getting better food easier?” said founding farmer Jack McCann, who grew up in Eden Prairie. “The whole point of technology in our industry is to eliminate barriers to good food.”
McCann was originally on the other side of the screen, reviewing each set of preferences and making package recommendations, but the task was incredibly time-consuming. Now, initial recommendations are automatically generated, defaulting to as much variety as possible.
“But if you really don’t like ribeyes, it’s easy to go in and pick a different box,” McCann said. “I don’t have to spend as much time on the computer and everything works better.”
TC Farm’s website also includes details about the group’s products, an informational video about their approach to farming, dozens of recipes, and a blog that includes updates big and small.
MAKING A CONNECTION
Social media gives any small business owner a platform to reach a wider audience. But when it comes to CSAs, it also gives farmers another way to connect with the people they’re feeding, said Pesch, who runs a CSA from his farm, Lida Farm, in Otter Tail County.
“It gets down to that original purpose behind CSAs to make an honest-to-goodness connection with the person who raises their food,” he said. “The original intent of CSA is a heck of a lot more than tomatoes in a box.”
Pesch has blogged weekly since 2006 — or almost, he isn’t as consistent off-season — and has found the long-format style lets his personal voice come through more clearly than on social media. He also uses MailChimp to create weekly newsletters for CSA subscribers.
For some farmers, blogging is a strain and gets in the way of time they need to spend out in the field.
“It’s tough when you’re a farmer and you have many things to do outside and you try to keep up with the website inside. It’s not really on the list of things to happen right now. You have to plant everything,” said David Klingelhutz of Klingelhutz Farm in Waconia. He added a website last year and was working to update it this year.
He personally finds Instagram and Facebook easier to use because you can snap a picture while out in the field and post it right away, Klingelhutz said.
There’s the added benefit that farming is often an inherently attractive subject, with well-manicured fields, mountains of winter squash and the occasional baby lamb.
“Farming is a more beautiful activity than most other small businesses,” Pesch said. “If I was an accountant, what would I take a picture of? A spreadsheet? Who the hell is going to share that?”
Klingelhutz has been using both social media platforms for three years and added a website last year, which he was working to update this winter.
A PLACE TO LAND
“The website seems to be something that you need,” said Reid Gysland of Jordan’s Gysland Brothers Farm, which debuted a new website this year.
Gysland and his brother, Todd, began vegetable farming about 45 years ago, renting out land to farm as teenagers and working from roadside stands. They now grow nearly 50 varieties of heirloom tomato, a half-dozen varieties of melon, multicolored beets, quirky potatoes and more. But they aren’t the most social media savvy, so Gysland’s son, Neal, spearheaded the website, Gysland said.
In addition to a blog, the website also includes an online signup option for the CSA, lists all the markets where they sell produce and shares brief bios of the family.
“We were just trying to reach out to let people know that we exist. We have a nice product,” Gysland said. “The main goal is just reaching out to people and making contact.”
Redemption Acres farm in Belle Plaine also debuted a website this year. It’s the farm’s third year in operation and services 17 families in Eden Prairie, Prior Lake, Bloomington and Lakeville.
Farmer Angie Welmers wants her CSA to appeal to busy moms with young kids who want to feed them well but also need to save as much time as possible.
Having a website gives those customers an easy landing place to get basic questions answered — when the CSA starts, how long it lasts, and information about add-on options.
“I was always on the phone, answering questions over and over, spreading myself so thin,” she said. “I wanted to just meet our ideal customers’ needs and have a place where they thought, ‘Yes. This is my farm. They get me.’”
Welmers also sends weekly emails with what to expect in the box, what’s happening on the farm, quick recipes and ideas for each vegetable — like how to prepare a zucchini so they can substitute for noodles in a lasagna, she said.
Green Earth Growers in Prior Lake sends out between 50 and 60 CSA boxes each week along with digital newsletters with storage tips and recipes tailored to each of the vegetables included, as well as one dish, like vegetable lasagna or California chili, designed to use a bunch of veggies at once, co-owner Jenny Hotz said.
CSA members also share their recipes via Green Earth Grower’s Facebook page, though Hotz hopes to encourage more interaction between members this year, with a specific page made for the group, she said.
“I think there’s a lot of potential for any business to use the internet well and connect with people,” she said. “It’s creating a community.”
Green Earth Grower’s website also goes beyond the standard sign-up options and program information, offering another feature for visitors: a quiz. The quiz “Is a CSA right for me?” goes through the benefits and drawbacks of the program in detail and challenges just how willing you are to try new foods. The results stress that “CSA is just one way of getting fresh, local food onto your table.”
“We figured there’s a percent of people who just want the information there. They don’t want to talk to anyone, they just want to make a decision,” Hotz said. “And we want a CSA to be a good fit. It’s 16 weeks. It’s expensive. We’d much rather have people be happy.”
The idea for the quiz came from a Facebook discussion group for CSA farmers across the country, showing how farmers can also benefit from participating in online communities, co-owner Jolea Gress said.
And then there are the pepper people. Green Earth Growers boasts a selection of hard-to-find, spicy peppers, including the Carolina Reaper and Trinidad Scorpion. An online presence allows aficionados of the fiery crop to find them, even if they wouldn’t otherwise think about Prior Lake as a prime pepper destination.
CSAs first appeared in the U.S. in the mid-1980s, steeped in the philosophy that the farm should be a place where eaters and producers and the earth are all connected, Pesch said.
The concept spread to the Twin Cities by the 1990s, but really started to catch on around 2005. Around 1999, about 15 CSAs serviced the metro, with less than 30 CSAs throughout the state. In recent years, more than 100 CSAs have registered with Minnesota Grown, and some well-established farms have dropped their CSA programs, unable to fill all of their memberships, he said.
“In my experience, around here, it’s primarily been a question about CSA saturation, especially around metro areas,” Pesch said.
Green Earth Growers in Prior Lake started its CSA program in 2008, right around the time CSAs “took off a lot” in the Twin Cities. “Now, it’s kind-of dialed back,” Hotz said.
“Everyone says home delivery kits are killing it (the CSA business) … grocery store delivery,” Hotz said. “You’re competing with the grocery store industry as a farmer, and it’s pretty cutthroat.”
But the appeal persists for both consumers and producers. For consumers, there’s the fresh produce, locally grown without chemicals; meat and eggs from healthy, pastured animals; and the personal involvement in a small business.
CSAs can also provide increased financial security for farmers, with an upfront cash infusion and the ability to plan ahead, and, sometimes, the opportunity to run a small-scale farming operation itself.
Redemption Acres sells its produce almost exclusively through its CSA.
“We know how much we need to grow for how many people every single week … There’s no surprises. There’s no waste,” Welmers said. “No showing up at a farmers market with 100 zucchini and only selling 10.”
TC Farm’s operation allows its farmers to keep their operations smaller than if they were sending the meat to market on their own, which lets them focus on the quality of food and the care of their animals while making a fair wage, McCann said.
“I wanted to know who I was raising for, how much should I raise … It was really the only way to make it work,” McCann said. “We can count on the revenue. We know what kind of food they want, and we can go from there.”
Whether shoppers opt to get their food through a CSA, a co-op, a farmers market, or traditional grocery store, Pesch just wants people to be aware of their options and the impact they can have.
“It doesn’t take a lot of people standing by one farm to really make it economically viable,” Pesch said. “I just want people to understand that they’re making that active choice. … They can make a significant impact.”