CSAs are far from new, with the earliest ones in the US dating back to the mid-1980s, but the number and reach of CSAs have expanded significantly in the past several years as managers and operators have increased their offerings and partnered with different organization to better tap into consumer demand for local food, according to a new study published April 3 by the US Department of Agriculture.
The report, which combines case studies and a national survey to create an expansive snapshot of modern CSAs and how they relate to the broader competitive food supply landscape, estimates the number of CSAs in the US in 2012 was 12,617.
While this is up only about half a percent from 2007 when the Census of Agriculture counted 12,549 CSAs, the USDA notes that “getting an accurate count on CSA businesses is more difficult than it may seem, given the expansion of multi-farm, food-hub and non-farm-based CSA delivery models” that have flourished in recent years.
The report also found the average growth in CSA participation grew 6% in 2013 to 127 from the prior year and another 11% in 2014 to 141 in 2014.
The vast majority of players in this space expect this trend to continue with 85% of those surveyed by USDA predicting demand to increase to some degree and 25% reporting that they expect demand to increase significantly. According to the USDA report, only 3.5% expect demand will decline in the coming years.
As the reach of existing CSAs continues to expand, it could place pressure on other retailers vying for consumers’ fresh food dollars.
What is behind the uptick
This growth can be attributed to several factors including, “new products, season extensions or year-around sales, scaling up through multi-farm partnerships, utilizing e-commerce, and connecting to new consumer segments,” such as those focused on health and wellness or those who are low-income, according to the report.
It explains that new product opportunities have emerged with the introduction of cheese, fish, flowers, wine, sauces and other custom-processed or co-packed products that attract and hold shareholder interest.
Season extension also is a “great opportunity,” that more than 70% of those surveyed by USDA said they employed. Technology, such as hoop houses, help extend production time and marketing potential, the report notes.
Partnering with schools, institutions and even wellness programs run by the government or area hospitals also are helping to generate demand for CSA subscriptions, the report found. For example, in Wisconsin the FairShare CSA Coalition and Physicians Plus teamed to offer members partial rebates based on household size for CSA subscriptions. This drove up shares from about 2,000 in 2005 to 9,700 in 2012, the report notes.
“E-commerce will likely play an increasingly important role in both logistics and marketing for CSAs,” the report also noted. “New firms like Farmigo and Small Farm Central are among a number of new private support ventures that help CSAs expand this means of shareholder and producer communication and trade.”
For example, the report noted that CSAs with e-commerce support networks reported larger share sizes averaging 213 shareholders and an average CSA income of $30,342. They also saw a 79% sales growth in 2014 over the prior year.
The future competitive landscape
As illustrated, “the CSA business model has evolved significantly, as entrepreneurs and market forces have opened opportunities for the implementation of the model in ways quite unlike the early CSA operations,” which concentrated on dedicated organic consumers whose main goal was to support farmers, according the report.
To continue on its current trajectory, the CSA market “will have to balance the economic benefits of various multi-farm and third-party aggregation strategies that necessarily place increased distance between the farm and the consumer and the challenges of growth limits of remaining very focused on a local community,” the report advises.
It adds that a major strength of CSAs over other retailers is their connection to the consumer at a more personal level. However, it cautions, “grocers, specialty wholesalers and other dedicated distribution firms have tried to make inroads into these markets and provide some degree of new competition with CSAs.”