By Pam Walker
As the pandemic has rendered shopping at grocery stores risky, and with some people hesitant to shop even at open-air farmers markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) and related types of local food subscription services are flourishing as never before. In New Mexico and throughout the nation, CSAs are providing safe havens for food buyers, as well as safety nets for farmers who had previously relied heavily on sales to restaurants and farmers market customers.
Prior to the pandemic, fewer than ten CSAs and the like were identified annually by the New Mexico Farmers’ Marketing Association, according to Sarah Grant, co-founder and staff member of the association. Currently, the association’s website lists sixteen. In my research for this story, I have verified a total of twenty-six. (The USDA does not routinely track CSAs. Some organizations do, but erratically, and the term “CSA” is so elastic that what, exactly, is being counted is generally open to question.)
“In crisis comes opportunity,” says Ralph Vigil, a Pecos farmer and chair of the New Mexico Acequia Association. “I see this as a unique opportunity for small farmers to tap into customers they haven’t had before and for customers to start experiencing a CSA. If we organize around small growers, we can survive stress like this.”
Vigil’s CSA is based on the traditional model developed in Western Europe in the mid-twentieth century and introduced to the United States in the 1980s. In this model, the farmers of a single farm, typically in advance of planting, sell portions or “shares” of the coming harvest to customers who provide seed money and participate in the farm’s fortunes, good or ill, for a specific season. Customers get their produce at pick-up times and sites specified by the farmer, which might be the farm or off-farm “drop sites” or a combination of both. Some CSAs offer home delivery. At its core, a single-farm model of shared investment is designed to foster an ongoing partnership between farmer and customer, as well as create a community rooted in a particular farm.
Vigil grows vegetables on certified-organic acreage irrigated by an acequia. He started his CSA in 2018 with five members. Last year, he had ten, and this year, thirty. “A big bump up of 300%,” he notes. His shares for 2020 are all sold, but he offers weekly bags of selected produce, available by online pre-order and delivered to pick-up sites in Santa Fe, Las Vegas, and Pecos.
“I’m flexible because I want to reach everybody. I want to provide certified organic food to underserved people,” he says. “It brings me joy and happiness to see the land heal and people heal and myself heal as well.”
Many of his customers volunteer to help with farm work, and he welcomes them, but not simply for their work. “I like to help people understand what it means to get food from an acequia and to understand the environment that acequias and ephemeral streams create for wildlife and people,” he says. “Cada mente es un mundo. Every brain is its own world. Mutual understanding is necessary.”
Vigil sees a bright future for CSAs beyond the pandemic. “To me, the sky’s the limit,” he says. “Some people get real competitive, but I don’t see other farms as competition. I see them as people serving more people.”
Like Vigil, Clare Price, a single-farm CSA farmer of many years, now in La Puebla, has experienced substantial growth in her Western Family Farm CSA, from sixty members last year to ninety this year. “Eating locally is one of the most radical and efficient actions that we can take to combat big issues like climate change, globalization, isolation, and indifference,” Price says.
As COVID-19 has disrupted industrial food production and distribution and exposed this system’s brittleness in contrast with the greater resilience of local food systems, she sees expanded opportunities for CSAs to involve a widening range of people in local food cultures. “One aspect of COVID-19 has been shortages at the stores, and it really brings home the fact that food comes from somewhere specific. It doesn’t just appear, and behind that is a massive system of distribution that ultimately relies on the labor of individuals,” she says. “We are all land-based people. We are simply no longer familiar with the land that keeps us alive. Eating locally offers us a connection with our home, our landscape, our water, and our community.”
Organizing and managing a traditional, single-farm CSA on top of the constant challenges of farming are daunting tasks that many farmers find unappealing or unfeasible or both. And so the classic model has been adapted to create other types of local food subscription venues. One common type is collective CSAs (sometimes called collaborative CSAs). In it, a number of farmers join together to create a multi-farm CSA and sell shares of their combined produce to subscribers, with pick-ups at farms or other sites in the community or both.
Another common modification of the classic CSA is local-food subscription services based on aggregating and distributing local food to local buyers. These services, sometimes called “aggregated CSAs,” do not usually entail direct farmer-to-customer interactions or the creation of community around particular farmers and farms. For these reasons, the term “CSA” for aggregation and distribution businesses is confusing and inappropriate. A more accurate term, which I use, is “local-food subscription service.”
Collective CSAs vary in structure, some organized by farmers, some organized by an umbrella organization. La Cosecha CSA is a project of the Agri-Cultura Cooperative Network, in Albuquerque. Created in 2012, it is probably New Mexico’s oldest collective CSA. Nine South Valley farms, original members of the cooperative, are the primary source of the produce, supplemented by produce from forty additional New Mexico farms allied with Agri-Cultura. La Cosecha serves three hundred families, a number that has remained stable from year to year, mainly because most shares are subsidized through grant money, according to Anita Adalja, produce and distribution manager. As long as grant funds stay the same, so does the number of families served. But with the pandemic, La Cosecha’s waiting list has increased along with the number of farms interested in joining the Agri-Cultura alliance.
The Santa Fe Farmers Market (SFFM) collective CSA is new, and has experienced sudden, rapid growth. A project of SFFM, it began in July, 2019, about eight months before COVID-19 spread to the U.S. It operated into the fall of 2019 with twenty-six subscribers and about twenty SFFM farmers providing produce. Debbie Burns, CEO of SFFM and organizer and manager of its CSA, intended to open the 2020 CSA in July, but customer interest for an earlier start surged as virus infections did.
Burns and her staff got busy enlisting SFFM farmers for an earlier start and opened on April 1, with seventy-five subscribers and a waiting list. Only a week later, they had enough produce for seventy-five more subscribers, for a total of 150, with yet another waiting list. By May 1t, they had 200 subscribers and capped it there until the end of June. By fall, Burns expects the CSA to reach 250 to 300 subscribers, with twenty-five to thirty SFFM farmers supplying produce.
Burns thinks that CSA growth will outlast coronavirus anxiety and social restrictions. “People get hooked on good food and love picking up fresh produce and not having to shop for it,” she says. “Pickups are contactless. Customers drive up to the market pavilion, and staff and volunteers put bags in their cars.” She also thinks that market shopping will increase, too. “The CSA has already brought new customers to the market, people who initially didn’t want to shop but really like the product and want to find more of it directly from farmers during the market.”
A couple of farmer-organized collective CSAs are even newer than the SFFM CSA, established just since March in response to customer demand related to COVID-19. One is Better Together, based in Albuquerque. Co-founded by Chispas (which continues its own one-farm CSA), together with Farmshark, Ironwood, solarpunk, and several other farms, Better Together includes a total of eleven growers and serves seventy-five families. It quickly reaches capacity with each new enrollment period. Casey Holland, Chispas Farm manager, thinks that customer interest will continue, and she is eager to go on with both the Chispas CSA and Better Together. “It’s going great! Weekly sales are up for all farms, and we are having great retention rates with each round of CSA shares!” she says. “It is amazing to watch families grow, lives change, and build relationships with people eating fresh food from the farm.”
The second collective CSA created this spring is the Crisis Collective, which serves about forty families in the Santa Fe area. Organized and managed by La Mesilla farmer Annie Krahl, eleven northern New Mexico farmers provide the produce. “They are all really jazzed to participate,” Krahl says. More than half of the customers are not regular farmers’ market customers. “Picking up their weekly share of produce at a drop site seems safer,” Krahl says, “and more convenient. No parking obstacles.”
Not only are new CSAs being organized and existing ones growing as a result of COVID-19, but privately owned and operated local-food subscription services have added many new clients, too.
Squash Blossom Local Food, based in Santa Fe and serving the Santa Fe area, buys and aggregates produce from twenty-four farms in the Santa Fe and Albuquerque areas throughout the year and sells it to clients through online purchases of weekly “Blossom Bag Subscriptions.” No up-front payments are required, and new customers are always welcome and can choose from five pick-up sites, plus home delivery. Nina Yozell-Epstein, who founded the business in 2015 and manages it, reports an unprecedented increase in demand with the pandemic and describes it as a shocking growth spurt. “Our Blossom Bag subscribers increased eight-fold in a matter of three weeks from when the virus hit New Mexico,” she says. “It required me to hire more staff, rent a larger packing facility, and launch home delivery all in the blink of an eye.”
Albuquerque-based New Mexico Harvest (formerly Beneficial Farms) is a similar local food subscription service. Owned and operated by Thomas Swendson for about five years, it aggregates and distributes produce from around the state and sells it to clients who create online accounts, entailing up-front fees. Clients either pick up their produce at drop sites or have it delivered to their homes. Swendson reports a 300 percent membership growth and a 500 percent growth in the volume of its produce purchases from farmers each week as the pandemic arrived in New Mexico. Before the pandemic, New Mexico Harvest worked with forty producers but now is working with fifty-five. “While we anticipate some decrease in demand post-COVID, we are actively building strong retention plans,” he says. “Our member retention rates have historically been relatively high, and we are trying to carry on that trajectory.”
The agility and humaneness of small-scale farmers and local farm and food communities in responding to sudden changes has always stood in sharp contrast to the inhumane intractability of an industrial food system concentrated around fewer and fewer agrochemical corporations. The COVID-19 pandemic has only sharpened this contrast. Though the surge in CSAs and other local food subscription services is driven by anxiety just now, perhaps many new to local farm and food communities will gradually feel their anxiety give way to an appreciation of the many benefits—nutritional, ecological, cultural, and economic—and stick around and join in reforming policies to expand this kind of agriculture and extend it to all.
A GUIDE TO NEW MEXICO CSAs AND OTHER LOCAL FOOD SUBSCRIPTION SERVICES
In this time of rapid change and uncertainty, the best way to get current information about CSAs and other local food subscription services is to visit their websites or find them on social media or both. Compare the various options to determine what is suitable for you. If the CSA or other service you want is currently full, ask to be on a waiting list, maybe more than one.
Albuquerque Area CSAs
- Agri-Cultura Cooperative Network La Cosecha CSA
Subsidized subscriptions are available to qualified applicants.
- Better Together
- Chispas Farm
- Loose Leaf
- Silver Leaf Farms
- Matt’s Mushrooms
- Rail Yards Market
RYM Veggie Box accepts SNAP/EBT customers and participates in the Double Up Food Bucks Program.
- Schwebach Farm
- Tierra Sagrada
- Whole Heart Farm
Albuquerque Area Other local food subscription services
- C4 Farms raises grass-fed and grass-finished beef in Tierra Amarillo and delivers by online pre-order to customers in the Santa Fe and Albuquerque areas.
MoGro accepts SNAP/EBT customers and has sliding-scale fees
- New Mexico Harvest
New Mexico Harvest accepts SNAP/EBT customers and participates in the Double Up Food Bucks Program.
- Skarsgard Farms
Santa Fe Area CSAs
- Crisis Collective
- Green Tractor Farm
- Malandro Farm
- Monte Vista Farm
- Pollination Project
- Reunity Resources
Reunity offers a farm card in various amounts and a weekly online pre-order system.
- Revolution Farm
- Santa Fe Farmers’ Market
SFFM CSA accepts SNAP/EBT customers and participates in the Double Up Food Bucks Program.
- Western Family Farm
Santa Fe Other local food subscription services
ADDITIONAL FARMS AND INFORMATION
|Business Name||Tierra Sagrada Farm|
|Business Type||Farm / Ranch|
|What are you offering?|
|Address||New Mexico Bernalillo|
|Additional Information||Farm fresh produce & pastured poultry|