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During Pandemic, Community Supported Agriculture Sees Membership Spike


We've been reporting on losses for farmers as restaurants and hotels and schools closed, disrupting supply chains. But there's one farm sector that's flourishing - farms that deliver weekly boxes of fresh produce to your door or to a pickup site. NPR's Eric Westervelt has been looking into that.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: With demand and prices for some agricultural products down, some farmers have had to dump milk, plow under crops and toss perishables. Judith Redmond, a farmer in California's Capay Valley north of Sacramento, says a local journalist rang, asking to see the carnage.

JUDITH REDMOND: We had a reporter call here and say we want to see some produce rotting in the field and milk going down the drains. And I said, well, actually, that's not what's happening in the Capay Valley (laughter).

WESTERVELT: In fact, the opposite is happening on Redmond's 400-acre organic farm called Full Belly. They're working hard to ramp up production to meet soaring demand. The restaurant and farmers market sides of Full Belly's business have cratered. But their community supported agriculture, or CSA side, where members pay for weekly year-round boxes of fresh veggies, fruit and more, has jumped to 2,000 boxes a week.

REDMOND: We have doubled our CSA box numbers and quadrupled our add-ons like wheat flour, oils - like olive oil - nuts, even yarn.

WESTERVELT: CSAs have long been a kind of niche market, a support local and organic movement that has struggled to expand into the larger mainstream. But the coronavirus just might prove to be community supported agriculture's breakout moment.

EVAN WIIG: In all the time that we've worked with CSAs, which is several decades, we've never seen a surge as we have over the last few weeks.

WESTERVELT: That's Evan Wiig with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, which supports CSAs across California.

WIIG: It's sort of a heyday for CSAs. Farmers that were struggling to get enough members for the season, which is something we see every year, by the end of March, we're dealing with waiting lists with hundreds of people trying to get in.

WESTERVELT: It's not just California. Across the country, CSAs report growing memberships and waitlists. In the Connecticut River Valley, Sarah Voiland and her husband run Red Fire Farm outside Amherst, Mass. Voiland says the virus has exposed the vulnerabilities and fragility of the global agri-business supply chain. That's prompting people to rediscover CSAs and their fresh food that few hands touch from the field to your kitchen counter. That's an especially big draw, she says, at a time when a trip to the supermarket can involve masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer and stress.

SARAH VOILAND: The supply chain with CSA is very short. It's like, we harvest the produce, and you come pick it up. They don't want that many hands on their food right now, and we can offer that.

WESTERVELT: The new success brings new challenges. Many CSAs are now scrambling to find additional labor to plant, harvest and deliver produce to meet the surging demand. The federal government is now taking a page from CSAs. As part of its coronavirus relief, the Department of Agriculture has put out a call for $3 billion in contracts for farmers to produce and deliver fresh produce and dairy boxes to food banks and other charities to support the growing ranks of Americans who are hurting. The big question for CSAs is whether the renewed interest represents a fleeting reaction to fear or a more sustainable long-term shift. Judith Redmond with Northern California's Full Belly Farm says they're trying to make sure it's the latter.

REDMOND: People were just a little panicked. And what we're trying to do is turn it into a longer-term relationship with our farm and those members so that they see that there's a tremendous advantage in getting their food locally from people that they know.

WESTERVELT: And Redmond's also betting that once people taste fresh local produce, it's just hard to turn back.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.