Edible Monterey Bay

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ON THE FARM: KNOW YOUR FARMER

As organic food becomes more widely available, CSAs struggle to survive


Photos at Live Earth Farm this page courtesy of the farm; opposite, photo at Monkeyflower Ranch by Julie Cahill

It’s hard to believe that I had never eaten a rutabaga until recently. In fact, I had never eaten beets, turnips or parsnips—ungainly root vegetables that are transformed into sweet, savory goodness when roasted with a little olive oil and salt and pepper. I had no idea what I was missing, until I joined a CSA.

CSAs—short for Community Supported Agriculture—are particularly good at coaxing their customers into trying produce that they never would have attempted otherwise. You could say that CSAs have turned several generations on to the wonders of chard, fennel and other worthy vegetables that were not in their mothers’ repertoires.

But beyond that, “it gives a customer direct access to the place where food comes from,” says Tom Broz, founder of Live Earth Farm in Watsonville, which has offered a CSA for the past 23 years. “The community of customers and our relationship with members is at the heart of it.”

The CSA concept, developed in the early 1980s in Massachusetts, was originally devised to strengthen that all-important bond between farmer and consumer. It is a simple idea: Customers pay in advance for a share of the harvest, giving the farmer capital to work with—sort of like a loan. The payback: a box or basket of vibrantly fresh produce each week or each month.

CSAs also foster a deeper connection, an opportunity for customers to actually see where their fruits and vegetables are grown, and to get to know the land and the farmer in an intimate way. In Japan, a similar system has been called “food with a farmer’s face.”

But as the organic movement has grown and become more mainstream, it’s getting harder to find and keep CSA members. Competition from retail groceries that now sell more organic products, like megastores Walmart and Costco, and meal kit services like Blue Apron, have drawn down the customer base.

Attracting and retaining customers was the hot topic at a CSA workshop held in late January as part of the EcoFarm Conference at Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove. Farmers talked about everything from using Instagram and Facebook for promotion to how to make it easier for food stamp recipients to become CSA members.

Broz says the challenges and uncertainties of CSAs are something fairly new for farmers. “It used to be kind of a stable market for us,” he says, noting that 80% of Live Earth’s revenues used to come from its CSA, but due to membership declines and the farm’s consequent diversification of its income, only 40% of the farm’s revenues now come from its CSA.

“It’s a rapidly changing market,” admits Julie Morris of Morris Grassfed Beef in San Juan Bautista, which recently notified its customers of changes the ranch needed to make to its CSA. “Producers need to adjust or they won’t survive.”

Morris and other local CSA farmers have noticed that their membership numbers grew steadily through the early 2000s but plateaued, or even declined, in the past few years. Part of the problem for Morris Grassfed is making its prices competitive, even though processing meat locally with artisanal butchers means spending more for this type of quality.

That’s why Morris and her husband Joe are making some modifications, which they’ve outlined in an open letter to customers on the Morris Grassfed website: only processing pre-sold beef, for instance, and a less-frequent delivery schedule. In addition, all orders for 2018 had to be placed by Feb. 28—a big change from the previous rolling order dates.

Some farmers have reduced their CSA schedule, such as Route 1 Farms in Santa Cruz, which put its winter CSA on hold. Other farmers are doing away with their CSAs altogether, such as Monterey County-based Serendipity Farms and Fogline Farm in Santa Cruz.

Serendipity owner Jamie Collins decided to make some changes when she saw that her CSA membership was declining, and putting together CSA boxes was requiring a full day that took away from being in the fields. “It’s such a tough business anyway that I figured I might as well just do the parts that I like,” she says.

Her solution: establishing a “virtual farm stand” page on Facebook, where she posts whatever excess produce is available, takes payments via PayPal and offers pickups at her farm or a farmers’ market. She says her sales this way have matched what she was previously making from the CSA; she also sells at farmers’ markets and directly to restaurants.

Caleb Barron of Fogline Farm says he was forced to move when the landlord declined to renew his lease, and he couldn’t find a new property where he could raise both vegetables and chickens. “Chickens have always been the main aspect of the farm and the most profitable, so I chose to find land that worked for chickens and not veggies,” he says. Fogline’s focus is now on serving customers through local farmers’ markets.

Small farmers who offer CSAs are at a disadvantage these days, says Live Earth’s Broz. “It’s not easy, and it’s pretty labor intensive,” he says. “Labor is a real issue.” Another challenge is that “it is not an economy of scale—you can’t scale it up because you’ll lose that personal connection to the customer.”

Yet another concern is that people are no longer content with what one farm can offer and are demanding more choices. One CSA responding to that challenge is Farmhouse Foods/Eat with the Seasons, the one I order from. President/CEO Becky Herbert began bringing in items from other small farms around San Benito County as a way to keep the family CSA going when her father became ill and had to stop farming for a few years. Now, its 1,200-plus members can select produce from more than 20 farms, as well as organic cheeses, meats, breads, herbs and more, through an online ordering system that streamlines the process.


Some of our past and present CSA operators: Tom Broz and Julie Morris. Photos top from left, by Ted Holladay and Julie Cahill; bottom by Margaux Gibbons.

Live Earth has also been a leader in offering customizable CSA shares, giving its members the opportunity to opt for a pre-selected box or go online each week to make choices from seasonal fruit and vegetable options and add-on pantry items from other local producers like bread from Companion Bakeshop, pastured eggs from Sol Seeker Farm and pasta made with locally grown wheat from Pie Ranch; both Eat with the Seasons and Live Earth use Farmigo as their online ordering platform.

Farmigo rolled out new software in December to make customization easier—a far cry from the CSA model of yore, but one that’s increasingly sought. “The CSAs we see growing are the ones that have morphed their model over time to be more convenient for the consumer,” says Farmigo CEO/founder Benzi Ronen, who adds that farms offering choices are more likely to thrive, as well as those providing a home delivery option. (Locally, J&P Organics takes CSA boxes to its customers’ doors in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties)

Farms are also finding ways to offset slumping CSA membership. For instance, Live Earth Farm has developed a wholesale program over the past five years through which it sells directly to local restaurants, independent grocery stores like New Leaf and Staff of Life, and the online marketplace Good Eggs in San Francisco. It has also added another farmers’ market in Mountain View to those it attends.

Selling to the competition is an additional option—Live Earth sold produce to Blue Apron in 2016 and 2017, and has dabbled with large distributors such as Coke Farm.


Some of our past and present CSA operators: Becky Herbert and Caleb Barron. Photos top by Margaux Gibbons; bottom by Larry Gerbrandt.

Alternative distribution systems that require less commitment than the typical CSA have also sprung up to connect eaters with those who produce their food, like the “meat club” run by Jack Kimmich of California Kurobuta, which offers pastured heritage pork, and the periodic seafood deliveries made by Ian Cole and Charlie Lambert of Ocean2Table, who let customers know by email each time a catch comes in.

No matter the model, one of the most valuable services provided by CSAs—and one of their best retention tools—remains the bond they can foster between producers and their customers. Live Earth Farm hosts regular events to educate the public about organic farming and the importance of knowing where your food comes from, as does Garden Variety Cheese, the dairy and meat CSA operated by Rebecca King. And that’s something that you can’t get from a supermarket or a meal kit: “It’s not a business. It’s much more than that,” says Broz.

“I think farmers need a cheerleader so they do not lose the faith in this being an outlet,” says Herbert. “I firmly believe every farm can offer a unique CSA membership based on what sets them apart from other growers.”

“Farmers are tough, dynamic and creative,” says Collins. “If anyone can figure it out, they can.”

Kathryn McKenzie, who grew up in Santa Cruz and now lives on a Christmas tree farm in north Monterey County, writes about sustainable living, home design and health for numerous publications and websites.

MONTEREY BAY AREA CSAS

Photo by Margaux Gibbons

Did you know you there are local CSAs that will provide duck eggs, bread, goat yogurt and coffee for your breakfast? Sustainable seafood and pastured pork, beef and lamb as well as prepared foods for your lunch and dinner? And herbal bitters for your liquor and medicine cabinets?

Each of our local CSAs is different and the variety of products they offer continues to expand. To find one that’s uniquely right for you, read the detailed descriptions that follow:

Blossom’s Biodynamic Farm
Corralitos
831.246.1137
blossomsfarm.com

Infused body oils, herbal bitters, tonics, teas, tinctures, salves, cough syrups, superfoods. Local home delivery. $475/year or $125/quarter.

Bounty of the Valley
Greenfield
831.594.1065
bountyofthevalley@yahoo.com

Organic produce. Free local delivery and pickup sites in Monterey County. $25/week in south county, $30/week in Salinas/ Monterey Peninsula.

Evergreen Acres Dairy
Tres Pinos
831.628.3736
evergreenacresdairy.com

Organic raw goat milk, goat cheese, goatgirt, kefir, duck eggs, soups, other seasonal items. Pickup at sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Cruz County, and at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. $50/share.

Farmhouse Foods/Eat with the Seasons
Hollister
831.245.8125
eatwiththeseasons.com

Organic produce, eggs, breads, preserves, grassfed and pastureraised meats, and prepared foods such as salads, dips and soups. Pickup sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, south Santa Clara County, San Benito County and north Monterey County. $20- $53/week plus add-ons for eggs, meats, cheeses, breads, prepared foods and other items.

Blossom’s Biodynamic Farm
Corralitos
831.246.1137
blossomsfarm.com

Infused body oils, herbal bitters, tonics, teas, tinctures, salves, cough syrups, superfoods. Local home delivery. $475/year or $125/quarter.

Bounty of the Valley
Greenfield
831.594.1065
bountyofthevalley@yahoo.com

Organic produce. Free local delivery and pickup sites in Monterey County. $25/week in south county, $30/week in Salinas/ Monterey Peninsula.

Evergreen Acres Dairy
Tres Pinos
831.628.3736
evergreenacresdairy.com

Organic raw goat milk, goat cheese, goatgirt, kefir, duck eggs, soups, other seasonal items. Pickup at sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Cruz County, and at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. $50/share.

Farmhouse Foods/Eat with the Seasons
Hollister
831.245.8125
eatwiththeseasons.com

Organic produce, eggs, breads, preserves, grassfed and pastureraised meats, and prepared foods such as salads, dips and soups. Pickup sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, south Santa Clara County, San Benito County and north Monterey County. $20- $53/week plus add-ons for eggs, meats, cheeses, breads, prepared foods and other items.

Garden Variety Cheese
Royal Oaks
831.761.3630
gardenvarietycheese.com

Yogurt, feta and cheese made from all-natural sheep milk; pasture- raised, free-range lamb and pork. Pickup at San Francisco Bay Area and Santa Cruz farmers’ markets, Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove and at the farm. $500/six-month, adopt-a-ewe program.

H&H Fresh Fish Co.
Santa Cruz
831.462.FISH
hhfreshfish.com

Sustainably caught local seafood. Pickup sites in Santa Cruz County and the South San Francisco Bay Area. One meal per week is $10 single, $18 couple, $30 family; two meals per week are $18/$30/$60.

High Ground Organics
Watsonville
831.254.4918
highgroundorganics.com

Organic fruits, vegetables and flowers. Pickup sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. $25/week plus $10 flower share.

Homeless Garden Project
Santa Cruz
818.554.7919
homelessgardenproject.org

Organic fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers. Pickup at the farm. $650 for 23 weekly pickups at farm, $475 for u-pick. Additional $115 for 4-week extension through November.

J&P Organics
Salinas
831.578.9479
jporganics.com

Organic fruits, vegetables, flowers and eggs. Home delivery to Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. $25/week for fruits and vegetables, $30 for box plus eggs, $31 for box plus flowers, $35 for box, flowers and eggs.

Live Earth Farm
Watsonville
831.763.2448
liveearthfarm.net

Organic fruits, vegetables, bread, pastries, eggs, pantry staples. Pickup sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. $25/week with variety of add-ons.

Lonely Mountain Farm
Watsonville
650.504.5976
lonelymountainfarm.com

Organic produce, flowers, goat milk soap. Pickup in Aptos, San Francisco and Los Gatos. $25/week for produce, $12 for flowers. Goat milk soap $50/season.

Mariquita Farm
Watsonville
831.706.6799
mariquita.com

Organic vegetables. Pickup in San Francisco, East Bay and South San Francisco Bay areas. $15 minimum order per week, $30/week “mystery box.”

MEarth
Carmel
831.624.1032
mearthcarmel.org

Organic vegetables, fruits, herbs. Pickup at Hilton Bialek Habitat. $300/12-week season.

Morris Grassfed Beef
San Juan Bautista
831.623.2933
morrisgrassfed.com

Grassfed, artisanally butchered beef. Free delivery for half-split. $9.29/pound for half-split, $9.89/pound for aged half-split. $150 minimum order.

Real Good Fish
Moss Landing
831.332.1234
realgoodfish.com

Sustainably caught seafood. Pickup sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, South San Francisco Bay, Hollister, and Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and Monterey counties, $14-$88/week, depending on size of share.

Route 1 Farms
Santa Cruz
831.426.1075
route1farms.com

Organic produce and flowers; add-ons of coffee and other pantry staples available. Pickup sites in Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. $476 individual, $756 family/28-week season.

UCSC Farm
Santa Cruz
831.459.3240
casfs.ucsc.edu

Organic vegetables, fruits, herbs. Pickup at UCSC Farm and Westside Farm & Feed. $560/22-week season.

About the author

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Kathryn McKenzie, who grew up in Santa Cruz and now lives on a Christmas tree farm in north Monterey County, writes about the environment, sustainable living and health for numerous publications and websites. She is the co-author of “Humbled: How California’s Monterey Bay Escaped Industrial Ruin.”