Direct marketing of locally grown or raised farm products is proving to be an excellent way for "new" farmers to enter the business of farming. In late November, I attended the Great Lakes Community Supported Agriculture Conference in Orillia. This was the first time this type of conference has been held in Ontario. The Community Supported Agriculture or CSA model is a growing phenomenon given the interest by urban consumers in the local food movement.
Many new or soon to be farmers that I met at the conference had not grown up on a farm and were energetic and eager about obtaining farm land, often just 3 acres or less to begin a CSA program. They are passionate about environmentally sustainable agriculture, supporting their local community and growing food that directly connects them to the consumer.
CSAs are part of the Small Farm Movement that is growing across Europe and North America. Those that do not wish to have the opportunity to engage in large scale agriculture production are seeking out opportunities on small acreages. They mainly fall into three categories, new/young farmers; lifestyle farmers; and second career farmers. All these folks have different needs and expectations from a farm business perspective.
Those who did not grow up on farms gain practical farm experience through such programs as CRAFT Ontario (The Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training in Ontario); Farm Start; FarmLINK Ontario; Future Farmers Internship program; Farmers Growing Farmers; and Incubator Farms across Ontario and North America.
Many come to farming with very few capital resources including land, buildings, equipment etc. Some have set up unique arrangements with existing farmers to farm just a few acres on the farm which often includes the use of buildings and equipment. They start off experimenting with crops suitable for the soil type and local market. Initially, many sell at local farmers markets to test out what products the consumer is looking for, followed by building clientele and launching into a CSA.
The CSA model most commonly involves fresh fruits and vegetables. Shares are sold to consumers at the beginning of the year and containers of fresh food are delivered weekly during the growing season depending on yield and variety. CSA farmers consider the relationship they have with their customers the most important part of their business model. There is a great deal of trust on the part of both the farmer and customer. If it is a "bad" year e.g. too dry or too wet, both the farmer and the customer share the results of the harvest. Many CSA farmers have monthly newsletters or email correspondence with their customers informing them of what crops they intend to plant, how the crops are progressing, pick-up and payment arrangements, etc. CSA farmers report that their clients are very loyal and feel connected to afarm operation even though they often live in an urban area..
I came away from the conference very encouraged about anew crop of farmers emerging in the province through small farm agricultural practices. From a farm business perspective the lesson learned was the importance of marketing and customer loyalty in this type of farm model. Direct marketing comes with many challenges and opportunities, however CSA farmers are committed to facing the challenges and providing urban consumers with access to fresh farm products.