CSAs/Mix and Matches, Mobile Markets/Pop Ups and Market Boxes..oh my…

I just chatted with a market rock star in Virginia (think of a very historic town with one of the oldest universities in the US)  about  their interest in exploring a market box program. Here is a snippet of their thinking:

Many farms do not accept SNAP. The reason I really want to do a multi-vendor market box is because we have the ability to accept SNAP. Our SNAP customers are unlikely to travel to a farm that does a CSA because transportation is a real problem. If we offered a CSA-like experience for those unable to travel, we could support our local farmers, and take the burden of having to staff a farm stand, advertise, etc. We would also be helping our lower-income neighbors increase the fruits and veggies in their diets.
The leaders in the community are considering a mobile market or pop up market in the areas identified as food deserts. The problem is, farmers won’t make enough money to make it worth their time, and the business model  brings little money to the farmer if they have a 3rd party selling. I know with the non-profit status and mission statement supporting small farmers, the farmers will keep a higher percentage of their money if it is managed by the market.

Couldn’t have said it better.

This led to a discussion on the difference between Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and a market box program and so I thought I’d expand on it here.

I am so glad to see markets testing different models of getting more local goods from their vendors to more people. If so, it is time for markets to clearly define their terms. This will avoid confusion, which might cause damage to the original and still thriving CSA movement.
From the USDA site (this definition is from 1993* but it is still in force at this point):
In basic terms, CSA consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. Typically, members or “share-holders” of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer’s salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm’s bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production. Members also share in the risks of farming, including poor harvests due to unfavorable weather or pests. By direct sales to community members, who have provided the farmer with working capital in advance, growers receive better prices for their crops, gain some financial security, and are relieved of much of the burden of marketing.

I think the distinction of pledging early and direct support to the farm(s) is key: to me, the term CSA means that money (or labor) is given directly to the farmer(s) as an investment made by the shopper in that farmer or that cooperative’s capacity for that year. It allows farmers to have the cash up front to invest in their crops and to have steady customers who do not have to be enticed back weekly with expensive or time-consuming marketing.
The other key characteristic is the shared risk: if the crop fails, the original share is not normally returned to the shopper, although many farmers offer credit for future years or just offer smaller amounts of products in the same year.

On a side note, I was lucky enough to tour and to hear the story of one of the very first CSAs in the U.S. started in 1985: Indian Line Farm in South Egremont, MA, created by farmer Robyn Van En and her community. When Robyn died tragically young only a few years later, the community (assisted by the EF Schumacher Society, now called the New Economics Institute) helped to convert it to a community land trust in order for farming to continue on the property. Through the land trust, the buildings to the farmers. The reason for that is in land trusts, any and all of the improvements can be owned and sold, including soil improvements, which is a fascinating idea. The land trust then put a 99-year lease in place for the use of the land for farming. Robyn was later honored by the same community when her image was used for the ten dollar bill for the beautiful Berkshare (Massachusetts) currency:


CSA farms use a mix of direct marketing and farm-based services which create profound and deep relationships with their members as described in the example above. Many CSAs have even added ways for more shoppers to gain membership, including asking members to underwrite the costs of membership to low-income neighbors, or offering  shares in exchange for help in picking, boxing or delivering. In some other cases, volunteer hours are expected as a member requirement to assist the farmer and to expand the human capital (knowledge transferred, skills gained) benefits of seeing how a farm works.

Part of the issue may very well be that the term CSA is quite general. Truly, even a market could be construed as community supported agriculture if one expects the term to include its meaning, which we have conditioned farmers market shoppers to do! In response, it may be time for CSAs to define their own terms more closely and create a schematic to offer clarity among the versions used. I might suggest Farm Share Program or Farm Membership or even Community Farming…

• Of course, there are multiple farm CSAs that combine their efforts to offer one share and split the production and profits. In these cases, the money is still going directly to the producer.

Mix and Match
•The market-style CSA is still member-based but allows shoppers to choose their products from among the bunches while attending a market. Here is how Local Harvest describes these:

..”increasingly common one is the “mix and match,” or “market-style” CSA. Here, rather than making up a standard box of vegetables for every member each week, the members load their own boxes with some degree of personal choice. The farmer lays out baskets of the week’s vegetables. Some farmers encourage members to take a prescribed amount of what’s available, leaving behind just what their families do not care for. Some CSA farmers donate this extra produce to a food bank. In other CSAs, the members have wider choice to fill their box with whatever appeals to them, within certain limitations. e.g. “Just one basket of strawberries per family, please…”

I see an excellent version of this when I return to my original hometown of Lakewood, Ohio. The farm that offers this service at this market (there are other vendors stalls as well) previously posted a share amount AND a dollar amount for each of the goods on display, but now that the farm has enough subscribers, they do not sell to non-subscribers at the market any longer. The market is used as a share pick up spot with their subscribers able to choose the bunch they would like and to barter away what they do not want in their share. It also ostensibly helps the other vendors by bringing traffic to the market. The market is managed by the entirely volunteer LEAf organization; the pics are from my last visit in July:

IMG_20150709_172017 IMG_20150709_173529

• CSA farms may simply offer share pickup at a farmers market when the farm also sells directly to shoppers there. Some markets ask for an added fee or percentage of sales from vendors who also do CSA pickups, some do not.

Market Box Programs
•In the market box programs some third-party, whether a market organization or a distributor business, makes up a box of goods from local producers, adds a fee or a surcharge for one easy pickup at market, at a separate drop off site or even delivers in some cases. In the case of third-party market box or aggregate programs, some markets are asking for a fee for using the market for the staging and collection of goods.

I saw a version of this supporting a “food security” market some years back where a local corporation bought up to a dozen market bags each week. The market packed those up at the start of the market and so those guaranteed sales for the vendors meant they could stay profitable at this very small market and still serve the small community nearby.

Pop Up Market

Interestingly, this has become the new way to describe projects for getting food to many locations rather than using the term mobile market. I sense that the term shift is partly because of the lack of sustainability (both in program and in funding terms) reported by many organizations running mobile markets. I couldn’t find a definition on the USDA site for mobile markets but found this example on their site on the mobile markets page:

Beans & Greens, which operates in the Kansas City metropolitan area, was created specifically to address the issue of food insecurity and food deserts on the local level. The organization uses a truck to visit various areas in the region and sells fruits, vegetables, meats, and cheeses. Customers on the SNAP program are able to double their benefits on items purchased at the mobile market.

However, when you go to their site, Beans and Greens is now explained as an incentive program operating at area farmers markets. That very shift – if indeed they have stopped using the truck – may illustrate why the the term “pop up” is being used in the place of the old term of mobile market.

In my estimation, the market box and matching incentives are a better fit for small/family-farm market vendors than sales to a mobile market and certainly more cost-effective for the organization to manage. My old organization in New Orleans thought long about doing a mobile market in the months after Hurricane Katrina, but as described in the Greenpaper that I wrote, decided that it lacked a cohesive long-term strategy and was likely to pull our NGO into mission drift. And we felt strongly that we could stretch the farmers market mechanism much more than had been done so far: that we could serve low-income communities with a type of a farmers market that offered civic engagement and business sustainability to the vendors if we kept at it.

In some cases, the new version of mobility is along the lines of what we suggested in New Orleans at the end of our research: instead of using buses to bring some food to residents, with partnerships, we could use buses to bring residents to the food. This begins to build the relationships necessary for long term behavior change and with enough visits, may ultimately encourage those vendors and market organizers to invest the time and energy to build another market. An example of using buses to transport visitors is seen in Georgia at this market with a partnership of Wholesome Wave Georgia, Athens Transit, the Athens Farmers Market and the Office of Sustainability at the University of Georgia. It’s interesting; I remember an food assessment done years ago in Austin that came to the same conclusion and added a bus line for a neighborhood without close access to a grocery. The line took them to the next neighborhood every half hour with stops at the stores and markets. I thought then that public transportation in more places would come to the same conclusion:
that working with public health advocates and entrepreneurs to add lines and stops is a win win, but it seems to have not happened. Maybe it’s finally time.

I am sure that examples of successful** truck mobile markets exist and i hope to hear of them as well in response to this post. I did recently hear of one in Oregon run by Gorge Grown that was discussed with other markets at the Washington Farmers Market Association 2015 meeting.  If my memory serves me well (and I will expect to be corrected by them if necessary), the focus for the truck was in anchoring small rural markets with goods bought by regional farmers, but with other vendors in attendance. The truck reduces its offering or leave entirely if enough goods were offered by those other vendors. The organization estimated the costs run in the thousands each year and relies on donations and sponsors.

So, I’d love to hear about examples of any and all kinds of purchasing programs done at or through markets. I think markets are just beginning to discover the power of the farmers market model by creating new models and I am glad to see so many new strategies being tested at them.It has long been a goal of mine to find the funding to study all of these kinds of programs used in direct marketing channels and publish their unique and shared characteristics. Maybe with enough examples from the field, that research can begin.

•This description or definition of Community Supported Agriculture is excerpted from 1993 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): An Annotated Bibliography and Resource Guide (DeMuth, Suzanne. Agri-topics no. 93-01. Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, September 1993).

**The definition of success in any food system initiative is, of course, fascinating to me as someone who is deeply involved in the creation of the FMC-led Farmers Market Metrics Program. Like any farmers market, I’d hope for mobile and market box programs to adopt the same multiple impact set of metrics that we are developing for markets. Certainly, the FMM work can be easily applied to these efforts with only slight tweaking.


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