FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — More retailers are partnering with Community Supported Agriculture programs to provide their shoppers with opportunities to buy fresh, local produce straight from the farm.
In a typical CSA program, subscribers purchase a “share” of a local farm during the off-season. In return, subscribers receive weekly boxes of produce during the harvest months, typically fresh produce picked within the previous 24 hours.
As CSA programs have gained popularity with consumers looking for more local food options, retailers have taken notice — giving CSAs the opportunity to use their stores as a convenient drop-off point for the farms, or by organizing their own programs.
In fact, this February, after testing a pilot initiative in five stores, all Florida Whole Foods Markets began offering free use of their sites for weekly CSA share drop-offs and pickups.
To some produce managers, this move might seem counterintuitive — why invite competition into your store? But, supporting CSA and farmers' markets at stores shows community support, said Ron Pelger, president and chief executive officer of RonProCon, a Reno, Nev.-based produce and floral consultant.
“It's like wearing a sign in the store, every clerk wearing a sign that says, 'We support local farmers. We're good people.' Then the community, being the shoppers, they recognize those things and they say, ‘That's good for us,’” he told SN.
Pelger added that any produce department sales losses caused by working with a CSA would be negligible, and the partnership could be positive for both the grower and retailer.
Weekly CSA pickups consistently bring people into stores. Since the content of each week's “share” depends on the harvest, those subscribers will probably want to pick up some other produce or Center Store items to create a meal. In some cases, CSA programs can even support retailer produce promotions.
In its pilot program at a Scottsdale, Ariz., Whole Foods, Duncan Family Farms offers a Salad-A-Day CSA share bag, which includes a profiled green of the week, complete with a description of the health benefits of the green, its history and uses, and a recipe with a shopping list for the CSA's subscribers to bring into the store.
Patty Emmert, locally grown business development manager at Duncan Family Farms in Goodyear, Ariz., said the farm tries to incorporate Whole Foods' weekly produce promotions in the recipes. Emmert sees the CSA pickup as only a supplement to shoppers' fresh vegetable purchases.
The farm has to educate customers that locally grown seasonal items are limited to the season and growing area. “It's not meant to replace your produce grocery shopping,” she said.
The Duncan Family Farms program offers prepaid four-week trial subscriptions, or allows weekly payments with automatic debit withdrawals with no time commitment.
CSAs can also offer educational opportunities for interested shoppers. Teena Borek, whose farm Teena's Pride, Homestead, Fla., participated in the Florida Whole Foods CSA pilot program, said that the theory behind her CSA program is to let people in Miami learn more about where their food is grown. The farm holds monthly farm visits and tastings for subscribers.
“It's very rewarding to talk to families who get the fresh produce every week, and they're very appreciative of the farmer,” Borek said.
The CSA also drops shares at Farm Stores locations in Miami, as well as nongrocery specialty retailers. Borek said it is wonderful when stores like Whole Foods can partner with a farm to bring their customers “ultra-fresh,” local produce.
Kings Super Markets, Parsippany, N.J., took a different approach, organizing its own CSA program in conjunction with its weekend farmers' market. Last year, an eight-week pilot program tested at one location was a success. Kings now plans to expand the CSA offering to between five and 10 additional locations this year.
Paul Kneeland, vice president of produce and floral at Kings, said the retailer is excited to support farmers.
“I believe it's the trend of the decade, so I still think it's going to grow even more,” he said. “We're going to continue it and find new ways to satisfy those needs and help our consumers be socially responsible.”
The staff at Kings is still adjusting the details of the program based on pilot results. For example, after receiving customer feedback, Kings plans to waive an administrative fee associated with the pilot program.
Kings' CSA program is unique in that shoppers are not required to purchase a “share” in advance, so there is no time commitment. Instead, Kings' customers can buy single items from the farmers' market, or for $25 participate in the CSA program for a day. In exchange, customers receive a reusable bag filled with $30 worth of produce — a $5 savings. In addition to fruit and vegetable items, Kings plans to incorporate locally made cheese and bakery products as well.
Not all retailer-CSA partnerships have been smooth sailing. Last spring, SN reported on the new Farm2Fresh CSA program offered by Dorothy Lane Market. Last August, the program discontinued its share drop-off at Dorothy Lane Market due to funding difficulties. DLM said it would give refunds to customers who had prepaid Farm2Fresh, according to the Dayton Daily News.
For retailers who want to enter a CSA partnership, Pelger emphasized the importance of food safety. Retailers may be held accountable for the safety of food that is picked up at one of their stores, so when a program is launched they should be vigilant from the beginning, Pelger said.
“Questions should be asked of a farmer, and we know those questions today as retailers,” he said.
Pelger suggested retailers ask how long the farmer has been farming, what items she plans to grow and what methods will be used to grow them.