CASA event stresses ways to grow community
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — At Future Harvest CASA’s 21st annual conference, three dozen sessions spread across seven tracks addressed the conference theme of “Farming for Our Soil, Livelihood and Community.”
During an afternoon session on the event’s first day, Tim Woods, University of Kentucky Extension Professor in Agribusiness Management and Marketing led a panel on “The Changing Face of CSA” (Community Supported Agriculture) and how the CSA Innovation Network is creating models and programs to further “build awareness of the value of CSAs to consumers.”
Woods opened the panel with a short presentation on how employer wellness programs and wellness vouchers could expand CSA communities and thus the involved farmers’ livelihoods by tapping into the “increasing importance of wellness in the workplace.” Noting “diet-related interventions are tough to find,” Woods said that employer-sponsored wellness vouchers for CSA participation “introduces a tool for the involved employees to think about food’s impact in their lifestyle.”
“The opportunity also creates a much wider ripple effect,” Woods continued. “For instance the CSA network provides a community connection on the employer’s behalf and demonstrates their corporate social responsibility.”
As a further example, Woods turned to his own employer, the University of Kentucky, where, inspired by the success of the Wisconsin Fair Share Coalition, the idea to use wellness vouchers grew out of their student farm’s CSA. In this particular instance, “their wellness voucher program also helps student training at the UK student farm,” Woods said.
Woods did acknowledge in both his initial presentation and later when discussion opened up to the session’s attendees that there are challenges to building a CSA coalition. These include finding “good CSA producers who are reliable,” employer recruitment, new employee shareholder recruitment and employee retention from year to year.
For instance, Woods explained oftentimes to recruit employees you find yourself “talking to wellness and benefits personnel who don’t understand what a CSA is.”
A further challenge arises from the fact that “the gatekeeper for such programs is the employee benefits manager,” said James Faison, Vice President of Business Development for the nonprofit Partnership for a Healthier America. “They tend to turn over,” he said, “and when you lose that champion it sets you back.”
“It’s not the easiest sell,” agreed Joanna Winkler, another panel member who has been involved in both employer CSA initiatives through a prior position with the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative and currently is co-owner of Good Dog Farm, a CSA producer in Parkton, Maryland. Referring back to Woods’ mention that the University of Kentucky “tries to collect lots and lots of data to show the employers that their employees are getting healthier” from their participation in the CSA program, Winkler stated “having that biometric data is crucial to selling the voucher concept” to employers.
During the discussion portion of the session, panel members focused on retention of employees once they’ve been recruited into the CSA via the employer wellness voucher program.
Both Winkler and Carrie Nemec, co-owner of Potomac Vegetable Farms and manager of its Vienna, Va. farm, emphasized the importance of not overwhelming such customers with an overabundance of produce variety and allowing for customization of share contents.
“We try to bring people on farm for distribution, where we have a market model” said Nemec. But, like Winkler, she acknowledged that “discontinuing the delivery option for our CSA is not sustainable at the moment” due to the sought-after convenience factor.
Customization and convenience notwithstanding, Woods said a critical role of employer voucher programs is to “engage the more price-sensitive employees who never would have tried the product without the voucher.” Even so, Woods stated, “Initially the retention rate for wellness voucher programs may not be high. But, for those who do come back for that second year, they’re loyal CSA customers.”
“It builds up over time and gets stronger and stronger,” he continued, “where several of the Kentucky employers in the Kentucky Fair Share Program are now looking at a 75 to 80 percent retention rate.”
Woods noted “the larger weight of responsibility is on the farmers because most employers aren’t going to know what CSAs are about.”
He encouraged the session’s attendees to “find the champion employer who will model things for others.
Concluding the session, Lindsay Smith, the panel’s moderator and regional food systems value chain coordinator for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, reminded the attending producers there was still a lot they could do to grow their customer base for the upcoming season, including promoting this year’s National CSA Sign-up Day slated for Friday, Feb. 28.
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