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Coronavirus pandemic boosts business for local farms with Community Supported Agriculture programs

As many businesses in the food industry floundered during the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, farms with a CSA program thrived as people bought fresh food.

AUSTIN, Texas — Since March, farms with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program have found people coming to them for fresh produce far more than they did before. Farm owners around the Austin area thank the pandemic for that spike in new customers.

"The demand went through the roof," Erin Flynn, co-owner at Green Gate Farms, said. "CSAs have been around for a long time, and they were losing attention. They were being displaced by other food businesses."

In a CSA, members pay money up front, then farmers give each member a box with a variety of healthy, local, fresh food on a regular basis – typically every week for a designated period of time.

"The CSA model suddenly looks very elegant, resilient," Skip Connett, Flynn's husband and other co-owner of Green Gate, said. "It's the shortest supply chain you're going to find. It's literally from our hands to our customers' mouths. And, typically, the food will keep in your fridge for a couple weeks instead of produce that sits in a fridge for one week on its way from California before hitting the shelves of a grocery store."

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Connett and Flynn planted the seeds for their farms and the CSA program 15 years ago. Their boxes for CSA members might not include just fruits and veggies, but flowers too.

"I really liked the idea putting together a bouquet that you would have in your kitchen, and then you would tear it apart and put it in your meal, so you can eat a sunflower petal, you can eat the basil. You can eat all this!" Flynn said.

For Connett and Flynn, the CSA program provides a more stable income for their farm – money goes to buying seeds and materials to keep plants safe when they start to grow, and it carries them through harvest season to pay workers. 

CSA programs have popped up across Texas. At Hat & Heart Farm, owners Bradley Ottmers and Katherine Tanner started one because of the pandemic. They planned on it anyway, but the virus cutting off business put the CSA on the fast-track.

"It took us four days, instead of four months, to put a CSA together," Tanner said. "We went from zero CSA members to 105 within like 48 hours."

Their farm has grown food for 50 years, previously under the name Oma and Opa's Farm, owned by Ottmers' parents. Before the pandemic, the farm owners made their living by working with restaurants.

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"Before the pandemic, we were at three farmers markets and worked with roughly 25 restaurants in the Austin area," Tanner said. "It was actually about four days, we went from 25 to one. One Saturday they all said they were staying open; by that following Monday, almost nobody was."

With restaurants starting to open up, Tanner and Ottmers plan to keep all their new customers while welcoming back their old ones too. They plan to expand their farm operations to continue accommodating CSA members.

According to the Hat & Heart owners, the CSA has connected them with their own Fredericksburg community more.

"Before we worked in Austin a lot," Tanner said. "Now, we have all these community members here buying from us ... We felt like an essential service in the first few months of the pandemic. People came to us because they wanted to be healthy. It felt very important to do what we're doing."

That's what farmers hope to impress on people whenever the pandemic starts to slow down – these farms provide healthy, local, fresh, nutrient-dense food.

"My fear is that ... [people will] fall back to what's most convenient or cheaper or whatever, and that would be too bad," Connett said. "A CSA is a commitment ... This is a moment that we are hyper-aware of our health in ways we never were before. We've taken our health for granted and the virus has said, 'Well, you know, poor health is going to have a poor outcome.' You've got to take care of yourself, and it all begins and ends with food."


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