Food arrives in paper, cloth and plastic bags, delivered by bright green Amazon trucks or local pizza joints, carried home from supermarkets, delis and drug stores.
With thousands of brightly packaged choices and pyramids of clean produce, it’s easy to forget that food starts on the farm — even in an agriculture-heavy county like Yolo.
“People may have become used to having things home-delivered and getting whatever they want, and that’s not what a CSA is really about,” said Judith Redmond, co-owner of Full Belly Farm.
For upwards of 40 years, Community Supported Agriculture programs have helped farmers connect directly with consumers. It’s produce picked yesterday, boxed and delivered, farmer to family.
“It’s a whole different model of relationship with your food,” Redmond said. The 400-acre Full Belly farm runs an 1,100-member CSA program out of Capay Valley that delivers to Davis and Sacramento and on down to Palo Alto. It’s one of the largest CSAs in the area.
Started in the mid-1970s in Japan and Switzerland, CSA memberships have traditionally helped farms make it through cash-light spring seasons. Subscribers would pay for a whole year of boxes upfront, sharing the risk of crop failure. In return, they received veggie-and-fruit laden boxes most of the 52 weeks, full of each season’s ripest offerings.
In California, that model has conceded to supply and demand. Slow food and local food movements popularized the programs. While Yolo County is home to some of the oldest in the country, the state now hosts more than 250 CSAs, and subscribers have come to expect flexibility and diversity.
Farms now tend to offer subscriptions that can start at any time during the year and last anywhere from pay-as-you-go to the full 12 months, largely removing risk from the consumer but stripping away the farm security the program once offered.
Starting a CSA can be difficult. On top of the capital required to start a farm, CSAs add marketing, administration and delivery to farmers’ logistical plates. Some love the system; others find it stressful.
“One of the main reasons is that farmers get burnt out,” said Ryan Galt, a professor of human geography at UC Davis. “A lot of CSA farmers work without very much compensation.”
Regardless, many believe strongly in promoting farming as a community activity and a key piece of the sustainable food movement. CSA farmers tend to be civic-minded and slightly more gender-balanced. A study by Galt found a greater percentage of CSA farmers are female, compared to the general farming population, but less ethnically diverse. And they tend to be younger.
“It’s not about the economics of it necessarily, it’s more about being a part of a social movement,” Galt said.
Take Sarah McCamman, who helped found Heavy Dirt Farms in 2012 with friends from UC Davis co-ops.
“Growing a diversity of fruits and veggies is much more labor- and management-intensive than growing acres and acres of one crop,” she said. “But diversity is much better for the soil, for the insects and for our dinner plates.”
To help newer farmers launch CSA programs, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers is working to set up a dual-purpose state network: Make it easy for residents to find a local subscription, and connect programs to help with mentorship and advertising.
“Member turnover rate is really an issue,” said Rachel Petitt, one of CAFF’s farm-to-market advisers. “That’s an extreme problem in the CSA model.”
The network stemmed from a conference the association hosted in 2013, when 200 farmers from 60 countries met in Monterey to discuss ways to improve the model.
“One major piece of advice that all organizations gave us was that we need to unite,” Petitt said. “It’s a big state and there are lots of different regions and the best (thing to do) is collaborate.”
The network has registered a majority of California’s CSAs, produced a toolkit with advice on launching within CalFresh, which helps low-income households buy produce, and designed a web widget to make it simple for people to search for a subscription.
One two-sided sword: Programs that are easy to join are also easy to leave.
“People are really fortunate they have so many CSA options in the Bay Area,” said Chris Hay, who runs 22-acre Say Hay farms in Woodland. “It’s a relationship so you have to find one that works well in your life.”
CSAs typically have a 30 to 40 percent retention rate, Hay said, which means farmers constantly have to find and engage new customers. For Say Hay, it’s the happy chickens and worker ideology — to pay everyone a middle-income wage — that set it apart from the competition.
“At the end of the day, sustainability is an economic problem,” Hay said. “Everything in the system is set up to have us do otherwise, to force us to pay minimum wage, to get bigger, which means to be in the field less. It’s a constant battle.”
For established CSAs like Full Belly Farms, retention isn’t so much of a problem as expanding their program. Even with 1,000-plus subscribers, they are actively searching for more.
“We definitely want to provide as much customer support as our little farm can manage, but at the same time we only put things in the box that are from the farm, that we grow,” Redmond said.
While she acknowledges that the number of CSA programs has grown, Redmond sees the real competition as the producers and advertisers who affect how people think about food. To get them to think out of the box, they’ll need to look in it.
“It’s about bravery, their courage to cook,” Redmond said. “They’re going to eat out of a box, that’s kind of the idea.”
In and around Yolo County, 18 CSAs grow, pack and deliver boxes. Prices range from $16 to $35 per week, depending on the farm, the size and the items inside. Note: This may not be a comprehensive list of CSAs in the Yolo County area.
1. Good Humus, Capay
2. Full Belly Farm, Guinda
3. Eat Well, Dixon
4. Terra Firma, Winters
5. Pacific Star Gardens, Woodland
6. Del Rio Botanical, West Sacramento
7. Farm Fresh to You, Capay
8. Riverdog, Guinda
9. The Student Farm, Davis
10. Soil Born, Rancho Cordova
11. Free Spirit Farm, Winters
12. Say Hay Farms, Woodland
13. Heavy Dirt, Davis
14. Shooting Star, Fairfield