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Monday, June 1, 2020

Small agriculture businesses thriving in face of pandemic

Increased demand for CSAs
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in Rhode Island - Farm Fresh RIFew elements of society are flourishing during the COVID19 pandemic, but a University of Rhode Island agriculture researcher said that one of the few exceptions is small agricultural businesses. 

Not only are existing small farms experiencing record growth, many new start-up farms are emerging as the growing season begins.

According to Andrew Radin, URI agriculture extension agent, demand is especially high for growers that market their produce via the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model, whereby customers purchase a share of the harvest ahead of time and receive a weekly allotment of whatever is ready for harvest.

“People don’t want to go into grocery stores and other enclosed settings, and there’s a definite buzz around the farms that deliver a weekly box of produce,” said Radin, who operated a CSA farm in upstate New York for 10 years. 

“Part of the reason for the growth of community-supported agriculture is that you know that the only hands that have touched your food are those at the farm.

“Most CSA’s are usually still trying to sell shares at this time of year,” he added, “but this year most everybody is reporting that they sold out by early April. I get the sense that more farms are going the CSA route and a lot of growers are expanding their membership.”

This comes at a time when industrial-scale farming, which produces the bulk of the produce consumed in North America, is letting crops rot in its fields because many traditional wholesale markets, like restaurants and institutional food service providers, are closed or the people they serve are working from home.

“Yet the little guys are thriving,” Radin said.

Not only are existing small farms doing well, but Radin has heard from many people who are just starting out in agriculture, like a masseuse who doesn’t know when she’ll be able to return to her job so she sought Radin’s advice on starting a microgreens operation.

“I also got a call from a firefighter who bought some ducks and is selling duck eggs at a nearby roadside stand,” he said. “For a lot of these emerging growers, they’ve probably been thinking about it for a while, and the pandemic was the push they needed to get started.”

Radin said that the growth of small-scale farming while industrial farming is experiencing a temporary lull says a great deal about how Americans consume their produce.

“Americans don’t cook the way Europeans, Asians and Africans do,” he said. “We probably eat most of our produce at restaurants and at food service operations in the workplace. But given the right circumstances – like a pandemic – and having a pile of produce appear at our door every week from their CSA might allow us to be more experimental in the kitchen and learn to love vegetables a little more.”