CSAs and Imperfect Produce

Burning River Farm vegetables
At Burning River Farm, summer CSA memberships have fallen from close to 300 six years ago down to about 220 today. Submitted photo

For Minneapolitans who like to eat seasonal produce, it has been a long winter of root vegetables. But with warmer weather tantalizingly in sight, eaters of all stripes can look forward to the bounty that summer soils have to offer.

CSAs, or Community Supported Agriculture, are one way to indulge in this bounty through regular deliveries of local produce. Organized seasonally, these programs are also a way to support small-scale agriculture while building relationships with the land our food comes from and the farmers who harvest it.

There are over a dozen farms that deliver CSA shares in Southwest Minneapolis alone, with many more throughout the rest of the metro. But over the last five to 10 years, local CSA memberships have been on the decline, contributing to the shrinking number of small farms in greater Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Michael Noreen has owned and farmed at Burning River Farm since 2006. Burning River offers CSA shares in spring, summer and fall, delivered to the Twin Cities from Frederic, Wisconsin.

Noreen identifies the CSA decline as part of a broader trend in small agriculture. “Many farms over the last six years have decided to call it quits,” he said. But with marketing terms like “local” and “organic” as ubiquitous as ever, he speculates that many people don’t know these farms are suffering.

“The CSA trend has ended,” Noreen said matter-of-factly. “Consumers have just decided it’s not convenient enough.”

At Burning River, summer CSA memberships have fallen from close to 300 six years ago down to about 220 today. This means that the farm is coming up about $30,000 short of its yearly financial goals – not insignificant for a small business that also has employees to support.

According to Noreen, the local food movement peaked in public consciousness around 2007 or 2008. This was reflected in media and books (Michael Pollan’s “An Omnivore’s Dilemma” was published in 2006). Farms responded to this trend; there was a sizeable growth in farmers markets and CSAs. But this hasn’t lasted.

What changed? Noreen can’t pinpoint any single cause, but he knows that this is a question many small farms are asking themselves. “We’re all just throwing darts at what we think is happening,” he said. “It’s no one factor; it’s 10 factors all coalescing.”

One of these factors is the rise of personalized grocery services. While these food delivery start-ups largely began in coastal tech hubs, this market has officially opened its virtual doors in the Twin Cities.

Imperfect Produce, a venture capital-backed grocery delivery company, expanded its services to the Twin Cities metro at the beginning of April. The company delivers customizable produce and other grocery items that might have otherwise gone to waste, conveniently customized online and delivered straight to your doorstep.

This expansion follows recent launches in other Midwest cities, including Chicago, Indianapolis and Milwaukee. Capitalizing both on the rapidly growing gig economy and millennial-friendly sustainable food trends, Imperfect Produce has tapped into a 21st century niche, delivering a potent mixture of sustainable eating but without the lifestyle adjustments that a CSA demands.

And with a robust network of grocery co-ops and farmers markets around the Twin Cities, it is no surprise that Imperfect Produce has set up shop here.

Like CSAs, services like Imperfect Produce champion local, sustainable food. They are also insistent that they don’t want to capitalize on food that would have otherwise gone to a food bank. As Neil Neufeld said in a statement to Fox 9, “We don’t want the food bank food; we want to take what’s going into landfill, what’s not going to be sold, what’s not going to be harvested, so we can reduce food waste.”

As CEO and co-founder Ben Simon explained in a press release, “We’ve rescued over 40 million pounds of food to date and can’t wait to continue this mission with the fantastic Twin Cities community.”

None of the ideas that Imperfect Produce espouses are new — they are merely scaled up.

CSAs advertised at Butter Bakery Cafe
CSAs advertised at Butter Bakery Cafe, which hosts weekly pickups for four different farms. The cafe also subscribes to one share from each, which they incorporate into their restaurant offerings. “Our mixed green salads become insane,” veteran staff person Elliott Locke said. Photo by Mira Klein

“CSAs have always been about not ‘imperfect produce,’ but about the produce that’s grown,” explained Margaret Pennings with Common Harvest Farm. “We’re not only going to put straight carrots in the box.”

As Pennings explained, the membership system allows CSAs to reduce food waste from the very beginning. “We plant according to our numbers. What we plant and what we till is based on the members we have.”

As of this year, Pennings has been operating a CSA on her farm for three decades. In the beginning, she said, CSAs were a way to get organic produce before organics were offered in grocery stores. More than that, however, joining a CSA was about building a relationship with particular local food systems, and a willingness to participate in the unpredictability that such a food system entails. “The people who joined were saying: ‘We are committed to sharing the risk with you,’” Pennings said.

These components — commitments to local food systems, relationships with farmers, and collectivized risk — are what distinguish CSAs from services like Imperfect Produce. But Pennings and other small farmers are worried that these relationships are being eclipsed by the draw of convenience.

Phat Beets Produce, a food justice collective based in North Oakland, wrote scathingly of the Imperfect Produce model in an editorial published in The New Food Economy. “[Venture capital]-backed startups are commodifying need and undermining food banks and CSAs while they’re at it. It’s a market solution disguised as activism,” they wrote.

In contrast to community-supported agriculture, Phat Beets describes Imperfect Produce as corporate-supported agriculture, a company that sources from large agribusiness over local agriculture in order to reach the scale necessary to profit.

Simon responded with a blog post reiterating his commitment to reducing food waste and hunger and defending Imperfect Produce’s organizational model as the best strategy to fit the scale of the problem. “If the most effective way to create this impact was as a non-profit or advocacy group, we would be doing that instead,” he wrote.

Noreen said he is wary of what he described as “box delivery schemes.” On the surface, they market themselves using much of the same language that a farm CSA might. “They say they source from local farms, but they don’t actually say where ‘local’ means,” Noreen said.

To Noreen, Imperfect Produce is indicative of the corporatization of the local food movement as a whole. The Imperfect Produce price point will undoubtedly be lower than what local CSAs can offer. “It’s part of a bigger trend towards either more convenient or less expensive,” Noreen said. And farms often don’t have the capacity to make up the difference.

But some are trying.

This past winter, Featherstone Farm rolled out their new customizable CSA program using a software platform called Harvey. The software also helps with marketing and outreach to reach potential members who may be wooed by other customizable boxed food services. “Customizing is the wave of the future,” said Featherstone CSA Coordinator Patty Zanski-Fisher.

Featherstone Farm is a bigger operation than many local farms; whereas Common Harvest has about 200 CSA members, Featherstone has approximately 700. But this represents a significant decline from just six years ago when CSA shares numbered more than 900.

Zanski-Fisher understands why people are moving away from CSA systems. “CSAs are demanding of people,” she said. “Their lives are just so busy.” Rather than digging in her heels, she is helping Featherstone adapt. She speculates that more and more CSAs will move towards customized systems, which Zanski-Fisher sees as another anti-food-waste measure.

And small farmers like Pennings hope that people will continue to find value in the CSA model. For now what keeps farms like Common Harvest going is the deep relationships they have built with members over the years. After all, members helped Pennings purchase Common Harvest in the first place — land which they have now put under conservation easement to preserve it as farmland forever. “Joining this farm as a member is something bigger than just eating vegetables,” she said.

Southwest Pick-up Neighborhood(s)

  • Big River Farms: Kingfield
  • Blackbrook Farm: Kingfield
  • Burning River Farm: Kingfield, Uptown
  • Common Harvest Farm: Linden Hills, Lynnhurst, Lyndale
  • Driftless Organic: Kingfield, Linden Hills
  • Earth Dance Farm: Armatage, Uptown
  • Featherstone Farm: Uptown, ECCO
  • Fox & Fawn Farm: Tangletown
  • Foxtail CSA: Kingfield, Windom
  • Harmony Valley Farms: Kingfield, Linden Hills
  • Hmong Farmers Association: Uptown
  • Little Big Sky Farm: Uptown
  • Mary Dirty Face Farm: Fulton
  • Urban Graze: Kingfield, Fulton
  • Tangletown Gardens: Fulton, Tangletown
  • Turnip Rock Farm: Kingfield