Growth in local food continues for CSAs

Jul 23, 2021  | 6 min  | Ep4649

Family members returning to the farm is common in rural America, but its seldom a retirement project. Iowana Farms in Crescent, Iowa began in that way when Terry Troxel started farming her uncle’s fields in 2007.

Terry Troxel, Iowanna Farm: “I didn't even know what a CSA was really when I started. Um, what I knew is I wanted to grow vegetables.”

Troxel is a retired physicist who yearned to farm. She followed her dream after her work at Stanford ended in 2006. Family helped her get up to speed on the science of agriculture. 

Terry Troxel, Iowanna Farm: “So 2008 was my first season and I cultivated a quarter of an acre and my uncle was still living and -(edit) he coached me a lot on what I should be doing and when I should be doing it.”

Over the next few years, Troxel spent time learning about how to set up her section of the farm while the community provided revenue for the project through a Community Supported Agriculture group or CSA. 

Iowana Farm saw steady growth in sales, both retail and wholesale, for its first 10 years as it served the Council Bluffs, Iowa and Omaha, Nebraska markets.  But 2020 brought a demand spike that stretched the capacity of the farm. As food supply chains buckled and grocery stores emptied, subscriptions to CSAs jumped. Iowana Farm grew from 51 annual memberships to 73 buyers, as new customers sought a local source for some of their food supply. The growth has been followed by an increased rate of renewals.

Terry Troxel, Iowanna Farm: “So I would say about 50 per cent. Um, last thing I had a bump, uh, last year, I would say I probably brought back 65 percent”

The sustained growth matches the feedback Troxel receives from her customers.

Terry Troxel, Iowanna Farm: “I feel tremendous support from the members of the CSA overall. Um, I, I feel, uh, I feel the love and I almost every week, somebody gives me positive feedback via email. I love the vegetables. I love the greens.” 

Many of the new subscriptions in 2020 came from first-time CSA buyers, and Troxel discovered managing their expectations of variety, volume and quality is a challenge. As customers grew adjusted to the variability of Midwestern produce, they looked forward to their delivery.

Terry Troxel, Iowanna Farm: “I love Iowana farm all the time. So it's like, we're part of the family when it works well.” 

Two-hundred miles to the north in Algona, Iowa, Moonlight Farms saw a similar sales spike in 2020. The 15-year old CSA added 15 subscriptions as new customers made a hedge against the unknown.

Joanne Ropke Bode, Moonlight Farms: “then 2020 came and the CSA just ballooned. So we were getting calls from people we'd never talked to before, customers we've never heard of.” 

Unsure if farmer’s markets would be held in 2020, the Bodes took the chance and directed all of the year’s produce to CSA shares. The plan worked, and customers have returned for more in 2021.

Joanne Ropke Bode, Moonlight Farms “And this is the biggest year we've ever had with 96 customers.”

A CSA in a town like Algona goes against convention. CSA agriculture is more common near population centers, where consumers are more adventurous with their cooking. Despite a population of only 5,500, Moonlight Farms is finding customers in this rural town willing to try new things.

Joanne Ropke Bode, Moonlight Farms “So we, we don't try to do anything super crazy because we found that it's not a great fit here and that's just fine. I mean, we both grew up in Iowa. We know what the diet and the palette is here. This is just trying to push people a little bit further into getting more vegetables on their plate and enjoy them and share them and eat them again. If the only vegetable you ever eat is sweet corn. How can we improve upon that?”

The Bodes wear multiple hats during the week. Both Joanne and Benny have part time professional jobs in Algona. The farm also raises 15 acres of pumpkins for wholesale customers around Iowa, in addition to 500 acres of conventional corn and soybeans in partnership with family members. 
The juxtaposition of non-chemical vegetables and full-chemical commodity crops is not lost on the Bodes.

Benny Bode, Moonlight Farms: “It's kind of a paradoxical world because our vegetables are grown with as little chemicals as possible, but the corn and beans is pretty chemical heavy. We grow all GMO corn and beans and in the vegetable world is completely opposite. (edit) It makes me feel a little bit better grounded as a farmer to be in the two different types of soil. And I do see the different types of soil.”

The Bodes have found the vegetables are more forgiving when compared to the corn and soybeans, which take priority.

Benny Bode, Moonlight Farms “So the vegetables will always take a back seat to the corn and beans just because we can play catch up a little easier to smaller garden, and I can pull the weeds easier in the vegetables, but when the crops, when the corn and beans need attention, they need attention right now.”

While a tumultuous 2020 has resulted in a CSA that is on better financial footing, Moonlight Farms has also found its production limits.

Benny Bode, Moonlight Farms: “I really like our operation because it is our family with a few friends helping. I really liked that size of the operation because it makes me happy. It's nice to know that our family is doing this business together. And while I might be successful to go bigger and bring in more people in the vegetable world, I've chosen to keep it this size. I like it like this.”

For Market to Market, I’m Peter Tubbs.  Twitter: @PeterTubbs

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