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Organic farmers see increased demand during COVID-19 pandemic


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    MADISON, Wisconsin (Madison State Journal ) — While the COVID-19 pandemic has strained businesses to the breaking point, forcing some to close down permanently, some officials in Wisconsin’s organic industry have been reporting some of their best gains in years.

The root cause may be a mixed bag, according to officials in the industry. In the early months of the pandemic, stores struggled to stock their shelves, making local producers more attractive. In addition, some customers may have shifted to more organic products as widespread restaurant closures forced them to prepare more home-cooked meals.

“The demand for organic and local and health-based food has certainly increased because of COVID,” said Claire Strader, organic vegetable educator for Dane County Extension and the FairShare CSA Coalition.

As part of a CSA, shorthand for community-supported agriculture, members purchase a “share,” which gets them a box filled with a variety of locally grown produce on an often weekly basis.

A member survey conducted this year by FairShare CSA Coalition found that 95% of FairShare farms sold out of CSA shares in 2020, compared with only about half of farms in 2019. A total of 36 farms — almost all of which are located in Wisconsin — responded to FairShare’s 2020 survey, compared with 23 farms in the previous year.

Total CSA shares sold by Fair Share farms increased from 11,729 in 2019 to 13,310 shares in 2020, and 26 farms reported selling beyond their goals this past year. In addition, some farms sold out as early as February in 2020, while almost all had sold out by April. In previous years, CSA farms sold out by as late as June in some cases.

“That is a huge increase in the number of CSA shares that were sold out,” Strader said. “This very local data does track on to these national trends that we’re hearing about.”

A performance report released in October by Organic Produce Network and Category Partners found that total organic produce sales and volume saw continued double-digit growth in the third quarter, with July-September sales growing 16% and volume up 15% compared with the same period in 2019.

“Once again, sales of organic fresh produce show no signs of slowing and continue to be a major growth opportunity for retailers across the country,” Matt Seeley, CEO of Organic Produce Network, said in a statement. “As consumers continue to shift from conventional to organic produce, substitution is driving incremental dollars.”

Strader said part of that increased demand for CSA produce in particular likely had to do with concerns about shopping during the pandemic, and the increased human interaction that comes with it.

What’s more, all but six farms who responded to FairShare’s 2020 survey said they expect the demand for CSA produce to increase or remain the same in 2021.

“Because we don’t anticipate a big change with COVID until this summer or possibly later, and CSA shares are sold in the winter and early spring, they’re expecting that demand will stay the same,” Strader said. “Some farms, frankly, are already sold out for 2021.”

Strader said CSA customer retention is based largely on quality produce, as well as production procedures, post-harvest handling and that overall connection between the producer and consumer — which largely shifted online in 2020 due to the pandemic.

To further help farmers take advantage of a growing interest in organic products, officials in the industry have announced a Growing Stronger Collaborative Conference, which will be held online from Feb. 22-27 and include combined programming from what was once five separate conferences.

“It just seemed like it would be a win-win all the way around to combine them and host one event,” said Lori Stern, executive director of Spring Valley-based nonprofit Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, one of the five organizations hosting the conference.

The online conference will include more than 60 workshops on topics ranging from production practices, business management and issues facing organic and sustainable farming — along with opportunities for roundtable discussions, meetings and conversations.

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