Siena Farms spans about 60 acres on the Sudbury-Concord line, but owner Chris Kurth had been on the edge of bankruptcy for two decades.
"Year after year I could not figure out how to make it a stable, good, strong business," he said. "I was having tons of fun, but it was not working as a business."
But that all changed in 2020. While the pandemic slammed many businesses, it became an unexpected opportunity for local farms like Kurth's to expand their sales by selling portions of their harvest directly to consumers, also known as farm shares or community supported agriculture.
Practically overnight, Siena Farms' membership grew from 500 to 2,000 last year as many customers understandably felt nervous about shopping at the grocery store and opted instead of buy regular boxes of full of crops from local farmers. And even as the pandemic eases, Siena says its CSA business is holding steady and customers have renewed their memberships.
Not every farm is enjoying such success, and there is no CSA trade group collecting industry-wide figures. But anecdotal evidence suggests the CSA surge is a statewide — and even nationwide — trend, said Susan Scheufele, who teaches vegetable production at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
"There's definitely a good number of people who were first-time CSA members last year and got a taste for how fun it can be to be really connected to their local farm and eat really seasonally," Scheufele said. "A lot of those folks are sticking around."
At Ward's Berry Farm in Sharon, CSA boxes just keep rolling off the assembly line. On a recent morning, operations manager Alex Hammond packed fennel, spigarello kale and gooseberries.
"Gooseberries are almost like a grape, but they're a little more sour," he explained. "It's definitely an acquired taste, I would say. And the inside is a very strange texture."
Surprise and discovery are central to community supported agriculture's appeal.
Hammond's team preps about 100 boxes a day. That's half the pandemic peak, but still three or four times more than the farm's previous average.
Community supported agriculture has helped farms offset lost sales to restaurants, as fewer people dine out. It also has made income more predictable. CSA members typically pay up front for their crop shares for an entire season. Ward’s Berry Farm charges $540 for the summer, for instance.
The money has helped the farm expand a small, indoor store into a large, open-air marketplace with large pavilion tents.
"The pandemic forced us to rethink our business," Hammond said. "And it worked out really well. People really seemed to enjoy that almost outdoor shopping experience."
The new space is here to stay, Hammond said, because sales are up at farm stands and farmers’ markets. There is no guarantee CSA members will return season after season, but their dollars have already made lasting impacts at some local farms.
In Siena Farms' case, CSA revenue has paid for new equipment, including a tractor attachment that tills soil, spreads fertilizer and rolls out a biodegradable bed cover, all in one pass.
Business is so good right now that Siena Farms recently began offering health insurance to about a dozen full-time employees.
"We're able to hopefully build their compensation so they can raise a family and buy a house a still be a farmer," Kurth said. "We have a way to go, but we took a step last year."
This segment aired on July 26, 2021.