New state law levels playing field for CSAs


Issue Date: October 9, 2013
By Kate Campbell
Pescadero farmer Ryan Casey says his farm-to-front door operation provides the opportunity to educate consumers about the variety of fruits and vegetables grown locally.
Photo/Kate Campbell
Ryan Casey of Pescadero says it is his responsibility to provide the most nutritious, safest food possible.
Photo/Kate Campbell
Packing list and fall squash for CSA boxes.
Photo/Kate Campbell

Packing and loading boxes of fruits and vegetables has become a way of life for Ryan Casey, a Pescadero farmer who has built his community-supported agriculture program to more than 200 subscribers in San Mateo and San Francisco counties during the past eight years.

He says running a CSA business, along with generating additional revenue from direct sales at farmers markets and selling wholesale to local markets and restaurants, is a lot of work and it has become increasingly competitive as bigger operations have entered the farm-to-doorstep business.

Until now, anybody could call their business a CSA and add popular items like bananas and papayas grown outside the U.S. But a new state law aims to define what a CSA is and improve market conditions for certified farmers selling directly to consumers. The new law covers safe handling of farm products and includes trace-back requirements, as well as a $100 annual fee for oversight services through the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Farmers who grow fruits and vegetables, shell eggs or value-added farm products and sell them directly to consumers through subscription now must register. They're also required to specify whether their farm products come from a single producer or multiple farms.

During the past decade, the number of CSAs operating in California has grown dramatically, researchers at the University of California found. A 2011 study showed even with the economic recession, the number of consumers participating in CSAs increased and researchers found home delivery to subscribers had become a "crucial direct-marketing channel for small- and medium-scale farmers."

The challenges CSA operators face are increased competition and the need for improved consumer education, said Casey, who employs eight full-time and several part-time workers year-round on his Blue House Farm.

Protecting this increasingly popular food resource prompted Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, to sponsor Assembly Bill 224, which California Farm Bureau Federation supported along with a number of stakeholder groups.

Gordon said that while CSAs are a growing agricultural movement across the nation and California, questions had been raised about what they are and how they're regulated. AB 224, which has been signed into law, addresses those issues and provides a process for CSA farmers to register and self-certify that they follow best practices, Gordon said.

"Consumers now have greater assurance of food safety and authenticity of products," Gordon said. "Most importantly, AB 224 sets the stage for expansion of the CSA movement. They are a key part of a community-driven movement to directly connect consumers to the farmers and ranchers who produce the food we eat."

Casey, who was raised in urban San Diego County and got involved in farming while a student at UC Santa Cruz, said CSAs also provide a "great opportunity for young farmers who don't already have a family farm to enter the agricultural business."

AB 224 is intended to build new and strengthened partnerships between CDFA and various community farm groups, Gordon said, "which can provide support and assistance for the expansion of direct-marketing efforts by CSA farmers."

CSAs don't necessarily work for all consumers or all farmers, said Noelle Cremers, CFBF natural resources and commodities director.

"Home delivery is very expensive in terms of time and fuel costs, but for consumers who want to try new kinds of fresh produce or who want the kind of time-saving home delivery provides, CSAs fill an important niche. The format also opens the door to partnerships with businesses that can serve as a central drop-off location, adding benefits to employees and communities," Cremers said.

Farm Bureau worked with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, which sponsored the legislation, and with other stakeholders on issues related to direct-marketing opportunities. What the stakeholder group found is that with CSAs, while an established market channel, there were no defined guidelines for handling and food safety.

"A handful of county health departments had already made it clear that without statewide requirements for food safety, they would adopt their own county ordinances," Cremers said. "We discussed recommendations and worked with Assemblyman Gordon, who has a number of CSAs in his district and who carried the legislation."

Cremers noted new regulations aren't always welcome by the highly regulated agricultural sector. New requirements are pending under the federal Food Safety Modernization Act and there's the National Organics Program that many CSA operators must follow, but more ordinances applied county by county would increase the regulatory burden on farms, she said.

Oxnard farmer Phil McGrath served on ad hoc committees looking into issues related to direct marketing and CSAs. He said he feels CSAs should remain a way for communities to support their local farmers by buying direct.

"With the growth of selling directly to consumers and increased competition, there has been no limit on what CSAs can be," said McGrath, who is a fourth-generation farmer and a Ventura County Farm Bureau director.

"Now we have giant companies calling themselves CSAs that are essentially dot-com delivery programs," he said. "I'm not happy with the passage of AB 224 because it means more regulation, but trying to compete with international companies, multi-farm CSAs and more and more farmers markets is difficult. I would have preferred legislation that limits CSAs to providing produce from no more than five farms. That would have been fair."

AB 224 allows for gathering produce from multiple farms into a single box of produce, but requires customers be informed of produce contributed by each of those state-certified farms.

"Farms offering CSAs are generally small farms and we're already overwhelmed with paperwork, permits and regulations," Casey said. "But the new regulations added by AB 224 don't seem to be overly burdensome, at least not at this point.

"What I hope we'll gain through this new state law is an orderly marketplace and a level playing field," he said. "That's got to help small farmers. My job is to feed people in a safe way. I appreciate the transparency in the CSA relationship with consumers and I see this new law supporting that."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.