Fewer Consumers Opting for that Weekly Box of Veggies

Chicago Tribune writer Greg Trotter reported earlier this month that, “In the heart of corn and soybean country, Hans and Katie Bishop of PrairiErth Farm are cultivating an unconventional dream, one pesticide-free, dirt-encrusted sweet potato at a time.”

Their passion remains strong, but they’ve had to adapt to a changing food industry rife with new competitors,” the Tribune article said.

Mr. Trotter explained that, “Farmers like the Bishops have seen competitors offering their own organic fruits and vegetables sprout up like weeds in recent years. From large grocers with robust selections of organic produce to meal kit startups touting healthy and quick foods, consumers have an abundance of options. Once the province of hippy co-ops and farmers markets, organic produce can be purchased at any Walmart, Jewel-Osco or Aldi — or home-delivered via Amazon and other online retailers.

This rush of competition has hurt revenue at many small farms in Illinois — particularly those that rely on sales through what’s known as community supported agriculture programs, or CSAs. Some farms have scaled back operations or closed altogether. Others, like PrairiErth, have changed their business models to survive.”

The Tribune article pointed out that, “CSAs, where community members pay a certain amount for a weekly box of vegetables from the harvest, are designed to support local farming ‘so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm,’ according to a definition on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website. The model gives farmers a consistent revenue stream with relatively low overhead costs.

But many Illinois farmers say their CSA sales peaked three or four years ago and that the concept has since fallen out of favor with consumers, who value convenience and customization.”

Mr. Trotter added that, “On a recent crisp autumn morning on the PrairiErth Farm in downstate Atlanta, a small crew of workers pulled sweet potatoes and carrots from the soil, vegetables that would be sold to customers in the Bloomington area and through wholesalers in Chicago. Hans and Katie Bishop are doing many of the things experts say farmers need to do. They’re expanding their wholesale business, partnering with other farms and allowing their CSA members to select what goes into their boxes for an additional cost.

And the business is growing — with projected gross annual sales of $475,000, up about 5 percent from last year — despite the competitive challenges.”

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