Community-supported farms boost Wisconsin farm growth, experts say

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MARATHON COUNTY, Wis. (WSAW) -- A rise in the overall number of farms last year in Wisconsin amid a severe decline in dairy farms can be explained in part by Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms, experts say.

“We’re seeing more of the diversified agriculture coming into play when we see farm numbers going up,” Marathon County UW-Extension farm agent Heather Schlesser explained. “Most of them want to stay small because they want to know their customer, they want their customer to know them.”

According to the US Department of Agriculture, the overall number of farms in Wisconsin rose to 64,900, with an increase of 100 farms from the previous year. Those numbers come amid a dairy industry that lost more than 800 farms in the same time period, heavily affecting family farms with small herds. However, large farms of all types also saw a small decline, with operations turning more than a million dollars annually declining by about 100 as well.

Schlesser and USDA’s Wisconsin statistician Greg Bussler attribute the increase is in the small vegetable and produce farms with direct connections to their consumers. While hemp has also been a growing interest in Wisconsin, with more than 1800 licenses and registrations issued in 2019, Bussler cautions that many of those are existing farms expanding to include hemp, and it isn’t known how many of them are new operations.

“I would say the increase is mainly due to smaller farms,” Bussler noted. “Vegetables, fruits…people that are starting farming as kind of a hobby farm.”

Among the smaller models on the rise is the CSA farm, which relies on members of the local community “subscribing”, or buying farm shares, of a season of produce that is delivered to neighborhood pick-up locations throughout the growing season. While the USDA does not track the number of CSA farms in Wisconsin with the exception of a survey taken every five years, experts agree anecdotally that they have been on the increase.

It’s a model that Kat Becker, owner of the 50-acre diversified Cattail Organics Farm in Athens, has been a part of for fifteen years.

“People want healthy food, and they want real food,” Becker noted. But in addition, “People want to support farms in their community, and farmers want to be able to pay their basic bills.”

For Becker, the model is a way to cut out the agricultural corporations that dictate pricing, and instead deal directly with end consumers who value high quality farming and the resulting product.

“CSA really as a movement has grown out of an understanding that people want fresh and local food, they want to support farmers directly, they want to support a sustainable agriculture system, and then also give farmers a fair value for what they are getting,” Becker said, standing in a greenhouse that in another two weeks will take on 30,000 onions.

In addition to the model directly rewarding quality farming and the community connection, Becker says it provides an avenue for educating people about food. To that end, she writes a weekly newsletter and opens up her farm for customer visits. She serves scores of customers with boxes of produce every season, with an 85% return rate.

“You’re supporting people that support your values,” she said.