Community-supported agriculture programs have been around for more than 30 years, but many farms’ CSA sales were lagging.

Urban Roots executive director Max Elliott says this was in part due to more people going to farmers markets for the experience of buying local food in person, but customers were also opting for produce delivery companies, such as Imperfect Foods, or grocery stores that touted partnerships with local farms.

But that all changed in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic started and Central Texas farmers found themselves with CSA waiting lists for the first time.

Three months later, farmers are still working hard to keep up.

Matt Simon, the farm manager at Green Gate Farms, says their CSA program surged from 80 members to 110 in early March, and that sign-ups for the summer reached capacity at 130 in just three hours. Their CSA allows members to pay in advance and then receive a basket of fresh vegetables on a regular schedule for a farming season.

"We started a waitlist for the summer season, and that quickly had 300 people on it," Simon says.

At New Leaf Agriculture, a farm run through the Multicultural Refugee Coalition, the CSA program grew from 15 or 20 members to about 100 this summer, with over 60 people on their fall waitlist.

The tidal wave of interest in purchasing directly from the farm occurred when grocery stores ran out of basic items and had increasingly long lines due to the pandemic. For many farms, this sudden interest helped offset the lost income from restaurant sales as eateries shut down due to the virus.

Urban Roots, which has a 3 1/2-acre farm in East Austin that is home to its youth empowerment program, hadn’t had a CSA program in several years, Elliott says, but earlier this year, it started a new veggie box program to respond to the increased demand.

Unlike a typical CSA, customers do not need to commit to pay for a full season of veggie boxes but can opt in on a weekly basis. Elliott says they are distributing about 100 veggie boxes a week. About 60 of these boxes are sold, and the other 40 are donated, he says.

"We were seeing a huge surge of interest in local food after COVID hit," Elliott says. "I think people really wanted to know where their food came from, and I think there was also wanting some security in knowing (where to) get food that goes through the fewest hands."

Elliott believes people are attracted to Urban Roots because the farm offers paid internships to young people and donates about 40% of their produce to local food banks and soup kitchens. He says he is glad to see CSA programs on the rise again.

"This has been really exciting, to see people wanting to know where their food comes from and support local farms in a new way," he says.

Urban Roots is still selling their veggie boxes online, which typically cost $30 a week for 8 to 10 different items. During the next few weeks, they are offering a special cooking series in partnership with local chefs, and each box will come stocked with locally sourced ingredients for a different recipe.

Johnson’s Backyard Garden, which grows organic vegetables on 184 acres in Garfield, has reopened their CSA program to new members after briefly closing their sign-ups in March due to overwhelming demand. They offer various sizes of shares that range in price from $22 to $41.

Ada Broussard, the farm’s marketing director, says that their CSA program tripled in size over the course of two weeks in March, at which point they hired new drivers, created new routes for delivery and pick up, and bought two new delivery vehicles. She thinks people were interested in the CSA in order to cut down on time in grocery stores.

"Not to mention there was such a home cooking revolution during coronavirus," she says. "People who had habits of going out to eat more and maybe cooking at home a few times a week started cooking at home seven days a week."

Broussard says that cooking with locally grown produce can present new challenges for those used to stocking their kitchens at the supermarket.

"Switching to the CSA is definitely a big change for people who might not be used to eating seasonal vegetables," she says. "What we can grow here in Central Texas is different than what is available on grocery shelves when groceries are being shipped from all over the world."

In the summer, she says they grow different kinds of melons, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, okra, peppers, green beans and more. Fresh seasonal vegetables usually taste better than store-bought alternatives, although they might not look as uniform as the food on grocery shelves, she says.

"When you join a CSA you are shaking hands with a farmer and pre-paying for a portion of their harvest," she says. "It’s about shifting our understanding to be that inglorious vegetables taste just as good as their grocery store counterparts and are just as nutritious."

As Texas continues to reopen and the grocery store shopping experience returns to normal, farmers hope interest in their products continues.

"A CSA is one of the best ways you can continue to invest in the local farming community and the farming landscape," Elliott says. "With COVID, we found out that in a crisis situation we need to have a robust local food system, and in order to have that we need to support local growers."