‘Suddenly We Were on Fire:’ Loudoun’s CSAs Find a Silver Lining in COVID-19 Crisis

Community Supported Agriculture memberships at one of Loudoun’s best-known farms had been lagging in recent years. Then the COVID-19 crisis hit.

Hana Newcomb, manager of Potomac Vegetable Farms near Purcellville, says membership in the farm’s 20-year-old community supported agriculture program had dipped in the past five years. But all of that changed with stay-at-home orders and supply chain horror stories. 

“March 12 or 13, suddenly we were on fire. It was kind of amazing how quickly the shares started to sell. It’s such an interesting response for people to have, to be turning to that so immediately after they realized they were stuck,” Newcomb said.

The coronavirus crisis has been a blow for many small businesses in Loudoun. But western Loudoun’s farms are seeing a silver lining: interest in CSA programs is way up as area residents find a sense of security in local produce during uncertain times.

For consumers, the jump in interest is both about wanting to support local businesses and getting reassurance about their food supply. Many of us also have more time on our hands and may be more open to cooking and experimenting with farmer-selected produce.

“Over time [members] are starting to figure out how much cooking they’re doing, and this is not going to be as daunting as they thought. People didn’t spend as much time cooking as they do now, and they didn’t eat at home as much,” Newcomb said. “It’s been an interesting confluence of occurrences. … I don’t think they’re silly to say the fewer hands that touch my food the better. If you look at how the food gets to you through the normal channels, gosh, how many hands is that? For us, it’s me and you, basically.”

Tomato plants growing at Root and Marrow. [Renss Greene/Loudoun Now]

COVID-19 has also brought big changes to PVF’s popular farm stand between Purcellville and Lovettsville. Instead of walking in and sniffing a fresh bunch of basil, customers now put in orders with the staff in a no-touch system.

“We had to flip our practices so much. … When they come to the stand it’s going to be more like going to the deli instead of a nice market,” Newcomb said. “People will get used to it but it’s sad that we may have left something behind forever that we didn’t even know we were going to lose.”

Carolee Stearns of Lovettsville joined PVF’s CSA program after her family’s first week in lockdown in March after years of opting for la carte shopping at the farm stand.

“My brain was spinning on two things: what can we do to secure ongoing food availability, but also how can we support and bolster small businesses and farms locally so that stuff doesn’t go under,” Stearns said. “It was both wanting to support them and wanting them to support us.”

Stearns opted for prepacked CSA boxes to allow her to streamline shopping for her family. Stearns makes bi-monthly Costco trips and uses curbside pick-up service from a nearby grocery store, but getting high-quality fresh produce has been a challenge. The weekly CSA share fills that gap. Food security was also a big consideration for Stearns, who says she initially started thinking about a membership after a widespread E. Coli outbreak in California’s lettuce fields made news in late 2019. But the coronavirus crisis sealed the deal.

Stearns and her family are also creating what she calls an “emergency homestead” with a small garden and a flock of chickens for eggs. She also bought a cow share from another area farm given them to access fresh local milk.

“I also think this COVID thing is going to disrupt our food supply in weird and sometimes predictable ways, but I also think there are going to be some weird, unexpected consequences. Diversifying your food supply just makes sense,” she said.

As Loudouners rethink how they eat, the wait list for the whole diet CSA program at Moutoux Orchard grows and grows. Unlike seasonal produce CSAs, the Moutoux program offers vegetables, meats, dairy, seasonal fruits and some dry goods year-round. 

“In some ways we are trying to be a one-stop shop farm,” said Mo Moutoux, who runs the farm near Purcellville with her husband Rob. “We were full right before this hit, but we have a waiting list. And our waiting list is as long as it’s been in years.”

The Moutoux couple were able to expand their membership for the start of the new membership season this month but maxed out at 100 members. 

“I think what we’re finding now is that since the COVID crisis hit, not only is the interest in knowing where your food is coming from because people see bare grocery store shelves and it’s scary,” Moutoux said. “Especially in Loudoun where there are a lot of people who would like to preserve the rural farm aesthetic, they also recognize that this is going to be a challenging time for farms. So, they’re upping their support.”

Moutoux said meat shortages and news of infections at meatpacking plants have caused interest in locally raised meats to skyrocket. Demand for local produce of all kinds has jumped in ways local farmers haven’t seen since Michael Pollen’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was published in 2006, she added.

“This feels like the season that ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ came out,” she said. “The rise in CSA sign-ups was astronomical, and it feels like it’s similar to that. There’s some kind of impetus that causes people to be like, ‘Wait, where is all my food coming from?’ The question for us as farmers and businesses is how do we keep those people?”

This year, a rise in demand coincides with an especially challenging spring for many local farmers, with a hard frost and low temperatures in the 20s in mid-May followed by several days of intense heat later in the month. For Moutoux, it’s important that CSA newbies remember the concept at the heart of community supported agriculture.

“That’s the wonder and the amazing part about CSAs, is that we all take on the risk together, the farmers and the consumers. Obviously, we want to be able to provide the service we say we’re going to provide. In a spring like this, that’s really hard. Everyone I know lost something in the frost,” she said. “I would encourage people who are joining CSAs for the first time to remember the concept of CSA is that: We all are taking on risk together.”

Brian Tinsman, marketing and communications manager for the county’s economic development agency, says the health crisis has created additional interest in supporting local agriculture. The county has launched a Take Loudoun Home campaign along with a Loudoun Made Loudoun Grown Marketplace and maintains an updated listing of 20 local CSAs at its loudounfarms.org website. 

Higher demand for local produce has also created opportunity for new CSA startups around western Loudoun in recent years.

Erik Schlener, founder of Root and Marrow Farm near Lovettsville, has dramatically expanded his CSA program this year to meet increased demand. Schlener started growing in 2018 with a focus on restaurant clients and a small CSA program. But as restaurant sales dried up in the early months of the pandemic, demand for CSA shares shot up.

Erik Schlener and his brother Austin at Root and Marrow, where this year they expanded from selling mostly to restaurants to a 140-member CSA. [Renss Greene/Loudoun Now]

“As soon as we saw that there was going to be an uptick in demand, we started working to meet as many people’s needs as possible,” Schlener said. “The U.S. has such a fragile food supply system. I think there are going to be some really big impacts. It’s hard to get good, clean fresh food. As a farm, we’re trying to meet that demand as much as possible.”

Schlener was able to bump up to 140 shares from an initially planned 75. The demand for local produce, he said, is all about trust.

“I think people really are seeing that it’s someone they can trust. When a customer gets a tomato from us, there’s a good chance it’s only been touched by one person,” he said. “In the traditional supply chain with something coming from California, it could have been touched by who knows how many hands.”

And while the drop in restaurant sales was a challenge, Schlener has embraced the farm’s CSA-focused new model.

“I get so much energy from sharing the produce with others,” he said. “I loved restaurants for that reason, but I’m enjoying meeting so many more customers through our CSA.”

Schlener’s brother Austin is a trained chef who helps him run the farm and provides recipes with each weekly pick-up.

“He and I are trying to transform the image of CSAs and really work on educating the customer on how to use this stuff … to really make something that people will love. Kids will grow up loving the produce from our farm and know how to cook meals for themselves and have the healthiest produce.”

Many local CSA programs are sold out for the season, but there may be limited opportunities for late sign-ups. Check out the list at loudounfarms.org/local-produce/csa.

For more information about Potomac Vegetable Farm, including farm stand hours, go to potomacvegetablefarms.com.

To learn more about Moutoux Orchard’s whole diet CSA, go to moutouxorchard.com.

To learn more about Root and Marrow Farm, go to rootandmarrowfarm.com.

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