Fresh As Can Be

During Pandemic, Plant It Forward Memberships Soar

Can community-supported agriculture organizations scale as demand ramps up?

By Meredith Nudo May 14, 2020

Plant It Forward Farms recently announced a record-breaking number of subscriptions to its weekly community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares. The number has more than doubled from 225 to 525 over the past two months, a sign that during the COVID-19 pandemic, people are seeking new ways to secure fresh food.

Liz Vallette, president of Plant It Forward, says membership started increasing rapidly around late-March, as reality set in for Houstonians that staying home during COVID-19’s spread would be a long-term necessity. The same is true for CSA programs across the country; since CSA, or farm share, programs like Plant It Forward’s offer just-harvested produce straight from farmers, it means customers are getting local food, without additives, through a typically shorter supply chain. That's proven desirable for people who want to limit interaction and how much contact their food receives during the production and distribution process.

Since 2011, the nonprofit Plant It Forward has provided employment for refugees with agricultural backgrounds—“among the most experienced farmers in the region,” Vallette says. Fifteen farmers currently operate eight farms spread over a total of six acres. 

Their expertise, augmented with additional training on Houston’s soil and climate, drives every decision made regarding the produce that gets planted, harvested, and distributed to consumers. Sales from the fruits and vegetables go straight to the farmers, with only a small markup to help Plant It Forward with administrative tasks and marketing. 

“Right now it’s planting season, so they are planting much more than perhaps they would have in the past. They know demand is still booming,” Vallette says. “They’re also saving money [in case of a recession] and their paychecks look bigger.” 

The nonprofit already had the infrastructure in place to meet the rapid increase in demand. Over the past few years, Plant It Forward has transitioned into a “food hub” model with a centralized warehouse in the Willowbend area. Rather than relying exclusively on its own plots for profit, farmers aggregate their produce here before shares get distributed to pick up points or delivered to homes. Such a method also diversifies the types of fruits and vegetables available to consumers. 

“In hindsight, this was very fortuitous because it allowed us to quickly scale,” Vallette says. “When we got this influx of orders, we actually already had this great framework in place to allow us to meet the need.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread into Houston in early March, the nonprofit’s sales to restaurants reduced its total produce profits by around 22 percent. However, many of the Houston-area farm affiliates saw losses of up to 80 percent. 

Plant It Forward’s farmers and staff members knew they wanted to act in solidarity with their contemporaneous agriculture professionals, and the scalability of the warehouse model combined with a greater demand for CSA shares provided the solution. For the time being, as restaurants cut back on orders, produce from Gundermann Acres in Wharton and other nearby farms will also be included in shares. 

“We feel very fortunate that our model is direct-to-consumer and something that was very niche for a long time, but it’s not so niche anymore,” Vallette says. “We’d like to see if we can continue supporting the farms and the restaurant workers whom we rely on as partners.”

Should Plant It Forward’s membership continue to grow at its current pace, the warehouse will need additional refrigerators, as well as some extra hands to help with sorting and distribution. As shares soar, donations haven’t kept up. With only a nominal sum from each produce sale allocated toward operational costs, the organization relies on direct donations to handle the business side. 

With lingering worries about staying clear from other shoppers at grocery stores, and the safety of meat processing facilities compounding, investment in a CSA appeals to many individuals and families needing fresh, nutritious ingredients to stay healthy when the world around them often seems anything but.

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