Whether you’re just starting a farm or looking to add a new revenue stream, Community Supported Agriculture is a great option to consider. At its best, it creates a dedicated community that comes back year after year, supporting the farm through the off-season (if you have an off-season, that is), and gives you invaluable word-of-mouth referrals. It doesn’t necessarily start off like this, though. You’ve got to put in a lot of time for growing both high-quality vegetables and strong relationships. At Good Heart Farmstead, we knew we wanted to focus on CSA because we wanted to be closely integrated in our community, and we wanted to make local food more accessible. CSAs typically offer a discount to their members, and this offered one way to increase affordability for our members. As you consider if CSA is right for your farm, here are a few things to keep in mind: Relationships are more important than vegetables. I can hear you dispute this already: but without produce, I have nothing to sell! You’re right there. You do need to give your customers value in exchange for their money. Still, I contend that relationships are the most important thing you’ll grow as a CSA farmer. In order for a CSA to be sustainable in the long run, you need high retention rates. Customer retention saves you time, energy, and money spent on marketing and outreach. To avoid spring-time financial stress, you’ll need to cultivate relationships with long-term customers that understand the rhythm of CSAs and are willing to pay up-front for a share. Long-term customer relationships will also give you perspective when you need it most. While you have your head down working hard to create a farm, it’s your customers that will help you look up and realize how much you’ve achieved. With that said . . .
A sample CSA share.
High-quality food is essential. As much as your customers appreciate your hard work, if the produce is average or poor, they’ll find another farm. CSA is the most intimate way of selling food. Because you have a relationship with your customers, you get to know everyone’s favorite (and least favorite) vegetables. While members are typically understanding about a failed crop every once in a while, the relationship also increases your responsibility to deliver high-quality produce (remember, they paid you a lot of money months before harvests began. They trust you. Make sure you return the value and keep that trust.). The best way to do this is to carefully plan, tend to the crops, and deliver beautiful, delicious produce every week. Consider the financials. One of the greatest benefits of CSA is that all the food you grow is already sold. There’s no hoping for a good market, only to pack up crates of produce to bring home at the end of the day. On the other hand, all the food you grow is already sold. If you have a partial or full crop failure, you will either need to adequately explain this to your members, or potentially buy in vegetables from another farm to supplement your own CSA. As I mentioned earlier, discounts are a common practice in CSAs. We offer a 10% discount to our CSA members as a way of saying thank-you for investing in us. While this means we don’t get full retail value for our produce, we do save on labor and transportation costs, as well as the potential loss of produce that would come from selling at a farmers market. While getting sign-ups in the spring is the goal, it doesn’t always happen as fast as you want. Be prepared for sign-ups to trickle in, or to start later than you hope. While you may shoot for January and February sign-ups, if you are selling a summer CSA that begins in June, prepare for folks to really start thinking about CSA membership March through May. Likewise, don’t put the financial weight of the entire farm on early CSA sign-ups. Customers will not start thinking about summer produce as early as you do, so plan ahead for financial needs, and don’t be afraid of operating loans or equipment loans for upfront cash when you most need it. Once you do get sign-ups coming in, you need to be able to manage that influx and spread it out over the course of the season. Setting up consistent wholesale accounts can help stabilize cash-flow throughout the year.
CSA members participate in pick-your-own flowers in the fields at Good Heart Farmstead.
How social do you want to be? Wholesale, farmers markets, and CSA all have different levels of social interaction, and it’s important to take into consideration what your sociability level is. Do you farm purely to be in the field, with no one to answer to? Do you love talking and educating people on all topics related to farming? Do people love talking to you? This may seem like a strange thing to consider when starting your farm, but it does have an impact on your quality of life. Take some time to envision your ideal customer-farmer relationship and what it will take to create that. Do you want customers coming to the farm? Do you want to deliver to them? (Remember: community is inherent in CSA. What type of community do you want to grow?) If you plan to have CSA pick-up on your farm, set some boundaries and clearly state them ahead of time (ie: dog policy, appropriate signage, public hours). Weekly newsletters are also an important part of running a successful CSA. Most CSA members expect to know what will be in their share ahead of time, and an e-newsletter is a great way to communicate this, along with field updates. This is also a good way to let folks know about bumper or bummer crops, what to expect in the coming weeks, and to share some behind-the-scenes farm stories, which helps strengthen the connection members feel toward the farm. There are several ways to organize your CSA pick-up.
  • Set out vegetables market-style with a sign denoting what’s in the share each week (either at the farm or at an off-farm pick-up location). Members come and fill their own bags following the sign.
    • With this method, you don’t have to be present, but it does offer the best face-to-face time to connect with members in a relaxed atmosphere, as everything is laid out and you are free to converse or answer questions.
  • Pre-pack shares and deliver to pick-up sites.
    • This may be a workplace CSA, where only employees of that particular workplace are picking up their shares, or it may be a public drop-site, open to all members.
    • Home delivery: this may be extra convenient for the members, but will add a lot of driving time for you.
However you decide to organize and distribute your shares, creating long-lasting customer relationships is one of the most rewarding aspects of CSA. Remember, as a CSA farmer, you’re growing food and community.