CSA Farmers

Troubleshooting and Ways to Enhance CSA Membership

The continuing growth of CSA in the U.S. and Vermont is evidence that this direct marketing model is compelling for farmers and consumers alike. However, setting up a CSA requires close attention, finesse, and commitment. This close attention and careful planning is necessary because CSA relies on coordination between the farmer and many community members rather than a single wholesale receiver or retail outlet. Because of the numerous considerations required of CSA, it is important to be confident that you are ready to invest in your community before you ask them to invest in you.

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The most common difficulties in running a successful CSA are balancing the CSA shares with other markets (e.g. wholesale, weekly farmers’ markets, farm stands, etc) and in maintaining long term memberships. These challenges arise in different shapes and sizes depending on each situation, so it is valuable to find some experienced growers who can give advice regarding the specific variables and events. However, here are some tips on ways to integrate a CSA market into a wider farm business and on maintaining long term membership.

Although it can seem challenging to integrate a CSA program into a diversified farm business, CSA can be an extremely useful marketing and organizational tool. Due to the flexible nature of CSA, a grower can establish terms of membership that work well into the farm’s other market outlets. For instance, the farmer might want to stagger a CSA pick-up day with a weekly farmers’ market day to facilitate a more regular harvest schedule. CSA can also be an important guaranteed supplement to a farm’s income, arriving early in the season when costs are high but production is low.

To gain access to the benefits of CSA it is essential that a farmer commit her/himself to the program before getting started. In designing the program, you should be realistic about what you can provide to your members and what you will need from them in return. Realistically: How many members can you support? How much diversity of product can you grow? How many delivery/pick-up days are manageable? How long will the season last? Etc. With careful planning and a balanced commitment to the sustainability of the farm and your members, you will likely create a successful CSA.

To address the issue of maintaining CSA membership, it is valuable to look at common complaints members have about their CSA shares. We often hear that members get too much of certain types of produce in a given week (e.g. in early June, boxes are full of greens. In late August, there are too many tomatoes.) CSA members also sometimes regret getting produce they have never heard of and do not know what to do with (e.g. kohlrabi, fava beans).

While there are many different solutions to the above complaints, it is possible that the simplest solution and CSA enhancement is to develop greater communications between grower and members. Because you cannot talk to each of your CSA members every single week, some members may not find time to ask their questions and voice their concerns. An easy way to improve communication with your members is to publish a newsletter that is distributed with each share, offering a place to describe what is currently growing on the farm, to provide recipes and eating suggestions for uncommon produce, and to update members on any community/farm news. This type of communication helps to broaden and deepen the connections between farmer, farm, and consumer. Also, do not forget to ask your members to write a season’s-end evaluation of your CSA program; they will want a chance to voice their appreciation and critique, and your CSA program will benefit enormously from their advice.

Because the Internet has become such a central part of everyday life, it is valuable for growers to look at how they can integrate web communications into their CSA. With a website or web log (a.k.a. blog), growers can create a multi-media journal to convey what is happening on the farm. Besides being colorful, paperless, and convenient, blogs are a great tool for CSA because they are interactive. Members can post messages to the grower and to each other at their own convenience. Having a website or web log can help reach out to new customers and be used as an interactive storefront that members can use to customize their shares. See Helpful Links and Resources section for examples of Vermont farms that maintain web pages and web logs.

Whatever the challenges a CSA program faces, communication between farmers and members and among neighboring farmers is the strongest tool for finding solutions.

Developing Different CSA Markets

With the success of CSA Vermont, CSA farms are tapping into increasingly diverse market prospect. Through these new markets CSA farmers are finding more specific and tailored ways to connect with their communities while also extending their production and sales potential. If you are setting up a new CSA farm or interested in expanding your markets, it is a great idea to explore some of these ideas and look into other places that your community may be lacking all the benefits of a direct farm relationship.

NOFA-VT Farm Share & Senior Farm Share

NOFA-VT offers CSA growers an opportunity to have a direct impact on the food security of low-income families and seniors through the Farmshare and Senior Farmshare programs. The Farmshare programs help at-risk families and seniors overcome financial hurdles and gain access to fresh, local produce by subsidizing local CSA shares. There are currently about 20 Vermont farms working with these initiatives and developing food security in their communities. See Farm Share and Senior Farm Share for more information.

3SquaresVT (SNAP)

CSAs can accept 3SquaresVT/SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) payment for shares.  To learn more contact [email protected] or call (802) 434-4122 ext. 36.

Another way for CSA to expand its impact is to connect with local food banks and anti-hunger programs like day-care centers and after-school programs. Although there is little precedence for these types of CSA partnerships, they could lead to valuable and educational connections between passionate farmers and underserved members of the community.

Winter Shares

Until recently, most CSA farmers focused their CSA production and marketing on the summer season. With increasing consumer interest in eating locally produced foods throughout the seasons, more and more growers are expanding their production of winter-hardy and storage crops for winter CSA shares. Winter shares are especially strong when partnered with products from other farms and food businesses (see multi-farm CSA). While growers benefit from the increased market potential of extended season CSA shares, consumers enjoy the opportunity to maintain year-round connections with their CSA farm. Many growers who operate winter CSA programs also appreciate the year-round employment opportunities for themselves and their trusty workers.

Multi-Farm CSA

Many CSA farms are realizing the enriching potential of cooperating with near-by farms and food businesses to provide members with a greater diversity of farm-fresh and local products. These partnerships not only produce more diverse and enticing shares for the members, but they also create a stronger local food community, which in turn strengthens the wider community as a whole. Internally, CSA programs develop stability through partnerships because a greater diversity of products can help cushion losses from unforeseen crop failures. These partnerships are often made between different kinds of farms (e.g. vegetable farms connecting with orchards, dairies, and meat growers) and can also work well between farms and local food businesses (e.g. farms connecting with local bakeries, wild-edible foragers, cheese makers, etc.)

There are different ways to market these multi-farm CSA packages. Sometimes farmers will incorporate outsourced products (e.g. bread, eggs, and butter) directly into the member share. Other times, these products will be sold as add-on items to the normal share (e.g. members additionally enroll in a weekly share of a loaf of bread and a dozen eggs). Some CSA farms offer a few share options based around different themes of products (e.g. the bread and butter share, the vegan share, and the omnivore share).

While the benefits of connecting with other farms and local businesses are compelling, it is important to remember that these relationships require extra effort and commitment from all of the partners. Unless well managed, these partnerships can be overwhelming for farmers who are already too busy.

Farmers interested in multifarm CSA models should obtain a copy of Local Harvest, A Multifarm CSA Handbook by Jill Perry and Scott Franzblau. This 120-page book was produced with SARE funding. Copies can be downloaded for free or hard copies ordered on the SARE website.