Successful Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) share basic features. Many farmers have added unique member perks. CSAs help build relationship between members and farmers through regular interaction. Customers love knowing where their food came from and how it was grown. Most CSA customers renew year after year.
Since the first CSAs began nearly 30 years ago, farmers have benefited from collecting money before the growing season. The money helps buy seeds, fertilizers and equipment at pre-season discount rates and helps lower farm debt and exposure.
CSA Member Perks
Many farmers share these discounts with customers by offering produce in CSA shares below retail prices. Some farms offer a debit card stocked with more points than the dollars paid. Other farmers deliver a box of produce worth more than the weekly price paid up front.
Most CSAs offer customers fresh produce for four to five summer and fall months. Some offer separate spring, fall and/or winter CSAs. Shares may be weekly, alternate weeks or monthly. Some farmers offer basic shares with additional egg, flower, fruit, meat or specialty shares.
Tips from Successful CSAs
Paul Bucciaglia of Fort Hill Farm in New Milford, CT offers a Mix and Match CSA that allows shareholders to choose their share, up to set limits. Extra produce is for sale when available.
Bucciaglia suggested farmers lay out their pick-up site carefully. After a friendly greeting at the check-in table, his customers collect produce from four stations: Salad Greens, Heads & Bunches, Roots & Fruits and Special Harvest. Each has a list of weekly share allotments or limits. Limits reflect the crop abundance that week. Bucciaglia recommended making limits lower at the beginning and end of that crop’s season and raising limits as yields peak.
Steve Munno of Massaro Farm CSA in Woodbridge, CT advised beginning farmers to be CSA customers at another farm to learn about customer expectations.
Munno advised calling CSA members “Subscribers” not “Shareholders. Customers must understand their farm also sells produce to farmer’s markets, restaurants or wholesale customers. While CSAs may be a large focus of the farm, a subscriber to a 200-member CSA should not expect 1/200th of the farm’s harvest.
One farmer advised others to offer full and two-thirds shares, not half shares. The two-thirds shares still include a variety of produce. The half share is hard to make appealing without overloading it and losing money.
Farmers often trade shares for talents. Many CSA customers have skills or expertise to trade for fresh produce. Farmers can get a variety of services in exchange for partial or full shares. Options include web design and updates, newsletter editing, email or social media campaigns, nutritionist newsletter columns, order taking, processing or packing.
Be sure to send out an end-of-season survey. The Monahans of Stone Gardens Farm, Shelton, CT adopted several customer suggestions.
Make More Money
Be sure to offer more than just the prepaid share at your pickup site. Many customers pick up extra items. The Monahan’s run a small farm stand where sales triple on pickup days. Many customers also order extra produce ahead of pick-up days.
Think outside the box. When the Monahans’ Bok Choy started to bolt, they did not plow under and write off their crop. Stacia used the internet to discover this was a Cantonese specialty and included a recipe in her newsletter. Now her customers look for the tiny yellow flowers and pay specialty prices for extra bolted Bok Choy.
Fort Hill Farm CSA shares include some crops as Pick Your Own. Customers pick labor-intensive crops like strawberries, peas, beans and flowers. When asked how he handled trampled crops, Bucciaglia said. “We plant ten percent extra to allow for wobbly toddlers.”
The Monahans offer “farm credit” which is like a reloadable debit card for add-ons at their farm stand. They track the balance on an index card. Customers initial transactions. Customers pay $90 for $100 in credit. This eliminates the expense of credit card processing and cash machines. Parents love the convenience. They don‘t need to carry cash and can send their kids in for snacks. The farm credit carries into future years.
Rick Hermonot of Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm in Sterling, CT (ekonkhillturkeyfarm.com) said he limits the number of meat shares but not the number of poultry shares. He said, “Large animals [like pigs and cattle] need a lot of land. It is easy to add a few more birds for extra CSA members.”
Hermonot said the best thing they ever did was start making cider donuts. They sell out every weekend.
Michelle Collins of Fair Weather Acres in Rocky Hill, CT wants to grow her CSA. She said, “We make much more money this way than from our wholesale accounts.”
Many of the CSA School speakers advised against giving a bonus when farmers have a large crop harvest. Customers quickly come to expect it again. Instead, offer the extras as add-ons at your stand or find alternate markets.
Fort Hill Farm offers a generous amount of bountiful items without overloading shareholders. They also offer that crop at an attractive price for shareholders who wish to put up crops for storage.
Hermonot said his CSA shares help him move all meat cuts, not just the premium ones. His meat CSA members get first pick on most premium cuts. The retail store is allocated a small percentage as well.
What should a farmer do with uncollected shares after pickup day? Bucciaglia suggests having alternate markets like restaurants or farmers markets scheduled the day after pickup days. Like many farmers, Fort Hill Farm donates produce weekly to a nearby food bank.
The Monahans work with processers and chefs to turn excess produce into value added sauces, salsa, pestos and frozen vegetables.
With a state inspected, certified commercial kitchen and bakery, the Hermonots at Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm can sell rotisserie-cooked chickens not just frozen poultry and meats. They also make and sell jams, salsa, ice cream, pies, pastries, muffins and popcorn using ingredients grown on the farm.
Keep Customers Coming Back
Farmers agree customer satisfaction is critical. “Don’t over-promise and under-deliver” was a recurring message at the CSA School. Choose appropriate prices when you start your CSA. Set realistic expectations with a pre-season contract and Shareholder Guide. Maintain good communications all season with newsletters. Include a printed copy in members’ boxes or send an electronic newsletter via email or social media.
A guide called “Tools for CSA Members” offers suggestions on how to start and manage a CSA. The guide includes contract recommendations, sample seasonal share descriptions, insurance options, steps for SNAP benefit acceptance, CSA case studies, CT NOFA’s Farmers’ Pledge, a list of Connecticut CSAs and other resources. Download the full guide here.
Eighty participants from across southern New England attended CSA School at the Middlesex County Cooperative Extension Annex in Haddam, CT. The program was sponsored by the University of Connecticut and the USDA Risk Management Agency as part of the Targeted States Crop Insurance and Information program for Connecticut Agriculture.
For another explanation of the CSA model, and to find a CSA near you, click here.
A similar story also ran in the January 14, 2013 New England edition of Country Folks.