Organic Broadcaster

CSA farmer struggles to find ways to boost members’ interest, participation

By Katie M. Bishop

I’m sitting down to write with echoes of our 2017 CSA season still in my head.

“It’s too much food.”

“It’s not enough food to feed a family my size.”

“I’m the only one that eats vegetables in my house.”

“We’re just over it – donate the rest.”

“I’m throwing too much of it away.”

“I wanted more greens.”

“I wanted less greens.”

“I always forgot to pick up.”

“We got collards in our Blue Apron box so we finally knew what to do with yours.”

In addition to wholesale accounts and two farmers markets, PrairiErth Farm grows 15 acres of organic vegetables for CSA programs. For the past 7 years, we’ve had a traditional 24-week CSA running from mid-May through October, a winter CSA from November through December, and a Roots Box CSA with bi-weekly pick-ups in January and February. We pride ourselves on being the only CSA program in our region that can feed our community 36 weeks out of the year.

This past year, in response to what I feared was going to be a monumental decline of CSA sign-ups, a decrease in farmers market sales, and general disinterest in legitimate local and organic food, I got real with my CSA program. It’s not fitting people’s needs anymore.

I asked myself some important questions: What do my customers need? Who are my customers seven years later? How can we make this work for them yet stay profitable? How can we stay competitive without compromising quality or our ethics?

I sent my members a survey and brainstormed with some of the more seasoned, loyal ones. I scoured the internet in search of answers. I watched Simon Huntley’s webinars (Small Farm Central), and read his blog posts repeatedly. I went to CSA-centric workshops and lectures. I solicited members for a “core group” but received no interest. What could I do to keep my CSA alive? I was exhausted before the season had even started.

Two new grocery stores had opened in our town, with promises of fresh, organic, “local” produce. Their doors opened the same month as our farmers markets started back up and our CSA pick-ups began. Plus, Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and whatever other home delivery options were sprouting up faster than I could count. In addition, our community in central Illinois is rumored to have the most restaurants per capita than any other place in the country. Dining out has replaced cooking as a hobby.

With the survey results in mind, as well as what I had learned from my research, and the pressure I was feeling from the perceived competition, I decided my CSA program needed a handful of tweaks to stay relevant.

First, my members needed more flexibility. Of course, more flexibility for them usually means more work for us, but I knew they needed alternative pick-up arrangements when they were running late or going out of town. We worked with a locally owned grocery store to allow us to drop off boxed-up shares for those who missed their pick-up. Also, the survey results reflected many members were interested in home delivery. We created a delivery schedule that coincided with our existing wholesale delivery route, charged a $5 delivery fee and offered it to our members. Only a handful signed up.

Next, common feedback from members indicated that they didn’t know what to do with all the vegetables they received in their shares. I had already been sending weekly newsletters with recipes and preservation tips, and years ago I had written a cookbook organized by vegetable, specifically for my CSA members, and offered it at a significant discount. In response to their latest feedback, however, I thought I could do more.

I created a YouTube playlist of “Katie-curated” videos relevant to the items in their shares each week because I knew they weren’t taking the time to read the newsletters. I frequently posted recipes in our private CSA Facebook group and solicited contributions from members. I hosted a food preservation class, exclusive to members, but only 14 out of 175 attended. I made a snazzy infographic on how to store all the produce they’d be receiving. Yet they were still throwing produce away, not sure what to do with it, or not inspired enough to use it.

Third, they wanted the option to order more food to fit their family size. That was an easy fix. We updated our online store each week, allowed them to special order extra veggies, sometimes at a discounted rate, and we’d bring them to the CSA pick-up. We also made arrangements with local organic farmers and food producers to come to our pick-up and offer honey, chicken and duck eggs, beef, pork, lamb, turkeys, goat cheese and gelato, chickens, fresh baked bread using local grains, mushrooms, flowers, blueberries, apples, and pears.

Finally, I really focused on this aspect of a shared space. I wanted our CSA members to remember that we were partners in this. The outcome of our partnership was better quality air, soil and water, more biodiversity, stronger relationships with each other, safer food, protecting the wealth of our rural community, teaching each other skills, supporting farmworkers rights, and so on. To do this, I posted videos to our Facebook group of the farm in action and offered invites to the farm by appointment for individual VIP tours. We brought back the annual harvest party complete with a farm-to-fork meal, live music, hayrack rides and a bonfire. We offered volunteer work days to help harvest potatoes or work the farmers markets. The farm has an open-door policy for our members—I encouraged them to think of it as their farm, too.

I was confident this was going to be the best CSA season yet. We’d return to that 80 percent retention rate we had enjoyed five years ago; I was hopeful we had created a system that would allow this mutually beneficial relationship between the consumer and the farmer to really flourish. I had covered all the bases. What more could they need or want?

With complete frustration I tell you that on November 1 we were at a 30 percent retention rate for the 2018 season. Yes, it was still early, but we typically have a much higher percentage at that point in the year. It would seem like my extra efforts were wasted.

But what kind of story would this be if I just ended it there? In my opinion, a great farmer is one who is optimistic, relentless, and refuses to give up. One who looks across their fields, their spreadsheets, their soil test results, and their CSA retention rates with some perspective and commits to trying again and again.

Why have we been working so hard to make a program one-size-fits-all and expect our diverse group of customers to be able to accommodate our needs? I was tired of trying to convince my members that it’s their responsibility to totally change their shopping, food prep, cooking and eating habits just to support my for-profit farm. While I never actually came out and said, “It’s your duty! Put your money where your values are and enjoy this 5-pound head of kohlrabi for the second time this month!” there were times I really wanted to.

It suddenly dawned on me mid-September (when it’s never a good time to make massive overhauls to anything on your farm) that we have to do this. We have to make a bold change to stay competitive. We have to take a risk to be remarkable.

For our 2017 Winter CSA, running from November through December, we gave our members complete control over their shares. Using a CSA management software program, we started offering a “Choice CSA” where members can decide what goes into their share each week, adjust quantities and even place their box on hold. It just made sense to us. While we’re still working out the kinks, and I’m terrified at the thought of packing 175 boxes when the full season starts, I am confident this is the way forward for us.

In the first 6 weeks we’ve been running this “choice” program, we’ve received fantastic feedback. Just as I had hoped, our members are excited about picking up their boxes each week. While we might not be able to move as much daikon radish this fall as we had planned, our members have begun rushing to sign up for 2018’s full-season program. They’re even telling us they’d be willing to pay more for this service and that they’re saving money in the long run because there isn’t so much waste. I’ve had businesses and physicians offices reach out to host pick-ups. The sentiment I hear most often: “This is the best of both worlds. I get what I want, but I get to support you and Hans, too.”

I sincerely believe we, as small-scale, organic farmers, will stay competitive with the industrial food system because of our unique relationships with our customers and our ability to connect with those we grow food for. But I also believe we have to continue to evolve and be flexible enough to know when the old way isn’t working. I’m so grateful for our CSA members, not only for their support of our farm—5-pound heads of kohlrabi and all—but their feedback and patience and gentle guidance towards success. A true partnership is when both parties’ needs are met. What better way for that to happen than within the confines of community supported agriculture.

Katie Bishop, her husband, Hans, and his father, Dave, are the 2017 MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year. Their farm, PrairiErth, is in central Illinois.


From the January | February 2018 Issue

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