Faced with fewer members, CSAs offer options for shares, deliveries
By Jody Padgham, MOSES
In the mid-1980s a new idea for making a connection between consumers and local farms came to the United States from Germany, Switzerland and Japan. The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model created new bonds between eaters and farmers, forming formal partnerships in which the consumers pledged financial support ahead of a season in return for a share of a farm’s production bounty.
The model slowly took hold, and by 1990 there were about 50 CSAs throughout the U.S. Acceptance of the model escalated, and as of 2017 there are estimated to be over 7,300 CSA farms in the country.
In the early years, the task of a farmer was to educate potential consumer members about the model and benefits of CSA. Farms that succeeded capitalized on the desire for eaters to connect to a farm, to understand how their food was grown, to enjoy a diversity of farm products distributed in season, and commit to financially supporting the farm’s success.
While most CSAs saw annual member turnover, throughout the first 25 years long waiting lists and outreach to a willing community allowed farms to keep membership numbers stable or growing. As the CSA model ages, however, and the food climate changes, many long-standing CSAs are struggling to fill annual member quotas. Since 2010 CSA farm numbers have dropped.
A diversity of factors appear to be leading this change. Many cities, rich with educated and food-conscious consumers, are now being served by an abundance of CSAs, both long-established and new, which compete for members. Other non-farm food delivery companies, offering “meal in a box” or custom order delivery, have capitalized on the climate CSAs have created to establish their businesses. Grocery stores, including large national chains, now offer organic food, and may even promote that they support local farms. Consumers continue to desire ready-to-eat and easy-to-prepare foods. Eaters have other options for fresh food, and may choose to not be “inconvenienced” by the traditional CSA, requiring pre-pay, a weekly box pickup, and bounty of items they may not like or know how to use.
New and even well-established CSAs have noticed these trends and are leading kitchen-table and community conversations about the future of individual CSAs as well as the CSA model. A workshop at the 2017 MOSES Organic Farming Conference, “The Resilient CSA” led by Dan Guenthner, Common Harvest Farm in Osceola, Wis., and Claire Strader, FairShare and University of Wisconsin Extension-Dane County, discussed the trends and solutions being considered by CSA farmers around the Midwest. An open discussion including audience members expanded the diversity of ideas shared.
Innovations on Basic Model
While the first CSAs in the Eastern U.S. started differently, in the Midwest the “traditional CSA” is based on one standard share size, a packed box that provides enough vegetables for 4 people for one week, delivered over an 18- to 22-week season with a standard price, or perhaps a sliding scale.
Numerous modifications of the basic CSA model have been developed to expand the market and diversify offerings. Innovations have occurred in share types, in delivery styles, and in member connections.
• Delivery over a longer season, with late or early season shares, served perhaps from storage or a hoop house. This spreads income and product over more weeks.
• Session shares, where members sign up for short segments (4 weeks, or a school year, or particular session), which can be chosen sequentially. This appeals to those reluctant to commit to longer periods, or tailors the share to specific member needs.
• Smaller share sizes. Weekly half shares for 2 are common, or standard size offered every other week. One farm offers a “nibble share” with 5-8 items, 1/3 to ½ of a grocery bag.
• Multi-farm share. Multiple farms come together to provide a diversity of items, allowing each farm to focus on what they do best. While a nice option for both farmers and members, it takes additional coordination, probably a dedicated staff person.
• Whole diet. Either from one or multiple farms,
a share that incorporates multiple food groups—dairy, meat, vegetables, fruit, coffee, etc. Again, this takes more coordination but is well received by consumers, and replicates a more familiar grocery experience.
• Value-added. Seconds from the farm are processed, and either incorporated into the share or offered for an additional fee.
• Workplace CSA. With this very popular option, workers pick up their share boxes as they leave their job. Be sure to set a minimum number of boxes delivered to make it worthwhile. A high-convenience model, it can be hard to maintain loyalty.
• Member-packed. The farmer sets out storage boxes of items, and lists what goes into a share. Members packs their own boxes, overseen by the farmer or a dedicated member. May be modified to allow some member choice, such as “pick two squash” or “choose two bunches of root vegetables” with several varieties to choose from. Items can be skipped if the member doesn’t want something.
• Home delivery. Customers love this, but it adds a lot of time or expense for the farmer.
• Credit-purchase. Members “purchase” a credit with the farm, generally with a 10 percent additional value (ie., $100 purchase gets $110 worth of product) and “shop” at a farm or market stand. As they choose product, their card value is deducted. It is recommended you set “use-by” dates so members don’t all show up and clean out the stand on your last market day.
• Custom-ordered boxes. Often facilitated by Facebook, members custom order what they want off of a posted availability list. Highly desired by consumers, very intensive management and labor for farmers.
As CSA farmers identify what they have that makes their business unique, the importance of member connections rises to the top. The community connection is something that CSAs offer that can’t be replaced by a food delivery service or big-box grocery.
“It is the relationship that we can uniquely offer,” commented Dan Guenthner during his MOSES Conference workshop. “This is what distinguishes us from other markets.” He hears a lot of talk about making CSAs more consumer-friendly, but noted that this is a potentially endless pursuit. “If you choose convenience, you will always be competing with the big guys, and most have very deep pockets.”
“Mutual respect and member trust is what makes our CSAs most unique” Dan continued. “Meeting and getting to know members, interacting and engaging really makes a difference.” He added that to succeed, CSA farmers must think of their members as partners. “We are here to create community in the long-term, not to fill up member slots each year.”
Participants in the workshop added a lot of personal experiences to Dan’s comments. Many emphasized how much their members value knowing them as farmers, and connecting to their family. Meeting members in person at drop-offs or farm events is ideal, but a weekly newsletter is also critical to forming often lasting bonds. “Talk about your family…about what you are thinking or feeling…share 2-3 pictures each time,” suggested various participants. Keep the newsletter short—one to two pages. Many recommended also using social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, or a blog. “My members appreciate a short touch from me two or three times a week,” one claimed.
“Members want to fall in love with you and your farm family,” one farmer explained. “They want that heart connection, to know you and feel like they are a part of the farm.” In each newsletter she shares a quote from “the youngest farm-hand,” something cute one of her two youngsters said or did that week. Others recommended regular pictures of the family dog, other farm animals or grandkids. “Telling your story is the key thing keeping you different from the big boxes,” another shared.
Claire Strader said that the bond she creates by being at the pick-up for her “member-pack” delivery sites is invaluable. “We can talk about why there are so few tomatoes,” she said. “Members really want to know, and really care.”
While it can be time-consuming and a challenge to get members out to the farm, all agree that it has great value. Suggestions include pumpkin or raspberry picking, or a pesto party. “Doing chick events for 7 years, where kids can hold chicks and (now) pet baby bunnies and lambs, we get 300 people from 300 member families,” one farmer said. “They love the pictures they get.”
“Invest a little so you can give something away, maybe get a keg of local beer or some ice cream,” another recommended. “Lower your expectations,” another conceded. “Invite them all, and if only five come, consider it a success and make it a great day for them.”
Dela and Tony Ends of Scotch Hill Farm have gone to the opposite extreme; they will go to member-invitation events, such as church events or community meals. They’ve had one core group of members from a church over an hour-and-a-half away for many years. “They call us and ask when they can come out to help,” Dela laughs. “A connection to our farm is really important to them.”
Another farmer, living outside a community of only 8,000, spends a lot of time creating awareness of her farm throughout the community, speaking at service groups, making library presentations, donating food for events. “I consider everyone in my community a member, even if they’re not a share-holder,” she said. She recommends you ask yourself, “Who is your community, and how do I bring them in?”
On Feb. 24, 2017—CSA Sign-up Day—a national CSA Partner Charter was inaugurated. Initiated by a group of 40 CSA farmers led by CSA pioneer and author Elizabeth Henderson, the CSA Charter is a set of 12 core principles that provide a clear definition of what Community Supported Agriculture farms are. Elizabeth and others in the CSA movement are encouraging all CSA farmers to make public commitments to the Charter, and uphold the principles and practices it defines. Supporters point out that the Charter provides transparency for members in their relationships with CSA farms.
“The Charter reminds CSA growers what CSA is about,” said Dela Ends, a 23-year CSA farmer. Ends led a MOSES Conference roundtable discussion about the Charter which about 25 newer and more experienced CSA farmers attended. “We had a great discussion,” she said. “The newer growers were especially excited to see this set of values all laid out.”
The 12 points of the Charter allow for a diversity of models for CSA, but focuses on the offering of farm-grown, high-quality products; the fostering of biodiversity and ecological, soil-based systems; a good-faith commitment of members and farmers as co-producers to share financial risks and rewards; member respect of land and farming practices; food safety; fair prices; cooperation; local seeds and breeds; and social inclusiveness.
Farmers are encouraged to publicly endorse the Charter and make copies available from farm websites etc. View the full Charter.
“The CSA model is unique,” Dan concluded. “We all have the ability to recognize the core principles, but have a lot of freedom to put our own innovations on top, this is one of the rich pieces of the CSA model.”
“Our heart is our strength,” he added. “Many people are looking for these kinds of connections. If we can stay true to the core principles, and communicate from our hearts, we will stay strong.”
Jody Padgham is the finance director for MOSES and co-author of Fearless Farm Finances, now available in an updated edition at mosesorganic.net.
From the May | June 2017 Issue