Organic Broadcaster

Successful CSA farmers share tips for cultivating loyal members

By Katie Bishop

PrairiErth Farm CSA members choose the vegetables they want to fill their bag at this “Choice” pickup site. Photo by Katie Bishop

I’ve written before about our farm’s challenges with the CSA model and the innovative ways I have tried to overcome declining membership numbers. (See the January|February 2018 Organic Broadcaster.) While I’ve seen reports of some small farms calling it quits with their CSAs, I am also well aware of farmers who have successful CSA models with sell-out shares and high retention rates. As I head into our farm’s 10th year of CSA, I wanted to learn from those farmers and glean from their experience and knowledge. I wanted to be inspired by their longevity. So, I reached out to four successful CSA farmers to get their perspectives.

One of the things I wanted to know was how they were adapting to changing consumer demand. How were they dealing with the pressure of those corporate subscription boxes like Hello Fresh, Imperfect Produce, or Blue Apron? I’ve witnessed farmers combating this perceived competition by offering more “choice” options, market-style options, and flexible home delivery. Truthfully, I changed my own CSA in the last couple of years to meet that assumed need, despite a loss of profitability.

Surprisingly most of the farmers I spoke to aren’t changing to stay relevant in the CSA market. As an example, Kristen Kordet from Blue Moon Community Farm, near Madison, Wisconsin, has had a successful CSA for the last 16 years. She creates a model that’s functional for her farming systems and skills, and then attracts customers who want the same thing.

Corinna Bench, from Shared Legacy Farm near Toledo, Ohio, shared a similar approach. She and her husband, Kurt, have a 400-member program. True to the traditional CSA model, they select the items in the share each week based on what’s ready to be harvested. She says there are still plenty of consumers who want the traditional style she offers.

“We’re seeing a new market telling us what it wants,” Bench said. “The pendulum is swinging wide, and convenience and choice are getting more value. And that’s becoming some farmers’ opportunity. I say go for it! There’s still a customer that wants the traditional style like mine, but they are a different kind of customer with different wants and needs and motivations. The market is calling for both right now.”

One farmer who’s responding to the call for more choice is Lauren Rudersdorf. She runs Raleigh’s Hillside Farm with her husband, Kyle, in Evansville, Wisconsin. Over the last seven years of farming, they’ve added 11 different sizes and delivery options, including a free-choice market share. Rudersdorf believes consumers are trending towards smaller shares and less frequent deliveries, so they offer many opportunities to meet that demand despite the choice programs being less popular in her area. They are remaining flexible so they can quickly adapt to whatever comes next.

So how do you know what your customers want? Ask them! The farmers I interviewed survey their members at the end of the season, and many of them do it casually throughout the season, too. Truthfully, I have always shied away from surveying my members. The feedback is too hard to hear sometimes—it’s so tricky to please everyone. However, the survey is also a chance for the member to have a voice and that contributes to a sense of connection. Plus, you can use positive feedback to form customer testimonials to share as part of your marketing plan.

Considering the needs of your customers is vital to a successful CSA, but so is education. Annie and Zach Metzger own Laughing Earth Farm in Cropseyville, New York. They offer a traditional CSA model that provides vegetables and meat to families for 35 weeks. I respect Annie’s perspective on adapting to the changing demands of CSA.

“I am more interested in changing the consumer to fit my model than in changing my model to fit the consumer,” she said. Her marketing looks a little different than most.
“We try to talk people out of joining instead of into joining,” Metzger explained. “We say, ‘Well, CSA isn’t really for you unless you already cook four nights a week or more. If you always choose a recipe and then go shopping for those ingredients, CSA might not be a great fit. It’s a better fit if you more often check the fridge and pantry and then create a recipe to fit.’”

Her CSA-member education focuses on cooking skills instead of recipes.

“We put a lot of emphasis on teaching people the basics of assembling a meal rather than just following a recipe,” she said. “I really view what I do as selling a lifestyle rather than a CSA share. I’m modeling for people how you can have a very busy life, two parents working full time at the family business, raising a child, being active community members, and still have time to make a nutritious home-crafted meal for 20 out of 21 meals a week.”

Education is the cornerstone of Bench’s CSA at Shared Legacy. Her private Facebook group, exclusive to her CSA members, is a model for other CSAs all over the world. She has made it her mission to teach farmers how to create a successful group of their own. (Check out www.mydigitalfarmer.com.)

She employs a community manager to be a coach in the Facebook group, communicating with members, creating recipes, posting unboxing videos, and working on other education strategies. Bench also created a CSA Academy through Teachable, an online class platform. It’s free for her members and consists of veggie e-books, video tutorials, preservation, and simple cooking techniques. It also includes a mini-course called “The Roadmap to CSA Success” to support new members. She points to this extensive education as the reason her members feel less “veggie guilt” and waste little of their weekly shares.

Rudersdorf from Raleigh’s Hillside Farm also has a robust education component to her farm’s CSA. She offers a weekly newsletter as well as membership in the farm’s private Facebook group. She and her husband created a worker share program where they trade services with a food blogger who helps generate content for the group. Rudersdorf also writes a blog, “The Leek and the Carrot,” with creative recipes (blueberry kohlrabi chicken salad anyone?) and stories from the farm. They also teach future members with an active and engaging social media presence.

Speaking of teaching future members, I wanted to share something Bench said about cultivating prospective members. She said “I know how to cultivate leads, and I’m willing to be patient while I wait for them to warm up. And I’ve got such a strong customer base now, that I can lean into them and let them be my brand ambassadors, while they do a lot of referring and promotion for me. ”

Letting your satisfied customers do the talking is what Kordet from Blue Moon said contributes to her program selling out early, year after year.

“In the last five years, we have met our membership goal each year with a relatively high retention rate,” she said. “We do very little marketing, and by far our biggest source of new members is referrals from current members.”

All four of these farmers put forth considerable effort into connecting with members. I think this is so important to the success of a CSA. Consumers can get organic food labeled as “local” anywhere. The CSA customer is paying for the experience, transparency, and the connection to the farmer. The personal connection to the land where the food is grown is significant, if only because of the corporate food industry’s inability to duplicate it.

There are a couple of ways to approach the creation of this farmer-member connection. Both Kordet from Blue Moon and Metzger from Laughing Earth have their CSA pickup exclusively on the farm. They create green space for the families to interact with each other or play areas for the kids. There are u-pick gardens for herbs, flowers, and cherry tomatoes.

“Having the farm as a community space and center of the CSA has been important to me from the beginning,” Kordet explained. “The CSA is structured to provide that experience.”

However, if you’re like me, your farm might not be close enough to your community for people to make the trip out. Utilizing social media, videos, and photos helps to create the experience your members crave. Also, being present at the CSA pickups is popular among many of these farmers.

The most important takeaway from my discussions with these farmers is to focus on the community of members. It’s not about the financial support they provide. It’s not about the soil and the 60 different varieties of produce we grow. While those are essential parts of the CSA model, it must revolve around the community of consumers we’re serving.

“Farmers need to remember that customers are in a relationship with our brand, and like any relationship, you have to tend it, or it dies,” Bench explained. “If we don’t grow with them and continue to find new ways to challenge them and excite them, then they will sense they are not important and will lose interest. We can’t just run CSAs the same way we always did 10 years ago. It’s not ‘rinse and repeat.’ No business can survive with that mentality. We always have to be innovating and adjusting to the market, growing with our customers, finding new ways to push them, surprise them, serve them, and sincerely engage with them.”

Katie Bishop runs the CSA for PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta, Illinois.

 

 

From the May | June 2019 Issue

 

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