Community Supported Agriculture ’22: How To Make It Work Now

It’s become complicated, confusing and compromised, but it can still work.

Community supported agriculture (CSA) has evolved over the last two decades as farmers got better at balancing what worked for them against what worked for customers.

From a business and marketing standpoint, what’s not to like about the CSA model? You get a chunk of change before the season to cover expenses when little or no money is coming in. lock in a loyal customer base and commit to clearly stated, easily verifiable growing methods, usually based on organic practices, Customers get to feel good by being connected to their farmer, paying them a fair price, feeling confident about the health and safety of their food, and making a positive contribution to the environment and their local economies. .

From a selling standpoint it was a dream. Who wouldn’t trade sitting around for hours at a market, hoping to sell produce, for packing 50 boxes for pickup? Tying the marketing message to the swelling movement to support local food was a no-brainer, and effective.

Nationally, by 2014 according to the USDA, 7,286 farms had a CSA program, with total sales of $226 million. At an average price of $450, that represented 500,000 subscribers. By then CSA was getting more complicated.

The bigger demand for local food attracted more players who offered other ways to buy local. The core CSA bargain between farmer and member of sharing the risk and reward got lost in the shuffle. CSA customers became more demanding and more concerned about food waste. Logistics started becoming a nightmare. Retention rates dropped to under 50% for many farmers who realized that to be in the CSA business meant also being in the customer service business.

Then, technology came to the rescue, by offering streamlined, efficient logistics, easy and powerful marketing capability, clear contracts spelling out terms and conditions, and higher customer satisfaction. CSA’s did not grow dramatically, but they started to stabilize.

Then came the pandemic. Everyone became a fan of shorter supply chains. Their appeal? They worked. Gone was the processing, shipping, storage and distribution, all of which experienced major disruption. With fewer people handling the food, consumers could be more confident of its safety. Previously resistant shoppers consumers got comfortable buying food online, and understood the practical reason behind having a direct connection to a farmer. Suddenly, the CSA had new life.

If you are thinking of starting a CSA, or are tinkering with one you have, here’s a rundown of some of the considerations and options for how CSA’s work now.

✔ CROP REPERTOIRE – needs a different strategy
CSA’s require growing a bigger variety of crops in larger quantities than what you might typically take to a farmers market. Production shifts from higher-profit crops with fast turnaround like greens, lettuces and radishes, and niche products, to more mainstream, lower-value, longer season sustenance crops, like onions and potatoes.

✔ LAND BASE – may need expansion
Longer season crops might require a larger land base than the typical SPIN farmer uses. For those with the space, putting more of it in less labor intensive crops can work to their advantage. Multi-locational urban-based farmers might have to press some larger peri-urban plots into service.

✔ MARKETING – needs more effort
Be prepared to do more marketing . Since most CSA’s are managed online, a lot of the marketing is done that way too. Developing and promoting to an email list needs to be done regularly. Being high-profile in your community by giving talks also comes into play. CSA Day and virtual CSA fairs sponsored by state-affiliated organizations can amplify and expand your own marketing capabilities.

✔ LOGISTICS – delivery, or not
The easiest way to manage a CSA is to provide one weekly pickup at the farm. This limits the number of customers since many will not find this convenient. To broaden a CSA’s appeal might require delivery to multiple drop-off points, which may have to be paid in some way to manage the pickups.

✔ CROP DIVERSITY – it depends
Over the years, SPIN farmers have exploded all assumptions on this. They have made CSA’s work by growing a vast variety of crops on a few thousand square feet, or have specialized in just a few crops on larger spaces.

✔ BUSINESS MODEL – focused, or diversified
CSA’s can be a SPIN farmer’s only sales channel, or just one of several. The choice has nothing to do with farm size and everything to do with a farmers preference, strengths, availability of labor and demographics. .

✔ STRUCTURE – from one way to every which way
Seasons, duration, volume and selection are the usual variables in how CSA programs are structured. Seasonal CSA’s options can be full, early, mid or late season. Duration can range anywhere from short (4 weeks), to medium (6 to 12 weeks), to full season (20 – 52 weeks). Volume can range from full share to half shares. Farmers can offer just one option or several.

A variation on this is a flexible week CSA, in which members sign up for a certain number of weeks throughout the season. Here is an example: the CSA sets a duration of 25 weeks through the summer. Each member signs up for 10, 15, or all 25 weeks. If they pay for fewer than 25 weeks, they then choose which 10 or 15 weeks they want to get their share to work around vacations and other issues.

Selection has always been a flashpoint, since that is where what is best for the farmer and what is most desirable to the customer frequently conflict. For a farmer, the easiest option is a predetermined box each week. “You git what you git, and you don’t throw a fit.” For some customers that creates waste and disappointment. This is where technology comes to the rescue. Online CSA management software allows customers to set preferences and customize their box each week, and it gives the farmer tools to efficiently pack customized boxes.

Selection may also include add-on specialty CSA’s which are typically for eggs, flowers, mushrooms, fruit, meat, baked goods or value-added products. This might involve partnering with another farmer or producer.

From a logistical and operational standpoint the simplest setup is to charge a customer the cost of a CSA share which can then be drawn down as a credit throughout the season when the customer comes to the farmers market and purchases from your farm stand. If the market allows, you might be able to offer pre-market times to ensure the best selection for these preferred customers.

✔ CO-OPERATIVE CSA – distributing and specializing the work
Working together with other farms to pool resources, co-coordinate production and centralize marketing is a way to participate in a CSA while off-loading some of the work. Some SPIN farmers participate in a co-op, and maintain their own business too. Being part of a co-op does require effort in terms of management and being part of a team.

✔ POSITIONING – disguising and curating the CSA
To counteract a CSA backlash that occurred due to some of the model’s shortcomings, some SPIN farmers use semantics. Buying clubs, subscription services and memberships operate the same way, but without the stigma.

✔ THEMED CSA’s – standing out in a crowded market
CSA’s have become so ubiquitous that differentiation can now sometimes be a big success factor. One way to do that is with themed CSA’s that focus on a specific Ethnic cuisine or medicinal benefits, or that is curated by a well-known chef.

✔ SIZE – a wide range
CSA’s can range in size from a small handful of family, friends and neighbors to hundreds of members. A large CSA is not necessarily more lucrative than a smaller one. It requires more complex management and space. Scaling up a CSA has to be done with the same careful analysis and discipline as scaling up a farm.

✔ EXAMPLES – endless
SPIN farmers have provided a wide range of creative CSA models, including the following:

30 members
uses no other sales channel
12 weeks of predetermined boxes
6-9 farmer selected units/box
40+ different crops grown
Price: $420
4 plots, 4,000 sq. ft. total growing space .
Gross revenue: $20k

1,000 members, sold via a co-op
uses other sales channels
1 big crop – kale, 2 varieties (Curly and Red Russian)
Also grows:
beets – cans and sells them as “Hot Pink”
greens – a chef contract
spinach – always sells
squash – plants after kale to feed the soil
30 plots, 30,000 sq. ft. total growing space; plots are cycled through the business; those not in business use are planted to potatoes .
Gross revenue: $55k, $40k from the co-op CSA

30 members, guaranteed under contract by agrihood
uses other sales channels in addition to agrihood
22 weeks of predetermined boxes, plus a farm store for surplus production
27 different crops grown
Price: $750
60,000 sq. ft. total, including 40,000 sq. ft. in agrihood and 20,000 sq. the city .
Gross revenue: $67k, including $25k from agrihood shares and farm store, and $42k from city sales

✔ BOILING IT ALL DOWN – lots of options, no hard and fast rules
The CSA was brought to the US in the 1980’s by two farms in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and was not widely adopted until several decades later. It’s gone from being a sacred trust to a highly commercialized scalable business model. For SPIN farmers, there are lots of options, no hard and fast rules, and plenty of confusion to muddy the waters.

Here’s a baseline you can abide by, or depart from, on what defines a CSA:
> it’s a sharing of the risk between farmer and customer
> customer has to place an investment of a one-time payment with the farmer in advance of the season in return for a share of the farm’s production throughout the season
> there are no guarantees

Every CSA is different because it reflects the farmer who creates and runs it. While it’s become confusing, complicated and compromised, it can still be made to work.