To make a farm business run more efficiently, technology is a useful tool. To scale up a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, it’s a necessity. However it’s applied, what it helps to do is reduce human error and save labor on repetitive and administrative tasks. It does this through automation that monitors and guides production, marketing, post-harvest processing, payment and delivery.
How a platform typically works is you buy access to it, usually on an annual basis, and then log in online to use it. Using it involves entering data and software tools to schedule, run lists and reports, and send promotions and customer communications.
Before choosing an online platform, you should have a clear idea on whether you want it to support your CSA the way you have always structured it, or whether you want to use it to re-structure your CSA to offer members more flexibility in what they get, when they get it, and how they pay for it.
Platforms can accommodate many different CSA structures, either traditional or customized. But it’s your customers that should guide how you operate your CSA, not what the tech can do. The point is to fulfill an existing need, not fix what isn’t broken. Do you need a platform to better manage “back office” operations, or do you want to allow customers to place and manage their orders? If the platform is solely for your internal use, it might not have to integrate into your existing website. If it is an online order system, it will.
Payment and refund processing and reporting is a key function of any platform. Most charge transaction fees, and some can process SNAP benefits. Make a list of all the functions you need it to be able to handle.
Order fulfillment can be an onerous task that a CSA platform makes entirely manageable by streamlining pack lists for customized orders and printing out customer order labels. Some even provide harvesting plans based on what crops, in what volume, are needed per delivery.
Reporting is a big benefit of automating the CSA process. Knowing sales and revenues, customer balances, sales by product and weight helps you analyze and better control profitability and become better at business. Make a list of the information you need and be sure the platform offers it in an easy to access, readable format.
Communications is also an important component of a CSA platform. Regular order messages and pickup reminders improve customer service. But here is a reality check: the more flexible that technology allows a CSA to become, the more customers will come to expect and the more responsive you need to be. So some of the efficiency that is gained by automating the CSA process is lost through increased customer service, responding to and managing demands and expectations. Be prepared for that.
Marketing, many farmers’ most challenging task, can also be made a lot less burdensome. Maintaining customer lists, building wait lists, and creating prospect lists all become easier, along with sending renewal and new member solicitations.
You need to invest some time and effort in evaluating a platform. That means getting a demo of how the system works and samples of reports. Don’t just rely on claims from a company’s website. Talk to farmers who are using the platform. Most companies provide testimonials, so they should be easy to track down.
The information you enter to use the system is an asset. Be sure you maintain ownership, know how it is stored and protected, what type of control you have over it, and whether it might be accessed or used by others.
Many farmers don’t come hard-wired to do tech work. Online platforms are designed and sold by those who do. When you move your CSA business online, you’ll be trading menial tasks and grunt work for time behind a computer. You’re committing to a whole new way of operating. So know not only what you are buying, but what you are buying into.
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