Six challenges to consider before starting a CSA program
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You have heard a lot about Community Supported Agriculture and how it is a great way to sell your produce. People commit to buying a weekly share during the growing season, they pay you upfront so you have the start up money to get planting, and then they pick up each week. Sounds straightforward, right?
Just like any other sales venue, there are pros and cons to selling via CSA.
What is going on behind the scenes to make a CSA work? Before you jump in and start a CSA program, let’s look at some of the considerations.
First, you have to grow a diversity of crops and you have to plan out when you will have those crops. We all know that crops don’t grow on our schedules, because, well, weather. It’s hotter, it’s colder, it’s wetter, it’s dryer than expected… and the crops mature more quickly, more slowly, they are smaller, they drowned in the rain.
You can set up your CSA any way that you like. Our small share has 5-6 vegetables plus an herb and a fruit. Our large share has 8-9 vegetables, plus larger quantities of some, plus 1-2 herbs and 1-2 fruits. This means having at least 9 different vegetables available for harvest each week.
My customers like the idea of a CSA—supporting a small farm, buying local, eating fresh—but they don’t want to eat the same thing every week. One reason they join the CSA is to broaden their food repertoire.
In addition, people want to share in crop abundance, but they do not want to share in crop failure.
Here are six points to consider before you embark on a CSA program for your farm.
Here is the 1st challenge: if you grow enough zucchini to put in all the shares, your customers do not want zucchini every single week. I will put in zucchini two weeks, then take a week off. What do you do with the zucchini on the off week? Even if you have a CSA program, you need to have a way to sell the extra produce. Online sales, farmers market, farm stand, chefs, local food bank—have a venue lined up for that produce.
Here is the 2nd challenge: crops grow dependent on the weather. Sometimes a crop isn’t ready and then what? You have promised people they would have a certain amount of food each week. We always grow crops that are stable all growing season, like kale, chard, and collards. When we post our list of what’s in the share, I can put eggplant or kale for one of the items. If I am short on eggplant (because you don’t know exactly how much you have until you harvest), I have kale as a back up.
Here is the 3rd challenge: people want to know what’s going in the share, and we know that things can change. Having a back up item gives you the flexibility to use your reserves if need be.
Here is the 4th challenge: sometimes you just don’t have enough. What to do? Those back up crops come in handy at these times—any of the cut and come again crops or perennial herbs. Have a list of strategic partners who can help you out. A neighboring farm grows potatoes and you can buy some to fill out your offerings. Always be transparent and let your CSA customers know that there are some crops you do not grow, and that you source those crops from like-minded local farmers. You can also plan to use produce from another farm for a week or two when you know you will be in-between crops. It becomes part of your crop rotation.
5th challenge: most people go away in the summer for a week or two vacation. How will you handle that? Do they give their share to a friend? Is it donated to the Food Bank? Do they have a credit to use in the online store if they give notice ahead of time? Keeping track of all of this is a gigantic use of time unless you are using a software system that tracks this. And then it’s a big chunk of money.
6th challenge: In a traditional CSA, people pay in advance for the whole season to fund the start up costs. This means they are not paying you any additional money during the growing season. Are you able to set the money aside for the needed expenses during the season? Do you have another way of generating revenue during the growing season?
~What to do with extra produce?
~What to do if there isn’t enough of one crop to put in the share?
~What to do when what you think will be ready is not ready?
~What to do if you don’t have enough on your farm to fill the CSAs? Should you partner with another farmer?
~What to do when your customers go on vacation?
~How will you generate revenue during the growing season?
In general, a CSA can be a great addition to your farm. It brings customers to you on a weekly basis, so that you can help develop farm loyalty. It provides a guaranteed place to sell your unusual crops like kohlrabi, Hakurei turnips, or baby bok choy. However, you still need a way to sell the extra produce.
We have a year-round CSA program, and we find that our CSA sales are about one third of our total business. It is a great spring board to get people to buy additional produce. A good CSA program also requires constant customer service and maintenance.
If you are looking for ways to make your small farm profitable, check out our courses. I believe small farms can be very profitable.
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Happy growing and happy eating!