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Community Supported Agriculture

November/December 1993

From Eric Gibson's Sell What You Sow! The Grower's Guide to Successful Produce Marketing

With Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), members purchase "shares" of the farm's harvest, accepting less if a crop is damaged or fails. This is different than with conventional farming where the farmer bears all the risk. Once or twice a week mature crops are harvested and divided up among the shareholders. Usually the payment is several hundred dollars and the family receives enough vegetables to last through the season and sometimes enough for winter storage. The share is payable before the season starts, in one or several installments. If shareholders come out to the farm to pick up their produce, prices are usually from 25 to 50 percent less than retail prices for similar quality produce. Prices may be close to or above retail if the farmer makes deliveries.

CSA practitioners hail the concept as a way to revitalize the deteriorating family farm, to promote organic agriculture and to help consumers create their own food systems in the increasingly impersonal and detached world of agribusiness and supermarkets.

Jan Vandertuin, a pioneer CSA organizer in this country, describes CSA as a way of life rather than a way to make a lot of money. "With CSA, the emphasis is on community. The consumers feel they are owners. Instead of handing over ownership and operations to the farmer, CSA brings people together around one thing, food. Business is almost secondary."

Currently there are an estimated 400 CSA projects in the US, but at the rate they are multiplying, there should be about 1,000 CSAs by the year 2000, according to another CSA pioneer, Robyn Van En.

CSA advantages

In addition to getting a fresh weekly supply of homegrown produce at a modest cost and the opportunity to help support local farms, shareholders have a say in what varieties are planted and how the plants are grown (organically, for example). Generally, CSAs find that consumers are less concerned about price than they are about freshness, nutritional content, freedom from chemical contamination and supporting their local growers.

Since customers pay in advance, this guarantees the farmer a market for everything he or she grows. Advance payment creates working capital at planting time so the farmer can purchase equipment and supplies as needed. The farmer gets a paycheck weekly through the season, and at some CSA farms the farmer also receives health and life insurance, vacation and sick days. CSAs also allow for better off-season planning. If the farmer knows ahead of time what he's going to be able to sell, he can match planting to a pre-sold market.

A committed consumer group providing a guaranteed income lends financial credibility in case the farmer seeks a loan or mortgage. CSA arrangements spread out the risks of farming. At the outset, shareholders sign contracts with the farmer acknowledging that inclement weather, insects or other factors may mean lower-than-anticipated yields. For instance, if there is an estimated $3,000 crop loss, instead of the farmer absorbing all of it, 100 shareholders would lose $30 each.

CSA farming has advantages similar to U-Pick operations, including reduced labor costs. Consumers often help with production, harvesting and delivery. By tailoring production to fit the market, crop waste is dramatically reduced. Containers are re-used until they wear out. Consumers return organic wastes to be composted. Produce need not meet market cosmetic standards, so little is discarded.

CSA farming offers an urban-rural link that many feel is the soul of community supported agriculture. As one subscription farmer said: "I did not anticipate the enthusiasm which would be generated by offering my town-dwelling customers an opportunity to come to a farm and learn directly about the sources of their food. My subscription marketing system satisfied the need for good, organically-grown food, and the longing that many Americans feel to live in the country and have a part in the production of their food."

Another grower remarked, "We get a real kick out of knowing who'll be enjoying the fruits of our labors. It makes raising crops a lot more sensible to know they will be enjoyed and appreciated."

Special challenges

One special challenge with CSAs is to educate consumers about the delights of eating in-season produce. Although not being able to eat sweet corn or tomatoes in January may cause some grumbling among customers used to supermarket shopping, the quality and freshness of fresh-picked produce will win them over to the wisdom of eating from the "table of the earth."

Another CSA challenge lies in management. CSA farms can become management nightmares if done on too large a scale. It is quite a task keeping up with all the different varieties maturing and packing dozens of individual orders. You have to calculate yields, coordinate deliveries, and keep production and marketing records in much greater detail than with most other farming operations.

CSA farming requires someone with people skills. There may be a lot of customers coming to help or to pick up their shares.

One way to handle visitors is to set up certain days of the week or month as marketing or work days, and ask members to make an appointment if they need to come at other times. CSAs take a lot of time to deal with people, especially at the beginning of the harvest season when you need to show newcomers how to harvest crops that they've never harvested. "At our farm," Lynn Coody reported, "we were harvesting over 70 vegetables and 12 fruits, and it takes a lot of time to teach people how to harvest these crops."

If, however, you sometimes feel farm-bound and desire more people contact than farming usually allows, a CSA farm may be the ticket for you.

What to grow

Selection of crops and varieties is one of the most important aspects of CSAs. As in any specialty market, you must study what your customers' needs are and fill that market. If most of your clients have backyard gardens, for example, you might plant items like pie pumpkins, winter squash, eggplant and honeydew melons that home gardeners don't like to grow because of space requirements or the need for extra tools or skills. You might plant items that people purchase in large quantities to store, like potatoes, garlic and onions, as well as preserving items like tomatoes, corn, beans, apples and hot peppers.

Select only those crops you feel confident in growing. Plan ahead by planting trial crops and keeping careful note of yields. Keeping meticulous records of production and yields each year will help you plan for the next year.

Send a questionnaire to customers between seasons, asking their preferences and needs for both fresh and preserving items. The questionnaire also helps determine what additional crops you might add to make a profit.

Try to offer as much variety as possible at your pickup sites so customers don't have to make a number of stops to obtain their food supply. People are used to supermarket shopping and finding everything they need for dinner from lettuce to desert. One way to increase product variety is to network with other growers in your area to provide products for the customers that you don't offer yourself. If you grow vegetables, for example, consider supplementing your product selection by cooperating with a grower who has maple syrup or a vineyard, etc. The exchange may be in barter or trade.

Customers usually prefer a longer season of fresh-harvested crops. For example, it is preferable to have a steady supply of broccoli over many weeks rather than a huge amount all at once.

Since it takes a few years to refine estimates of production and customers' needs, don't commit all your produce volume to subscription farming at first. Develop additional markets such as health food or grocery stores, wholesalers or farmers' markets to provide an outlet for extra produce.

CSA plan

After figuring costs and a reasonable salary for yourself as the farmer, figure the cost of shares and how many members you'll need: 1) Estimate the number of participants; 2) figure the costs to feed them; 3) figure the average share per person; and 4) figure how much production the land can ecologically sustain. If few members are available to join, each member will have to pay more per share. Share memberships usually range from $250 to $1,000 annually. Often, two households will share an allotment. It's best to encourage all or at least partial payment at the beginning of the season to ensure members' commitment.

At some CSA farms, part of the share price is an agreement that members work a certain number of hours each season. Shareholders' help will be particularly welcome for labor-intensive planting and harvesting. Such chores can be turned into social events, allowing members of the community to come together to visit with and entertain one another.

You might offer shareholders a choice of summer, winter or full-season shares. This allows home gardeners, for example, to supplement home-grown produce with a winter share of storage crops.

Distribution and delivery

Some CSA farmers hire someone to distribute the food; some do it themselves; and sometimes the consumers take turns on a volunteer basis. Some CSA projects grow a certain amount of each crop to fulfill the requirements for pre-sold shares, with surplus sold through either wholesale or direct marketing outlets such as farmers' markets. Other projects determine approximate share per family by taking the total daily harvest and dividing it by the number of shares and marking the totals on a blackboard. Shareholders then weigh and pack their own produce according to their shares. A surplus table is provided where people can put back what they don't want. Other customers may pick items they can use, or the surplus left may be donated to a soup kitchen or convalescent home.

If it's not practical for consumers to come to the farm to pick up their shares of produce, one or more drop-off points can be arranged, such as a church or community center. Other projects simply take all the produce to a distribution shed and let people take what they need. "This may sound daring," comments Ron Shouldice, executive director with the Biodynamic Association, "but this has worked consistently well for years. People are considerate of each other and usually the problem is that people don't take enough." Some subscription farms make personal door-to-door delivery of the week's vegetables. If you do this, be sure to charge extra for this service, and bring home the customers' compostable material!

The proposal

The proposal introduces prospective customers to the CSA concept, and contains a commitment form if they wish to join. Printed as a short flyer or brochure, the proposal contains sections such as "the concept" explaining the CSA idea; "the plan" listing types of memberships available including price, volume and contents of each share and harvest and distribution, work/trade options; "the farm," a description of the farm, or, if no land has been purchased, your land requirements; "the farmer," or a job description if you are looking for a farmer; "budget" showing salaries, equipment and land costs for the year to show how share-prices are calculated; and a "commitment form."

Community involvement

The rewards of CSA for farmers are a rich, community-oriented lifestyle; a livelihood of producing healthy and nutritious food; and the excitement of a social experiment. "The real key is to connect production with the consumer so they can take responsibility for their food," notes Steve Decater, who with his wife Gloria operates a CSA farm near Covelo, California. "We try to have field days at least twice a year where people can come and work on the farm or just come and get a sense of what the life here is. We like having that connection with them so they can think of the farm as their place."

Keep an eye out for opportunities to encourage members to be personally involved in your CSA project. One way to do this is to ask them to bring their leaves, grass clippings and kitchen waste out to the farm regularly and add them to the compost pile. They also can bring their own bags and boxes to pick up produce.

Many CSA groups have a newsletter to let people know what crops are coming in, share recipes, and announce things of common interest. The newsletter and a phone-chain can be used to let people know if volunteers are needed to help with an emergency situation. When the weather forecast showed an unusually early frost at one CSA farm, for example, a group mobilized in an afternoon to harvest a crop that otherwise would have been lost.

More information:

Eric Gibson's new 304-page book, Sell What You Sow! The Grower's Guide to Successful Produce Marketing,also contains information on making a marketing plan; selecting crops for maximum return; direct marketing; rural recreation farms; value-added products; pricing; rules, regulations, insurance; making a sales call; promotion and advertising; group promotion, and many other farming and marketing topics.

Contact: Eric Gibson, New World Publishing, 3701 Clair Dr., Suite S; Carmichael, CA 95608. (916) 944-7932.