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Seasoned Growers Succeed with Community Supported Agriculture

Happy CSA Day! If you haven't heard of Community-Supported Agriculture, or CSA, it is basically a subscription-style marketing format commonly used by fresh market vegetable growers where customer-members pay upfront for a weekly "share" of produce from the farm during the growing season. It is a unique opportunity for small farmers and market gardeners to pre-sell a portion of their crops, simultaneously guaranteeing a market outlet for those vegetables and an influx of operating capital early in the year. Given these benefits, CSA can look like a desirable approach for aspiring vegetable farmers to enter agriculture, especially those with more fire in their belly than money in the bank. However, the successful CSA farmer needs significant expertise not only in managing crops, but in managing customers and their expectations in order to provide a great subscriber experience. As such, I would argue that CSA is a marketing platform best suited to experienced farmers.

It often takes a number of years of growing vegetables on a place before a farmer can be confident in which crops will reliably grow well, which varieties will taste best and have some shelf life, and which strategies they have to employ to mitigate the worst effects of local weeds, insects, and weather. Once he or she has that figured out, the farmer then has to become fairly masterful at planning crop rotations and staggering succession plantings. CSA members don't want to have strawberries or sweet corn or salad greens for just one week, they want to see these desirable products in their shares for as many weeks as possible. That means the farmer is making multiple plantings of multiple varieties to extend the harvest, and perfecting handling and storage practices to get one more week of shares out of crops that have already been harvested.

It can also take several seasons to form the relationships necessary to be successful with CSA. In addition to staying on top of their own crops, savvy CSA farmers will get to know what other farmers in the area grow. If one farmer has a crop failure due to a localized phenomenon like standing water or varmints or equipment problems, it's useful to know another grower nearby who can fill the void in the week's share by providing the tomatoes or melons or whatever the CSA members were promised. Situations like these regularly lead to longer-lasting collaborations as well, where a CSA farmer contracts with another farmer to grow one or more items for the CSA. The CSA farmer may lack the requisite acreage or equipment to produce these items (e.g. space-intensive vining crops like pumpkins), or it may simply be an opportunity to offer members a greater diversity of quality products – like berries or flowers or eggs – without adding further complexity to his or her own farm.

CSA farmers need to be intimately familiar with the local market for farm-fresh food - what's in high demand, buying and eating habits, willingness to pay - and this degree of market insight is hard to achieve without previous participation in the marketplace. CSA programs generally start with a small group of loyal customers earned through another channel, such as a farmers market. These die-hards are willing to plunk down several hundred dollars based purely on trust that the farmer will continue to give them their money's worth. Then, in addition to growing their food, the farmer has to shape the customer service aspects of the CSA program based on members' desires, e.g. full shares vs. half shares, lump-sum vs. monthly payments, print newsletter vs. e-newsletter, delivery to their door vs. pickup on the farm. Plus, the farmer has to be both swift and gracious in resolving complaints, because nowadays CSA customers frequently have other options, especially around metro areas.

Probably the best way for an aspiring farmer or market gardener to gain the experience necessary to run a successful CSA is to work on an established CSA farm for a few seasons and pick up the many subtle tricks-of-the-trade. Where do I buy 5/8 bushel waxed boxes for my shares? How do I keep the melons from getting bruised and the lettuce from wilting? How much kale will people around here actually eat in a week? (Getting too much food and having it go to waste is one of the reasons subscribers regularly cite for quitting a CSA.) If a beginning farmer is determined to start a CSA in their first season of production, I would recommend starting very small with a group of friends and family who understand that there will be a learning curve, tolerate the inevitable missteps, and provide honest feedback. Also, have a mentor farmer or farmer peer network in place that will be responsive with answers to numerous questions as the CSA season goes along.

Once a vegetable grower has gained adequate familiarity with local growing conditions, local farmer networks, and the local consumer marketplace, that is the ideal time to consider whether the potential benefits of community-supported agriculture are worth the complexity of management and depth of customer focus required by the model. CSA is a great way for local foods enthusiasts to literally buy into the movement, and a seasoned grower is best equipped to help them appreciate the experience of putting their money where their mouth is.

A version of this article previously appeared in Illinois AgriNews on Feb 13, 2017.

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