What You Need to Start a CSA Group
Shared From MOTHER EARTH NEWS Written By: Sarah Milstein
First of all, you must be an accomplished grower. CSA is not for beginners! It requires experience growing 40 or more crops in a succession that will yield seven or more different items on the same day each week over the course of a 20- to 52-week season. While farming any piece of land is a long term learning process and members who support a farmer assume some risk, you cannot expect them to finance your complete on-the-job training.
“It’s harder to be a CSA grower than a regular market gardener,” observes Debby Kavakos, “because you have to have many goodies each week.with a farmers’ market, you leave your failures at home and bring what you have. But with the CSA shares, you can’t just have a bagful of cabbage and that’s it. People expect a variety of good things”.
One of the most frequently cited factors in failed CSA groups is that the grower did not know how to grow a diverse, bountiful harvest. Several seasons of selling directly to people at farmers’ markets or through a farm stand can help you learn what items customers like and how to produce them.
Members are what constitutes a CSA group, but how many members do you need? Slack Hollow Farm in Argyle, New York has about a dozen local members in its CSA group, who pick up their shares in the barn’s washing area. The CSA members cover a small percentage of the farm’s operating budget, with most of Slack Hollow’s seven acres of vegetables sold through a food co-op in the region. Across the Hudson River, Roxbury Farm in Claverack grows 25 acres of vegetables for nearly 700 members. The Roxbury members account for 90% o7 the farm’s operating budget and live in three different areas in two cities and in the farm’s own county.
Slack Hollow and Roxbury exemplify the range of sizes for CSA groups and the variety of roles CSA can play in a farm or a market garden. A 1996 survey of CSA farms in the Northeast found that the average membership was 65 households: three quarters of the 100 growers responding to the survey used other market outlets( such as farmer’s markets and wholesaling) in addition to the CSA group.
The number of members you’ll need will depend on many factors, including your acreage, your expected output, and you budget if you are planning on delivering off-site, you will probably need a minimum of 50 members to make your run worthwhile.
Once you’ve decided how many members you’re aiming for, how do you find folks to sign on? A primary tool for advertising your CSA group will be brochures. So create–or have a member create–a trifold brochure that explains CSA, gives some details about your farm, and has a tear-off enrollment form. All printed materials about your CSA group should include full contact information and a mention of your growing methods if you follow organic guidelines.
A simple one-page flyer appropriate for posting on community bulletin boards will also be useful; hang them liberally. You may also run a small, simple newspaper ad. Many local papers will print it free of charge if they have extra space.
Unlike advertising, publicity is media coverage that you don’t pay for. Let local media outlets such as newspapers, radio, cable television, and Web sites know that you’re starting an exciting venture. Send them–or have a member write and send out–a press release announcing the availability of shares and include with it your brochure, farm newsletter (1f you have one); and clips from other coverage you have received (if any). Many farms find it fruitful to start out by holding one or two informational meetings at the farm, or to give a couple of off-farm presentation (ideally with a slide show of your operation and your family in; libraries, schools, churches, synagogues, or other community centers in the town your targeting for members. Media outlets will find the meetings interesting, so let the know when you’re holding them.
Word-of-mouth is the most success fun form of marketing for CSA group. It tends to catch over time, but how can you maximize personal advertising right now?
- Ask each current member to tell three friends about your CSA group. Give them brochures so they can pass them along and ask them to post flyers at ten different places.
- Encourage vacationing members to have friends pick up their sharers when they are out of town.
- Create a rotating gift share and print up a gift certificate. .Each week, give the certificate to a different member and ask them to give it to a friend who can then use it to pick up a share and learn about the CSA group firsthand.
- Try an incentive plan in which you give $10 per share referral bonus to both the referrer and the referred.
A Core Group
Generally speaking, a core group is a committee of four to ten committed CSA members who volunteer is take responsibility for CSA functions that happen beyond the garden gates – responsibilities include recruiting members, finding a distribution site, overseeing the distribution site, keeping treasury and membership records, coordinating member work shifts at the distribution site running community events such as potlucks and farm festivals, educating members about local agriculture and cooking with fresh produce, and maintaining food pantry connections. A core group can also work with the grower to figure out an annual budget for the farm and set the share price.
By taking on some or all of these CSA functions, a core group enables you to concentrate on growing. And, by getting involved in the farm and working closely with the farmers, core group member develop a special commitment to your CSA and carry their enthusiasm to the larger community.
Core groups are particularly useful if you have a fairly distant off-farm delivery location and don’t know potential members or distribution sites. Says Debby Kavakos, “We were wary of entrusting some critical jobs to people we barely knew 200 miles away. But we couldn’t have started our New York City CSA membership without a core group, and now some of those people have become good friends.” Not all CSA farms have core groups, however, either because the growers prefer to handle the aforementioned duties themselves, or because there are not enough members interested in serving on a core group.
If you want a core group to become part of your CSA operation, look for people to perform specific tasks such as managing the distribution site for the duration of a season. Let them know what type of work is involved (lots of greeting people), how much time it will take (four hours per week), when it needs to be done (Tuesdays, between 3:00 P.m. and 7:00 P.m.), and what, if anything, they will receive in return (lots of gratitude and satisfaction). Sometimes, farmers provide a share or partial share in exchange for the work a core group member does.
Communication with Your Members
Perhaps the single most important thing you can provide for your members besides delicious produce is a weekly letter from the farm. This may sound like a lot of work, but it need not take more than ten or 15 minutes per week, and it’s crucial for building members’ understanding of your project and loyalty to it.
“Last year was a fairly hard year on our farm,” says Sarah Shapiro, field manager at Quail Hill Community Farm (a project of the Peconic Land Trust) on the eastern tip of Long Island. “We had maybe five newsletters from the farm all year. This year, a member edited a weekly sheet that included news from the field, information about farm events and a column from a different farm staff person each week. It’s great fun, it’s made a tremendous difference, and has really helped with communication and increased member satisfaction.”
For the most part, your members will know very little about just how difficult and exciting it is to grow food on a commercial scale. A photocopied one-page or even half-page handwritten note discussing one aspect of the farm experience that week, the weather and its effect on the crops, an unusual vegetable in the share, the weather, a recently-hired worker, the weather, a new piece of equipment, the weather, a plague of flea beetles, the weather, a sauerkraut-making experiment, and …the weather will deeply increase members’ connection with you and their willingness to support the farm through adversity.
Computer-generated farm letters are fine, especially if your handwriting is messy. But don’t feel compelled to do anything fancy; some people prefer a low-tech letter that lets them get to know you through your script. If possible, rotate authorship of the letter around your crew and occasionally ask a member to write it from his or her perspective. Members always appreciate a recipe or two photocopied onto the other side of the farm letter, giving them ideas for using some of the vegetables in that week’s share (be sure to credit any cookbooks that serve as sources).
To continue reading about Sarah Milstein’s CSA experience, check out How to Start and Run a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Group on MOTHER EARTH NEWS.