Should You Start a CSA? Ask These 4 Questions First

CSA share of mixed vegetables: zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumber, onions, mesclun mix, and sage

Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, is booming right now.  

As COVID-19 puts pressure on the food system, more and more people are turning to local farms for safe, dependable food access.

At the same time, farmers who once relied on wholesale accounts are finding themselves scrambling with restaurants closed and those sales channels either paused or significantly lowered.  Farmers Markets, while open in some states, are closed or modified to limit traffic, leading to decreased sales.

So…is it time for you to start a CSA?

Before you take the leap (or perhaps while you’re taking the leap), consider these four questions and set yourself up for success this growing season.

How many crops will you grow?

CSAs are known for offering a diversity of crops to their customers.  Instead of focusing on 1 – 10 crops for a wholesale market, you’ll need to produce 30 – 40 different crops (some farms may produce an even wider variety).  

There are environmental benefits to this: polyculture and companion planting increase biodiversity, create homes for beneficial insects which can decrease pests, and crop rotation is better for the soil.  

There are also challenges.  Growing a large diversity of crops can make each one more expensive — economies of scale play a part on organic farms just as much as in any other industry.  

You may find certain crops grow better than others.  You may be great at growing lettuce, and not so great at growing sweet potatoes, for instance.

If there are crops you don’t want to grow but do want to offer in the share, consider buying those in from other farms.  While you don’t have to grow every crop in the world, you should clearly communicate with your customers so they know what to expect.

How will you deliver the shares?

Farmstand with mixed organic vegetables, set up for a CSA pick-up.

Will you set up market-style on the farm or in town?  Will you pre-pack the shares?  Will you drop them off at a central location, like a workplace, or will you offer home delivery?

At Good Heart, we’ve traditionally set up the shares market-style, offering both an on-farm and in-town pick-up location.  

While we’ve temporarily shifted to pre-packing shares due to considerations around COVID-19, we’ve found that our customers enjoy the market-style setup, where we offer them choices and the ability to pick their own vegetables.  

As you decide your delivery style, look for the balance between what your customers want and what you’re willing to do.  

Consider the time it takes to pre-pack shares vs. set them up market-style.  The time it takes to deliver to a central location in town vs. setting up on the farm vs. home delivery.  

Do you like people?

Okay, this is a bit facetious, but it’s important to consider.  Are you a farmer who truly wants to be in their field all day?  A farmer who would rather be in the company of plants than people?  That’s okay!  

Knowing yourself and your strengths will help you decide what kind of pick-up and delivery style you want to offer.  

For example, if you don’t want to have face-to-face interactions for 3 hours during a CSA pick-up, consider boxing the shares for people to pick up.

If you enjoy the in-person connection with your members, setting up a market-style pick-up where you greet each member is a great way to both grow relationships and show off the veggies.  

What’s your marketing plan? 

How will you market and sell your shares?  How will you reach new customers and retain current ones?  How will you grow customer relationships to serve your people and increase retention rates?

Where wholesale sales require you to communicate with just one point person, with a CSA you need to reach many individuals.

In Vermont, it’s often said that the CSA and local food market is saturated.  You go to put up a flyer at the local coop and find 5 other farms already advertising their shares.  You’re competing against other CSAs, Farmers Markets, Farm Stands, and Coops that stock local food.

But even in a state like Vermont, local food comprises only 12.9% of food sales.  Instead of competing against each other, local organic farmers have an enormous opportunity to expand their reach.

And with a CSA, you have the ability to leverage something that supermarkets don’t: the power of relationships.

More than ever, people want real connection.  They want to know where their food comes from and know that they’re feeding their families well.  

You don’t have to rely on flyers and brochures pinned up on crowded bulletin boards around town.  Instead, you can start building direct relationships with potential customers right now through your website, social media, and email.

It’s okay if you don’t want to be on every social media channel — in fact, it’s better to pick one or two channels you enjoy and show up there consistently.  Post photos and captions of what’s happening on the farm, and then invite people to sign up for your email newsletter, where you can grow a deeper connection and share more about your farm and CSA.

While social media can feel like a shot in the dark — only about 5% of your Facebook followers will see any given post — email marketing allows you to show up right in a customer’s inbox, where you can have a more personal and direct conversation.

You can learn more about email marketing here.

Want to dig deeper into Community Supported Agriculture?  

Here are more considerations as you ask yourself: is CSA right for your farm?

Do you have more questions about running a CSA?  Let me know in the comments below.  And remember: we’re all in this together.  We can feed our communities and grow a more resilient food system together.

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