Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is both a marketing strategy and a philosophy. The basic premise of a CSA is that customers commit, in advance of a growing season, to purchase a certain amount of farm products from a farmer. In doing so, the customer is committing to share the risk of production with the farmer – in essence, saying that what the farmer is doing is so important that the customer does not want the farm to fail simply because of bad weather or market price swings.
“Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is both a marketing strategy and a philosophy.”
Traditionally the farmer sells shares in the next season’s produce or other farm products before the season begins and receives payment up front. Each week of the season the shareholder (or member) will receive a “share” or box of fresh food from the farm. Shareholders may pick up their boxes at the farm, at delivery sites, or home delivery may be offered. In some CSAs the shareholders are involved in decision-making of certain aspects of the operation; in others the farmer makes all the decisions.
Each CSA is unique to the farmer and the community that is served. Recently, farmers have been developing other arrangements with their members. Some farms have implemented weekly or monthly payment plans for members instead of requiring the whole season’s payment up front. Others give members more choice in what they receive each week through online ordering or picking out shares at the farmers’ stand.
The beauty of a CSA is that a farmer can design the CSA to operate in the way that best fits the needs of the farmer and the customers. This is also the challenge – determining what will work best for all.
- Farmer receives money before the season starts for seed, inputs, supplies, etc.
- Farmer markets in the off-season to recruit new members and is able to concentrate on production during the season
- Relationship with shareholders is at least one season long, and may extend for years afterwards
- Community is able to share risk of farming with financial support and possibly labor
- In the event of a CSA crop failure, farmer’s financial loss is minimized
- Crop production – as many as 40-50 different crops must be grown to provide diversity to shareholders throughout the season
- Weekly shares– providing the proper quantity of produce and a satisfying combination ofproduce each week throughout the season
- Labor availability – crops are continually being planted, harvested, cleaned, sorted, and packed
- Location – if the location of the farm is near enough to the customers, on-farm pickup is the least burdensome for the farmer; otherwise, delivery sites must be established
- Shareholder retention – it is difficult to satisfy all shareholders with the mix of product each week (many shareholders drop out after trying it for a year)
- Experience growing the required quantities of many different crops
- Ability to manage the crops, harvest, pack, deliver
- Boxes or other containers for deliveries
- Location close to urban center or critical mass of potential customers
- Ability to engage shareholders in the farm through newsletters, field days, or other methods
- Start small – 5-25 shareholders if you are experienced at growing, otherwise grow a couple of years for farmers’ markets and keep good records of production
- Diversify marketing, especially at first, selling excess to farmers’ markets, restaurants, or on-farm
- Involve shareholders with farm events, field days, work-shares, etc. to increase shareholder retention
- Publish a newsletter each week to send to shareholders, including what is happening on the farm, a list of what is in the box, recipes, etc.
- Educate shareholders to seasonal eating, sustainable principles, and unfamiliar produce
- Don’t underprice the shares – this is the biggest reason for failure
- Make the strategy work for you – there are many variations
Adapted from a presentation by Lynn Pugh and Fundamentals of Organic Farming and Gardening, Unit 7 Marketing and Certification, from Georgia Organics.
Statistics from CSAs across the US
- 20-30 shares per acre is possible
- 30-40 shares per farmer or laborer is possible
- To earn a full-time income 80-100 shares are necessary
- The weight of vegetable shares per week ranges from 5-20 lbs. (average 10 lbs.)
- The number of items per share per week ranges from 5-12 (average 8)
- The share price ranges from $15-$50 per week
- Season length ranges from 10 to 52 weeks
Continue to On-Farm Markets.
Click below to hear an audio tip from experienced farmer and marketer Lynn Pugh.