Running a Community-Supported Agriculture Business

This couple earns on-farm income by selling weekly vegetable boxes via their CSA business.

Pat and Cam

Pat Forster, of Seasons Fine Food in Greater Napanee, Ontario, reviews the author’s boxed vegetables before customers gather their bins.

Pat Forster and Cam Mather

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Our community-supported agriculture (CSA) program reduces the financial risk of selling solely at markets or growing one main crop. By using the CSA model, we’re guaranteed an income upfront because members pay in advance for their weekly vegetable boxes. We don’t harvest more produce than we can sell, and we don’t compete with other market-bound growers. In our CSA venture, each member gets a proportional share of the harvest, and we waste little produce. This model allows us to maximize income from a smaller property by growing intensively and using continuous or succession planting during the growing season. Our income is modest, but the CSA system is easily customized to our space, production and revenue goals.

For a delivery date at the end of June, we require our members to pay half the cost of a membership share on May 1 and the remaining half on June 1. Asking for payment before delivery seemed awkward to us at first, but we’ve yet to see anyone hesitate. Delivering to a central pickup location, or to several in a city, is a common practice with CSA programs. We found a local store with complementary products to ours, and the owners were happy to allow this regular stream of potential customers to pick up from their store. You could offer home delivery, too — just make sure to factor the time and fuel requirements into your program’s cost.

One of the biggest challenges for new growers is finding the right farm or garden property, which needs to be close enough to an urban center to conveniently reach customers (as country folks with their own gardens are less likely to join), but far enough away that land prices aren’t prohibitive. You can run a reasonably sized CSA program with 1 to 5 acres under cultivation, so you won’t need a huge piece of land. Remember, the more rural your location, the longer your drive will be, and the more you’ll spend on fuel to deliver weekly shares.

One of the keys to success is to keep your overhead low; paying cash for your property is one way to do this. If property is too expensive where you want to grow, ask a local farmer whether they’ll let you rent a couple of acres. Many industrial farmers don’t have their own food gardens and may even offer you some land in exchange for a weekly box of fresh produce.

Marketing your CSA program will be crucial. You’ll likely need to continually advertise for new members because some turnover will occur each year — people will move, start growing their own gardens, or decide they don’t like vegetables after all. Farm tours, work parties, a good website and presentations about your farm will all help.

Many CSA programs are starting to offer winter shares, which can include greenhouse-protected, cold-weather crops and storage vegetables, such as kale, potatoes and squash. Because many of your potential winter members will live in urban areas, they probably won’t have space to store foods for long; a biweekly or monthly box will be perfect for them.

As the CSA model has become more common, many farmers have diversified by adding other homegrown products, including meat, dairy and eggs. Many CSA customers are aware of the realities of industrial animal agriculture and the health benefits of eating higher-quality, pastured meat products, so the idea of paying premium prices for eggs, dairy or meat from happy, free-range livestock is all right with them. While these products can broaden your potential customer base and revenue stream, they will also entail an additional level of complexity, including government food-safety regulations, refrigeration, knowledge of animal husbandry and a less seasonal schedule. Plan how you’ll handle these details before diving in.

Our 50-member CSA brings in more than half of our income, and we earn the rest via contractual writing assignments and sales through our small book-publishing company. (If you’re interested in supporting your family solely through vegetable sales, see Market Gardening: How to Make a Living on 1.5 Acres.)  We also dedicated a number of years to cutting expenses and fully paying off our mortgage. We couldn’t be happier with our decision to transition to this lifestyle; we’re gratified each week by filling boxes with fresh, organic produce for our members. Plus, I can eat a pie per day during the growing season, and the pounds still fall off!

Cam Mather and his wife, Michelle, homestead on 150 wooded acres in Ontario, where they run a 50-member community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and a publishing business, all powered by sun and wind. See the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store for his book Little House Off the Grid or visit his website to learn about the in-depth CSA workshop he’ll be teaching in spring 2016.