How to Start and Run a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Group

article image
PHOTO: JUDY JANDA
Get started in community supported agriculture.

In 1992, Debby and Pete Kavakos began growing produce on an
acre of their homestead property, Stoneledge Farm, in
upstate New York. They sold their vegetables at a local
farmers’ market and to restaurants. Although they knew they
wanted to expand their business, they realized after a few
seasons that local markets would not be big enough to
support their growth.

They thought of selling at farmers’
markets in New York City, about three hours away. “My
family has been farming for generations, and my
great-grandfather sold his goods in New York City,” says
Debby, “so that’s a natural connection for us.” But with a
distant farmers’ market, Debby would have to spend a couple
of full days in the city each week–leaving in the morning
before her four children woke up and returning at night
after they were asleep.

In 1996, the Kavakos
learned about community supported agriculture (CSA, through
an organic agriculture newsletter. In CSA, members buy
shares of farm’s harvest before the season begins; Then,
usually June through late fall. CSA members receive a share
of the farm’s bounty. CSA growers may make weekly
deliveries to distribution points. or members may pick up
at the farm. Typically, seven to ten types of fresh.
usually organic vegetables are delivered or picked up each
week.

The Kavakos thought that a city-based CSA group might
meet their needs “A big part 6i the reason we enjoy farming
is the family aspect of it, and the CSA group allows us to
tap the city market, but with a much shorter trip. It takes
between six and eight hours total to drive down, unload the
truck, visit with members and maybe do a little city
shopping, then drive back,” Debby explains. “It works into
our family and our marketing goals.”

To start their group, Debby contacted just
Food, a New York City nonprofit organization that works on
food-related issues. Just Food helped her find a few
interested city people who could work with her to bulld a
membership and to find a distribution site. The Kavakos now
grow 140 shares on 15 acres. and would like to expand to
300 shares over the next three or four years. Two CSA
groups comprise more than 90% of the couple’s business,
with their remaining shares going to a few local people.
With the promise of growth, Stoneledge has been able to
invest in a 40′ x 60′ pole barn and some new equipment,
including a tractor and delivery truck. Debby now farms
full time, with help from the Kavakos kids; they hope that
next year, Pete will be able to quit his off-farm job and
work with the family full time, as well.

The CSA group is
not a perfect solution for the Kavakos. “We might be able
to make more per acre if we sold at a farmers’ market,”
Debby says. “And there’s lots of stress because people have
already paid and have expectations of our deliveries. Plus,
managing the CSA group is not always easy. It took a while
to build trust and respect between the growers and the
members. At first, we were worried: Are the members going
to tell us how to run our farm? We’re still working out
some of those communications and a sense of which jobs the
members do and which things we do. It’s a continual
learning process.”

The idea of CSA developed about 30 years ago in Japan, where it is called
teikei, which translates as “food with the
farmer’s face on it.” Teikei moved first to Europe
and then, in 1985, it was introduced to the U.S., where the
term community supported agriculture was coined.

Today,
Stoneledge Farm is one of about 600 CSA groups in North
America that together provide produce to nearly 100,000
people.

The CSA Model

For growers, the many benefits of CSA include receiving cash up front during
the winter months, when it is most needed but least
forthcoming. And, with the season long support of a
community, you are guaranteed a market for your produce and
are thus relieved of some of the risk of small-scale
farming.

The community supported agriculture model is very flexible, and
every CSA group is unique. In some groups, members pay ahead of time for a
full season, with the understanding that they will accept
some of the risks of production (if you have a tomato
failure, they’ll buy their tomatoes elsewhere) and may
enjoy some of the bounty (if you have a terrific basil crop
they’ll freeze pesto by the quirt). In other groups,
members subscribe on a monthly basis and receive a
predetermined amount of produce each week. Most CSA groups
offer vegetables as their basic share. But some groups also
offer fruit, herbs, flowers, bread, cheese, eggs, yogurt,
beef, honey, maple syrup, and most anything else you can
produce on a farm.

What You Need to Start a CSA Group

Growing Experience 

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

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.

Marketing Strategy

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).

Distribution Site and Managers

If you’re delivering shares off-farm, you’ll need a
reliable site. Members in the delivery community should be
able to help find a site and sometimes will offer a garage,
porch, or yard. If that is not feasible, churches and
community centers are often receptive to housing a weekly
distribution. Look for a good-sized room, garage, courtyard,
or other area that is accessible to a truck, can get a little
muddy, and can be used for about five hours each week. Indoor
or covered space u nice but not necessary, as vegetables
don’t mind getting wet.

If your distribution is on-farm, you
may ,wish to designate an area of the barn or of another
outbuilding that is safe for children and won’t create a
nuisance for you.

Some growers
deliver their produce in already bagged or boxed shares.
Prepackaging is a lot of work for you, :cough, and so
unless you’ve got a particular reason for doing it, setting
produce out in bulk may be easier. Also, many members like
digging their hands into the crates–it echoes in a small
way your experience of the harvest. The bulk distribution
(ask members to bring their own bags) also allows members
some :election and it tends to lead to a good deal of
socializing at the site, a priority for some groups. A bulk
distribution usually involves a chalkboard with a list
written out every week, telling members how much of each
vegetable to take. With a bulk distribution, you will
almost certainly need a site manager.

Most likely, whether
the distribution is on your land or not, you’ll have time
to drop off the goods, but won’t be able to stick around
for three or four hours to make sure every family gets its
share. A site manager is a non-farmer who fills this role.
Further, many CSA groups require that members put in a few
hours every year in helping at the site.

Sam and Elizabeth
Smith of Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, Massachusetts, ask
their 185 members to volunteer for a few hours over the
course of each season at their barn-based distribution.
“The distribution is pretty straightforward, but there’s
always something new each week and it’s good to have a
person overseeing things,” explains Sam.

Surplus Distribution

At the end of each distribution, you
will have leftover vegetables (from people who did not pick
up all or part of their share). The bigger your membership,
the more surplus you will have, but count on at least 10%
leftover every week. Many farms donate this surplus to a
food pantry or soup kitchen that is near the distribution
site, and some give the extras directly to needy families
that they know.

Some growers plan on delivering overage
specifically to people with little or no income, who may
not be able to afford the fresh, high-quality produce that
everyone needs. The Food Bank Farm in Hadley,
Massachusetts, grows about half of its produce for the
needy.

If you are working with a church group or other
community center, you may be able to barter your surplus
for use of its site.

A Pricing System

There are as many ways of deriving a share price as there
are CSA groups. One method is to determine your overall
growing costs, then divide that by the number of shares
you’re going to grow (or, if your operation has several
market outlets, decide on the percentage of your budget the
CSA will cover and divide that by the number of shares).
Another way is to estimate a dollar amount you are going to
deliver each week, based on your farm stand or farmers’
market prices.

How do you explain your share price to
members? While you need not provide a detailed accounting
of your expenses, members stand to learn a good deal about
the costs of growing, selling, and distributing food, and
the better educated your members are, the more likely they
will be to understand and support the farm during times of
difficulty or growth. A simple pie chart (or a list of
percentages) that gives a rough idea of how much of your
budget is spent on each of several broad categories (like
labor, land, inputs, capital expenses. trucking and
administration), and a note of how much of the farm’s
budget is covered by the CSA and by other sources. ought to
suffice.

What if you have customers who do not have the
resources to pay for food months before it is delivered, or
even to pay for food at all? Many farms allow a few members
to work off some or all of a share, either through farm
labor or through administrative and distribution site work.
You can also accept payments on a long-term installation
plan, and you can offer a sliding-scale share fee. If
members or organizations donate a share, you can offer a
sort of scholarship. There is always a way to be
compensated.

The most frequent comment experienced CSA
growers make is, “Start small and grow slowly.” They also
put a lot of emphasis on planning ahead. Since you’ll place
your seed orders over the winter, January is not too early
to begin recruiting members and testing interest in your
target community.

Finally, whether you do it for profit or
for other personal reasons, CSA should be fun and
fulfilling. It’s not for everyone, but the model can be
adapted to your specific needs. Let creativity guide you as
you develop a group; you may be surprised by the results.
Notes Debby Kavakos, “Four or five members are coming up
from the city tomorrow to plant garlic with us. It’s
amazing to me that people are going to take the time and
expense to help out because they care about next year. That
level of commitment has been very reassuring for us. It
makes us step back sometimes and appreciate our farm and
what we do.”