Starting a Community Supported Agriculture Share Program

Clagett Farm CSA Week 8
galant/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Community-supported agriculture shares, commonly called CSAs, are a way for farmers and consumers to partner to help farms match production to their markets. CSA subscribers purchase a share in the farm's growing season, in exchange for produce over a set number of weeks of the season. Some farms have spring, summer, fall, and even winter shares. Typically, there is a drop-off site or sites where CSA members pick up their weekly shares, or they come directly to the farm. Sometimes, CSAs involve a work share, where members come help out on the farm. Some require value-added products like chicken stock, kimchee, or bread. And some CSAs include meat, eggs, and dairy.

Why Start a CSA?

Starting a CSA has advantages for both the farmer and consumer. For you, the small farmer, you can spend time marketing your food during the winter, the off-season, before your seasonal workflow gets intense. You also get paid early in the season, before you have to spend a lot on seeds and labor, so your cash flow is better. And, CSAs allow you to connect deeply with your community, really letting you get to know the people who want your food. You can adjust your offerings to their desires and needs and create a more successful, responsive business.

Why Join a CSA?

In order to effectively market your CSA, you also need to understand why your potential customers would want to pay up front for an entire season's worth of produce. For CSA shareholders, they are looking for the freshest, most local food possible. Many care about whether chemicals are used on their produce, so they may be looking for chemical-free food. They enjoy a lower price on vegetables because they buy the share up front. And getting a large box of veggies every week gives them an incentive to eat healthier. Most CSA shareholders value the relationship with the farmer that they get by joining the CSA, as well. They may be interested in the workings of the farm or enjoy getting a discount for volunteering their labor.

Starting Your CSA

Once you've decided you want to start a CSA, it's time to set it up. I'm assuming you already have a farm and are producing some vegetables, perhaps selling at a farmers market and/or to a local grocery or food co-op or restaurants. Maybe you're even wholesaling vegetables. The first step in starting a CSA is to think hard about how you want to structure the shares. How many weeks will be in your season? (It's probably a good idea to start with just the summer season and add others as demand grows.) What vegetables are popular with your customers and grow well in your area? Will you use a high tunnel or other season extension methods to add weeks to your shares?

Next, you'll want to consider logistics. Many CSAs require full payment up front, but some are now offering the option of sending in payment spread over several months for a slightly higher cost. Although you don't get as much cash flow benefit, this can make the difference between selling a share or not. Consider carefully whether you can handle the cash flow difference in exchange for potentially more customers.

You'll also need to figure out how customers will pick up their shares. Will they come to the farm? Will you organize drop-off sites? Will you deliver your shares to subscribers' homes? You could even have the farmers market be your pick-up spot.

Who will pack the boxes or bags, and when will that be done? You will need to make sure your produce is picked as close to the pick-up time as possible. You may need to refrigerate your CSA boxes until pickup. Think about whether you will require shareholders to return the previous week's empty box to minimize your investment in packaging, or whether shareholders provide their own bags and pack their own shares when they arrive.

One good opportunity for shareholders who want to trade work for a discount on their shares is to offer to have them divide and package the freshly picked produce into the share boxes or bags.

Get Creative

When deciding how to structure your CSA, don't limit yourself to a simple box of pre-chosen vegetables every week. You can include value-added farm products like tinctures and salves. You could have a "market-style" CSA where shareholders can pick their own box for some or all of their shares. You can do winter CSAs that include pre-made foods like chicken soup, vegetables precut and ready to braise, and even meats. The only limit is your imagination - and of course, your time, energy, and ability to produce the items.