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CSA—Is It For You?

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2013 October Issue Newsletter

Presented by Michael Kilpatrick Reviewed by Rebecca Buell

Michael Kilpatrick of Kilpatrick Family Farm (KFF) runs a successful, farmers’ market style Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). In this workshop, he discussed the KFF CSA model and provided a comprehensive overview of general CSA management, including the many things to consider before starting. He presented the lecture by asking basic questions:

Why CSA? Is CSA for you? What season length? How to package the CSA? How to deliver? How to get paid? How to market? He answered using his own knowledge and experience, touching upon the different CSA models, how best to plan for the CSA, what to grow and when, and various marketing tools he finds useful. Michael stresses the importance of running the farm as a business, thinking and planning far enough in advance, and connecting well with your customers. Kilpatrick Family Farm is located in Middle Granville, NY, near the border of NY and VT. In 2012, the farm had 14 acres in crops, 25 in cover crops, 1/3rd of an acre is under cover (greenhouses, high and low tunnels). They attended three weekly summer markets (two in winter), sold 285 summer shares and 140 winter shares, and hired eight full-time summer employees and two full-time winter employees. The farm income was $450,000, about 47% from market sales, 47% from CSA, and 5% from restaurant sales. Michael has a strong belief in local, organic food, loving the work you do, practicing good stewardship of the land, and building community. He and his brother started small, offering 10 CSA shares in 2006 and expanding each year to the current size. This growth has included a number of timesaving machines that have greatly decreased labor costs. (He says spending $3000 for a piece of machinery can save $2000/year, so don’t be afraid to spend money.) To make the farm profitable, it is important to keep good records and crunch the numbers; know exactly the value of those carrots and how many pounds per feet are necessary to make a profit before harvesting. Why CSA? CSA is an excellent way to form a strong connection between farmer and community: The food is fresh and safe, money stays local, and the farmer is guaranteed invested customers. There is great opportunity for educating, networking, and bartering within the CSA community. In this model, the inherent risk of growing food is also shared. Michael’s customers, which include 285 families, are able to sway public vote and are excited to help the farm change policy.

Is CSA for you? Do you like people? You will need to interact a lot with your members, answering many questions about the CSA and your farming practices. Transparency allows you to grow trust with your customers. Are you willing to receive a lower overall price for your produce and willing to grow a wide diversity of crops? Can you commit to producing food every week for the whole season? The typical length of a summer season CSA is 18-22 weeks. With season extension, you can offer an early spring, fall, and even winter CSA (using cold-weather greens and root cellar crops). In touristy areas, some farms offer short 12 week CSA and others develop special CSA schedules for colleges and universities.

How to package your CSA? The size of the share you offer can vary too, from a micro share (for 1-2 people) to a larger, family-size share. Some farms provide clean, ready-to-eat shares, others offer bulk vegetables straight from the field that will need to be washed and prepped by the consumer. When packing a share, create a well-rounded share with good variety; don’t frontload early weeks with greens. Include root cellar vegetables, if possible, or experiment with seasonextending high or low tunnels to provide some early treats. A well-packaged share could include one salad green, one cooking green, an allium, a root, a seasonal veggie, plus items to fill out the share. Don’t overpromise and under-deliver. How many shares do you want to offer? Michael suggests you estimate a harvest of 35-55 shares/acre with 50-100% of land in irrigation; plan an for additional farm help as you grow past 25 shares. You can also work cooperatively with neighboring farms to offer your customers additional items, like eggs, honey, cheese, meat, or other crops you are not growing. While more work for you, this can be a good way to grow your membership lists.

How to distribute your share? CSA models include free choice; boxed shares; bulk shares (where members assemble the share based on instructions from the farmer); custom boxed shares; or member harvested shares. KFF uses a free-choice, farmers’ market style CSA. The vegetables are set-up for retail at the farmers’ market and CSA members, depending on the size of their share, have $15-25 to “spend” at the market. There will typically be one “special” item that they must take, but other than that the members can mix and match what they want. Not only does this guarantee customers at the market stand, but usually the CSA members will spend extra money on additional items and also create a buzz around the stand, encouraging others to shop there, too. So the farmers’ market doubles as a CSA drop, brings in retail dollars, enables KFF to sell as much or as little as they want, and offers fluidity to adapt to the farm’s needs. How to manage share holders? A simple paper form can be an effective, inexpensive sign-up system for your CSA. As you grow, there are many online systems to look into: Wofoo or Google Docs; Farmigo; Local Harvest and CSAware; Small Farm Central; or develop a custom web-form. These options are more expensive but could save money and time. Getting paid in cash and check up front is easiest and best for the farmer, but offering payment plans and options to pay with credit/debit cards will increase your sign-ups. Decide on rules for customers’ missed pick-ups, late checks, and issuing refunds, and stick to them.

To be successful at marketing you need to offer a great product and build relationships. Interact and engage your customers through a vibrant website, photographs, a blog, emailed newsletters, and social media; offer farm tours or plan a harvest day festival to invite people to see the farm. Don’t miss the opportunity to educate the consumer. Have print material available, including business cards, brochures, cookbooks for customer perusal, and recipe cards to hand out. Include a well-structured end of year survey to receive as much feedback as possible to improve for next year. When it comes to marketing, you are selling yourself and your product. Be transparent and real; believe in what you are doing; and stay connected to your customers.

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