Traditionally, community supported agriculture (CSA) is an agreement between a given farmer and a group of consumers. Customers wishing to purchase food from the farm become “members,” paying a fee pre-growing season in exchange for a portion of the farm’s bounty. This upfront payment provides the farm with working capital when it is most needed. In return, the farmer is dedicated to growing crops to feed the CSA members.

The risk of crop failure, bad weather, and poor and abundant harvests is shared: if the crops don’t thrive, it is reflected in the CSA shares. When things go according to plan, members receive boxes overflowing with the fresh harvest. The relationship between farm and food is represented by the contents of that shared investment, the CSA “box.”

Although CSAs continue to attract customers to farms large and small across the nation today, the traditional CSA model has had to adapt to survive. Multi-producer CSAs, delivery options, value-added selections and free choice options are some of the changes CSA farmers have made through the years to attract a solid membership base.

The next wave of CSA changes is happening now.

Three thriving CSA farms: Brookford Farm in Canterbury, New Hampshire; Norwich Meadows Farm in Norwich, New York; and PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta, Illinois, share the ins and outs of CSA farming, as well as insights into the modifications they’ve made to keep their CSA programs viable in today’s marketplace. Each farm grows certified organic produce on anywhere from 10 to 60 acres, as well as in high tunnels, as a part of a larger farm. They serve 150 – 1,000 CSA members. Their unique CSA programs have been designed to attract members, and bring security into the high-risk world of farming.

BROOKFORD FARM

250 West Rd.
Canterbury, NH
(603) 742-4084

NORWICH MEADOWS FARM

105 Old Stone Road
Norwich, NY 13815
(607) 336-7598

PRAIRIERTH FARM

2047 2100th St.
Atlanta, IL 61723
(309) 824-0484

Marketing: CSA diversity

Diversifying your crops is the hallmark of many direct-market farms today. A little bit of everything, rather than specializing in one or two crops, is often the route selected by those who wish to sell directly to the public. Having various crops not only spreads your risk, it also increases your chances of building a stable, regular customer base each week. If you want to start a CSA, a well-rounded share is often a key component.

“We believe that growing for a CSA requires us to be more diversified in what you plant and your planning, whereas if you were just planting for wholesale you may be more inclined to only grow a few things or do more mono-cropping,” Amy Haller, CSA sales and marketing director for Brookford Farm, said. “We do surveys and get feedback from our members about what they like and use most frequently, and what they didn’t use that much. That really helps direct our planting energy.”

Brookford Farm has vegetables, meat, eggs, value-added products and dairy, too. CSA members can choose to join with a Whole Diet Share, or select from myriad other shares, designed to cater to a variety of dietary needs. Meat-only shares, vegetable shares and add-on shares of eggs, maple or dairy allow customers to tailor their membership to their specific eating habits.

With over 250 CSA members, Brookford Farm has multiple pickup sites in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. They also offer partnership programs, where individuals or businesses can establish a CSA pickup location and manage its finances, distribution and membership roster.

For farms that might not offer such a wide range of products, selling another farm’s product via an “add-on” share to your farm’s CSA is one way to appeal to a wide range of potential CSA members. Although PrairiErth Farm is quite diversified, and raises grains, grass-fed meats and eggs, as well as 15 acres of standard and specialty produce, their CSA members also benefit from the inclusion of other farmers at the CSA distribution sites.

“We’ve invited fellow farmers to share our pickup space,” Katie Bishop, who farms with her father-in-law, husband and brother-in-law at PrairiErth Farm, said. “Some have CSAs, others just bring stuff to sell; and some do both. You can get duck and chicken eggs, meat, bread, flowers, mushrooms, honey and more.”

Including these other local farmers and farm products in their CSA pickup locations is not only a perk they use to distinguish their program. It also benefits the farming community as a whole, building a stronger and more integrated local food system.

Zaid Kurdieh, who farms with his wife Haifa at their Norwich Meadows Farm, has built his business around CSA memberships. The farm’s 1,000 members primarily reside in New York City, hundreds of miles away. The farm works with Just Food-NYC, a nonprofit that promotes access to healthy food for urban residents. The nonprofit, rather than the farm, recruits core members to form and manage CSA groups throughout the city.

Kurdieh formerly worked for Cooperative Extension and wanted to avoid any appearance of competition or conflict of interest with other local farms, many of which run CSA programs locally. And, the specialty crops he wanted to grow were expensive, and not necessarily what the local population wanted or needed.

Instead, Kurdieh built his farm business model around serving the NYC population, both via CSA shares and through farmers market sales. The CSA model allows members to pay less for the high-quality specialty produce that sells at top dollar in the city marketplace. The income from the green markets helps to keep the CSA membership share price down.

“When we started, we wanted to do a CSA because I want folks of modest means to be able to buy our stuff,” Kurdieh said. “Our CSAs are definitely very reasonable in terms of what they get and what they pay.”

Brookford Farm stocks pickup sites in New Hampshire and Massachusetts for its more than 250 CSA members.

Promotion: CSA connections

From planning to planting, and harvest to hoedowns, welcoming members to participate in the farm was once a hallmark of a CSA program. Today, members may never even visit the farm, never mind participate in the work of farming; so any feeling of partnership beyond the monetary is often elusive. Yet creating that connection can help a CSA to thrive.

“We have a variety of interactive events on the farm: Earth Day Celebrations, farm tours, strawberry picking with an ice cream social,” Haller said. “We have also created a core group within our CSA membership. This is for members who would like to be more involved with the farm. They help with a variety of activities, which include marketing and website support. We meet several times throughout the year to discuss what is going on with the farm, our visions and goals, and how to create a better CSA for our members. It gives us a solid connection with our members and allows them the opportunity to be involved and connected to the farm.”

Although many CSA farms do have member-based on-farm perks, logistically the CSA customer base may be too far away to regularly visit the farm. Newsletters, social media videos and updates, and excellent customer service, whether in-person or online, are some ways CSA farms are remaining connected to members.

PrairiErth Farm has field days and tours, too. Bishop values face-to-face connections with members, and the farm runs its own distribution sites, as well as now offering home delivery and complimentary cooking classes to members. Weekly online ordering opportunities are now available to customers, possibly serving to introduce them to the CSA concept. Bishop is also a social media advocate, posting online video clips, cooking tips, real-time harvest updates, and replying to customer inquiries on their active Facebook page. Search PrairiErth on Facebook for a video where Bishop introduces the CSA program and perks.

Brookford Farm has an online presence, which forms the backbone of their CSA food delivery program.

“CSA members register, pay and order online, and then choose a delivery location,” Haller said. “This system has allowed us to reach a wide variety of members.”

Hans and Katie Bishop show off the bounty of vegetables from PrairiErth Farm.

Education: member motivation

That traditional relationship between CSA member and farmer no longer seems to be the primary reason customers seek out a CSA. Other motivating factors include cost savings, convenience of delivery or pickup, the desire for specialty products and the freshness of the food.

Kurdieh has found that many CSA members aren’t interested in that shared risk, and have unrealistic expectations of what a share should include. Although his “core group” of CSA members remains active and stable, many newer members don’t seem to appreciate the relationship aspect of the CSA format. CSA shares peaked about five years ago.

“Many CSA members are in the CSA because it’s a very reasonable way of getting food,” he said, but are no longer interested in sharing risk and connecting with the farm. “It violates the spirit of the CSA.”

Bishop, too, has seen a change in focus in member motivations for joining the CSA. The Bishop Family earned the MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year award for 2016, a distinction that points not only to how well they care for their piece of the earth, but how well they serve the community through outreach, education, on-farm research and the production of quality food. Still, the CSA format has become more challenging for them, too, over the past few years.

“I think the challenge we are facing with CSA retention and interest is customers have more choices than ever before. Grocery stores have brighter and bigger produce departments and there’s plenty of ‘local-washing’ out there, giving this perception of the produce being fresh and local when it’s neither,” Bishop said.

With so many ways for customers to shop and purchase specialty products and feel-good “local” foodstuffs, CSAs are facing a wide array of competition.

“CSAs aren’t as convenient as going to the store or ordering online. Plus, those stores are offering more interesting varieties like purple fingerling potatoes or heirloom squashes,” Bishop said. “So if the average consumer can get similar items and a similar vibe at the same place they can get their toilet paper, why not?”

Bishop also points to home delivery recipe meal kits, such as Blue Apron or HelloFresh, which deliver gourmet fixings right to the doorstep, complete with instructions, all for the price of a membership in their club. And that price might not be much more than that of a local farm’s CSA share.

Saving the CSA

The CSA relationship doesn’t typically exist in a bubble, with farms selling via CSA also having other marketing outlets. But for all the farms, the CSA is the backbone of their business model. The CSA reflects their farming philosophy and mission, and memberships validate their purpose, as well as provide working capital for the farm. Keeping that connection is vital to all of the producers.

At Brookford Farm, selling the CSA means connecting their member base to their farming philosophy, but also offering the convenience of diverse delivery locations, and that online membership portal. There are other CSAs in the areas they serve, so competition isn’t just among different food supply chains, but among CSA programs, too. Their CSA membership represents about 41 percent of their overall sales volume, with wholesale a close second.

“Our farm’s focus on the health of the soil and animals helps us to set ourselves apart from the other farms, along with our food delivery program,” Haller said. “Like a good soil foundation, we strive to create a good foundational relationship with our CSA members.”

For Zurdieh, the green market sales and the CSA membership work together. Each sales venue has a specific cropping plan, allowing him to spread his risk around. Experimental crops go to the green market, but the CSA members benefit if they are successful and abundant.

“My opinion is that the farmer must now really focus on the value their story adds. It’s about relationships now more than ever. It’s about connecting with the customers in a genuine and direct face-to-face way that industrial food systems can’t ever duplicate,” Bishop said. “Now we, as farmers and food producers, must focus on fighting for the integrity and relevancy in the local food systems.”