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  • How to Start a CSA Business for Growers and Farmers

    November 07, 2023 15 min read 0 Comments

    Bunches of Beets on Market Display

    We have gathered information from successful growers of various sizes to break down exactly how to start a CSA business and how to know if a CSA is right for your farm. Community Supported Agriculture is a popular model that allows farmers to sell shares of their harvest in advance.

    The CSA model offers many benefits to both the farmer and the consumer, but it’s not without challenges. Starting a CSA is possible if you plan accordingly and listen to the successes of those that have gone before. 

    Understanding CSA Farming

    Defining Community Supported Agriculture

    Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) allows farmers to sell shares of their product in advance. Members buy in with the understanding that the harvest is not guaranteed. The farmer will do everything possible to succeed, but as a member they are supporting the farm either way.

    A CSA provides a direct relationship between farmers, consumers, and the land, allowing members to support and invest in the farm, paying in advance for a share of the harvest season. According to this study, a CSA establishes a close connection between farmers and the local community, promoting healthy and sustainable practices.

    Beans and Potatoes in crates

    Benefits of CSA Business for Farmers and Community

    Starting a CSA can be a rewarding venture for farmers.  

    Here are some key benefits of a CSA:

    • Guaranteed income: By selling shares up front, farmers have a reliable source of income to cover their expenses and invest in the farm. Ellen of Ellen’s Flowers, notes that having that influx of cash at the beginning of the season is hugely beneficial for offsetting costs before flowers are ready to sell.
    • Direct link to consumers: CSA allows farmers to establish a direct connection with their customers, fostering a sense of community and loyalty. Sarah Carden Cookfair of Finger Foods Farm has been running a CSA for 12 years and the close link to community is her favorite part of offering a CSA.
    • Diversification of products: Farmers can offer a wide variety of products to CSA members, creating a diverse and appealing selection of fresh produce. This can also be a major challenge as you’ll see below.

    Challenges of Running a CSA

    Having a CSA is not without its challenges. Like any farm venture, it still involves a lot of hard work and may or may not align with your farm goals. 

    Here are some potential challenges of running a CSA:

    • Growing a diverse selection of products: There’s a reason a lot of businesses focus on one or two products. Specializing allows you to get good at one thing. Having a CSA, though, generally means growing a huge diversity of crops. Finger Foods Farm notes that this can certainly be fun, but it also gets overwhelming to have really complicated crop calendars and the pressure to ensure that 15-20 different crops are done perfectly.
    • Member requests: Members may want to change their pickup date or request certain products. Depending on your personality, it can be draining to constantly receive member feedback.
    • Customer service: Because members pay a large sum upfront, they expect a certain level of customer service and communication. Having a clear contract and marketing plan can help alleviate some of the challenges related to customer service.

    Green Beans

    Determining Share Structure

    Season Length

    The length of your season depends largely on your climate and location. California farmers may be able to offer a year-round CSA whereas a zone 4 farmer may only offer a 12-week CSA. Calculate when crops will be ready for harvest and set your length to match. Make sure it’s clear in all of your marketing how long the CSA runs for each season.

    Bulk cucumbers in a crate

    Share Size

    It’s best to offer at least a regular and a half share. You want to create share-size options that can accommodate everyone from a single person to a large family. The Brown Family Farm breaks their shares into three sizes: Single, Family and Jumbo. As they explain, the single is great for 1-2 people, the Family is the most popular and works for a family 3-4 people, and the Jumbo is great for families with more than 6 people or anyone who wants to do a lot of preserving.

    Another example is Rainshadow Organics near Bend, Oregon who offers just small and large shares. A small meat and veggie share is 5 pounds and the large share is 10 pounds. 

    Simmons Farm in Rhode Island uses a debit system. Members pay upfront and then get to “shop” the farm all summer long. This creative structure lessens waste and ensures everyone gets exactly what they want.

    As you can see, there is no one single way to set up your CSA share size. Just make sure you’re clear on what a share is and how much they cost.

    tomatoes in pint containers

    Pick What You Want

    Many CSAs pack certain items into a box and that’s what every single member gets. There are a growing number of farms, though, who are letting members pick what they want. Sarah Carden Cookfair uses bushel (and half bushel) baskets. Members pick up during the farmer’s market and can fill their basket with whatever they want. Some items may be limited (like watermelon or corn), but it allows the member to choose. 

    We’ve seen this in action and members loved it. They were each able to fill their share with the things they wanted.

    Flower CSA Bouquets

    Membership Add-ons

    Add-ons are a great way to add value to your share and increase income. Add-ons can be something from your farm or products you get from other local farmers. Things like locally-produced honey, cheese, or eggs, are especially popular.

    And don’t forget about seasonal add-ons. Things like Salsa Shares, Honey Shares, Thanksgiving Herb Shares, or Holiday Wreath Shares are a great addition. Make it fun and members will love it. 

    Setting the CSA Price

    Determining the share price for your CSA can be challenging. It's essential to set a price that covers your costs, provides you with a fair income, and is still attractive to consumers. Page 22 of this document from the University of Wyoming helps break down pricing. 

    Beets stacked on a table

    Market-Based Pricing

    In market-based pricing, you will use the pricing of other CSAs to help set your price. First, do some research and see what similar CSAs in your area are charging. As an example, let’s say there are three CSAs close to you that are charging $350, $410, and $450. Assuming that the share you offer will be similar and you have strong market intertest, then you might price on the high end between $400-$450. On the other hand, if interest is low or you are offering less than the other shares, you may want to price at or under $350. 

    Again, it’s important to note that this pricing strategy is related to where you live and what other local CSA farms are doing. Be sure to do your research.

    Cost-Based Pricing

    For cost-based pricing you need to do some calculations. You’ll need to add up ALL of your expenses related to the CSA. Seeds, starting supplies, labor and so on. Add up all of your costs, then add on a reasonable profit percentage. 

    Take that number and divide by the number of shares you plan to share. For example, let’s say your total costs are $17,510 and you add on a 5% profit margin for a total of $18,385.50. Then you divide by your goal of 50 shares sold and get a CSA price of $367.71

    Ideally, you compare this with your market-based pricing research to get the most accurate price idea. With both pieces of data you can accurately set your price feeling confident that you’ll actually be covering costs and that the market can also support your price.

    Share Payments

    CSAs typically require full payment at the beginning of the season. However, some CSAs offer payment plans to make their shares more accessible to low-income members. Some CSAs also offer working memberships, where members can cover all or part of their share cost by working on the farm.

    Whichever you choose, Utah State University recommends establishing a very clear payment policy. Make sure members know exactly how payment works and that you keep clear records of payments.

    Finding and Retaining CSA Members

    Finding CSA Members

    When starting a CSA business, it's essential to find and attract the right members. First, think about your ideal CSA member. What is this person like? What are their needs and preferences? Once you have a clear understanding of the customer avatar, you can focus on effective CSA marketing to reach this target audience.

    If you sell at a Farmer’s Market already, this is a great place to market. Tell shoppers about your CSA whenever you can. You can also post a sign explaining your CSA and offer flyers with details to shoppers. Ellen of Ellen’s Flowers says, “Have examples at farmers market and talk it up. Make it a premium, extra special thing that they can’t get unless they join the CSA!” 

    Building a website or social media presence can also help attract new members. Depending on your location, you may also consider an ad in the local newspaper or posting your farm on a site like LocalHarvest.org.

    And don’t forget about good old fashioned word of mouth. Reach out to existing customers, friends, and people in the community to ask them to refer friends and family.

    Remember that CSA members are generally people who value quality food (perhaps even organic) and really want to forge a connection to your farm.

    Melons in a container

    Keeping CSA Members for Life

    Retaining members is crucial for the success of a CSA business. There will inevitably be some level of churn, but you want to make sure the majority of members are happily renewing each year.

    Focus on building strong relationships with members, ensuring their continuing satisfaction with the products and services provided. Regular communication, such as newsletters and updates on the farm's progress, can be a great way to keep members engaged and informed.

    Additionally, it's important to listen to the feedback and preferences of CSA members. I’ve known farmers who hand out a postcard once a season to solicit feedback. Or make it even more personal and take your top 1 or 2 members out to lunch. Ask them what they love about the CSA and get feedback on how you could improve. And then don’t forget to implement these suggestions!

    tomatoes in containers

    Planning the Harvest

    Crop Selection and Diversity

    The success of a CSA relies on good planning and a diverse selection of crops. Plan to have multiple crops available throughout the season to provide CSA members with a variety of fresh produce. Consider planting different varieties of the same vegetable to add interest and excitement to the CSA shares.

    Succession Planning & Planting

    If there’s one thing a CSA involves a lot of, it’s planning! Successful CSA farms know that you need to have a strong plan to produce crops all season long. 

    Delvin Farms has been running a CSA since 1994 and now has 800 yearly CSA members. “Succession plantings are key,” says Cindy Delvin. “A CSA cannot run out of produce in the middle of the season.”

    If you’re feeling overwhelmed by crop planning, we highly recommend The Market Gardener Masterclass. It’s the most in-depth and helpful resource we’ve found and has helped seasoned growers and absolute newbies create a thriving farm. 

    Managing Labor and Employees

    Managing labor and employees on a CSA farm can be challenging, but it's crucial for success. Most farmers who expand to have labor on the farm, realize it doesn’t always make it easier right away. You’ll need to make sure you’re very organized and able to give your employees and volunteers clear instructions. 

    Challenges and Risks of CSA Farming

    There are various challenges and risks associated with CSA farming. One of the main challenges is dealing with unpredictable weather conditions, which can have a significant impact on crop yields. To mitigate this risk, we recommend maintaining a diverse range of crops and varieties, which helps provide a buffer in case of unexpected weather events or pest outbreaks. Adding a caterpillar tunnel or hoop house can also go a long way to giving you a layer of protection. 

    It’s also very important to make it clear to members that there is some risk involved by becoming a member. Though as farmers we certainly do our best, there is always a chance of crop failure. Make it clear in your contract what happens if there is a failure. Do you have a contingency plan to get produce from partner farms? Or is there a refund policy?

    What Do Members Really Want?

    Pay Attention at the Farmer’s Market

    What are customers drawn to? And what never sells? Make note of this throughout the season. 

    Poll Members to Determine Varieties to Grow

    The great thing about CSA is you have a direct line to your customer. So use it! Poll members to see what they want. This will cut down on the “what do I do with this?” questions and allow you to give members exactly what they want.

    Variety Wins

    As a CSA farmer, it's essential to offer variety. Many farmers enjoy growing both popular staple crops, like tomatoes and lettuce, as well as unique and interesting produce, such as heirloom varieties or lesser known produce. Just know if you share unusual items you’ll need to be proactive with helping members know how to use it. 

    In general, fruit is always popular and members prefer smaller amounts of a wider variety rather than a bunch of one thing.

    Washing Lettuce

    Packaging Your CSA

    You have members and the fields are overflowing, what more could you need? Well, friend, you’re going to need a way to pack up and deliver that beautiful produce. Packaging is probably the last thing you want to think about, but you need to plan ahead since it can take weeks to get your packaging.

    Boxes & Packaging

    One of the first things to consider with your packaging is food safety. Yes, you want it to look nice, but it needs to meet safety standards. As the University of Iowa outlines, “Some common reusable containers include crates, boxes, bags, plastic tubs, or bushel baskets. Regardless of the type of container, it should be made from a cleanable material and effectively cleaned and sanitized before each delivery.” 

    Some of our farming customers use our deep 5x5 trays as a reusable and sterilizable option for portioning things like cherry tomatoes. Once you’ve decided on the type of container, it can feel overwhelming to source what you need. Luckily, the internet definitely helps. 

    Friends of Family Farmers found some popular places to order from include: 

    • Uline – Ships quickly and in small quantities.
    • Monte Package Company
    • Webstaurant Store - Online retailer with wholesale prices.

    Refrigerated Transportation

    There’s nothing worse than seeing a beautiful box of produce wilt due to heat. Unfortunately, transport offers yet another hurdle for farmers. Whether you’re offering offsite pickup locations or doorstep delivery (covered in-depth below), you’ll need to safely get your shares to those locations. 

    While everyone could benefit from a refrigerated truck, you may be able to get away without one depending on your climate and commute. If you live in a very cool place, you could perhaps just use a well air-conditioned van. But, honestly, we recommend a refrigerated truck if possible. 

    We know farmers who were able to get a low-interest loan via a local farm non-profit which helped make getting a truck possible. We’ve also seen farmers who are near one another buy a refrigerated truck to share. It involves an extra bit of scheduling but is worth it to have a truck for half the price.

    Distribution

    Delivery or Pickup

    A big factor in your planning is distribution. Will members come to the farm for pickup? Will you set up locations around town, at your farmer’s market, or partner with a business? Or will you offer delivery? There are a lot of things to consider here. 

    First, if you offer on-farm options, you’ll need to ensure your insurance covers on-farm visitors. You’ll also need to consider parking and infrastructure. While we do know some farms who still offer on-farm pickup, it does seem to be declining in popularity. 

    If you plan to offer pickup locations, you’ll need to determine how many pickups you’ll have and where they will be. Partnering with another local business can be a great option. I’ve seen pickups at coffee shops, bakeries, and organic food markets.

    With the increase of grocery delivery, many CSAs are adding doorstep delivery to their offerings. Customers often love the convenience this affords. If you go this route, though, you’ll need to add a delivery service fee to your share pricing. And remember that creating a delivery schedule can get complicated and will add a full day of labor to your farm.

    Even when you know an area, the route planning can get complicated. The MyWay App is super helpful to cut down on the headache of making a route.

    Turn Your Members into Superfans

    Your CSA members are primed to become superfans. With just a little bit of effort you can ensure they become your biggest source of leads and support.

    The most important thing is open communication. Be sure that they know what’s going on at the farm and feel like they’re a part of things. 

    Here are a few more tactics to turn members into superfans:

    • Offer member-exclusive perks. Provide discounts, farm tours, and early access to special produce for your CSA members.
    • Involve members in the decision-making process. Actively request feedback and opinions on potential new crop varieties, pick-up locations, and other matters that affect the CSA community.
    • Celebrate milestones together. Recognize and celebrate the farm's successes and anniversaries with your members, making them feel like part of the journey.

    By implementing these strategies, you’ll be able to foster a strong and loyal member base that feels like an integral part of your farm's success.

    Recap: Preparing for Success

    Choose Your Pickup Location

    You can have members pickup their CSA share on your farm, at a weekly farmer’s market, or other location. Many farmers partner with another local business to create a pickup spot that benefits both businesses.

    If you plan to have on-farm pickup, it's important to check local zoning laws to ensure that on-site distribution is allowed. And you’ll want to make sure your insurance covers you for on-site visitors. 

    Establish Agreements

    Having written agreements with CSA subscribers is crucial. These agreements should outline the price of the share, the length of the season, what is included in each share, and pickup times and locations. 

    It's also important to address potential risks and communicate them clearly to subscribers. Most CSA members understand that they are buying in and there is a slight risk of crop failure. But make sure you share this upfront. You can also include contingency plans if a crop fails and your policy on refunds.

    Cover Your Assets

    Research insurance options to protect yourself and your CSA business in case of any incidents or accidents involving CSA members. Talk to your insurer about a General Liability policy. It’s surprisingly affordable and once you know what it costs you can build it into your share pricing.

    Start Small

    You don’t have to go all-in to start. If you’d like to test having a CSA, consider offering a limited number of shares. Matt Granger of Wild Mountain Homestead notes, “We decided to start with a micro-CSA of just 5 members. By starting small we’re able to work out any issues with our CSA model on a smaller scale before expanding.”

    Get Growing

    Once you’ve done everything to create your CSA it’s time to get growing. Remember that everything will not always go smoothly, but your members are rooting for you. If you keep communication open, your CSA will become a community that not only relies on you, but is there to support you through thick and thin.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    What steps are necessary to establish a successful CSA farm?

    The first step to establish a successful CSA farm is to do some research. Find out about your local CSA competition, market demand, and prices. Next you’ll want to get all the legal pieces out of the way - make sure you have general liability insurance, check local zoning laws, and so forth. Then the fun of getting members and planning crops begins.

    What factors determine CSA share price and structure?

    When determining the CSA share price, you need to consider factors such as the cost of production, labor and overhead expenses, and market supply and demand. Additionally, we recommend looking into comparable CSA prices in the region. 

    As for share structure, factors could include the type of produce offered, season length, and flexibility in terms of pick-up locations and frequency.

    How can growers and farmers ensure profitability in their CSA business?

    To ensure profitability, focus on efficient and sustainable farming practices to minimize input costs while maintaining high-quality crops. It's essential to estimate yields and expenses accurately, as well as regularly evaluating the business plan and adjusting it if necessary. Offering a variety of crops and flexible share options can also help attract more customers, contributing to profitability.

    What makes a CSA model successful and sustainable?

    A successful and sustainable CSA model requires a strong focus on customer satisfaction and retention, through effective communication, high-quality and diverse crops, and exceptional customer service. Financial sustainability can be achieved by maintaining efficient farming practices, controlling expenses, and setting appropriate share prices. Transparency and establishing a connection between growers and customers are crucial for success and sustainability.

    How can growers and farmers market their CSA to attract customers?

    Marketing strategies for attracting customers to your CSA can include leveraging social media, participating in local events, and partnering with community organizations. Creating a website highlighting the benefits of your CSA, sharing success stories, and offering referrals discounts can help attract new customers. Building relationships and maintaining customer satisfaction are paramount to maintaining and growing your CSA business.

    What legal and regulatory considerations should be addressed in developing a CSA business?

    When developing a CSA business, it's essential to be aware of relevant laws, regulations, and permits in your region, such as zoning and land-use regulations, pesticide use and food safety standards, and any applicable organic certifications. Consulting with a qualified attorney regarding contracts and liability can help prevent potential legal issues. Understanding labor laws and regulations is also important in ensuring compliance and a smooth business operation.

    Conclusion: Tips for Running a Successful CSA Business

    Starting a CSA business can be very rewarding and satisfying, but it’s not without extreme effort, planning, and a few challenges along the way. Here are a few final tips from CSA farmers:

    • “Give your customers flexibility (some people love beets and some people hate them!) and make sure your quality is always top notch.” - Sarah Carden Cookfair of Finger Foods Farm in Ontario County, New York
    • “Start small and get some super fan customers involved. Even 10 people is a great place to start. Make sure your pickup location is somewhere convenient where you are already going.” - Ellen & Matt of Ellen’s Flowers in Canon City, Colorado
    • “Make it beautiful and appealing. Our produce is attractively packed into the boxes – our members often tell us they take a picture of the box before unpacking it.” - Cindy Delvin of Delvin Farms in Arrington, Tennessee

    Resources: 

    https://growingsmallfarms.ces.ncsu.edu/growingsmallfarms-csaguide/

    https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2789&context=extension_curall

    https://www.uky.edu/ccd/sites/www.uky.edu.ccd/files/Bruch%20and%20Ernst.pdf

    https://www.uky.edu/ccd/sites/www.uky.edu.ccd/files/CSA%20Manaul%20with%20appendices.pdf

    https://extension.psu.edu/finding-and-keeping-your-csa-members

    https://friendsoffamilyfarmers.org/2020/05/running-a-csa-advice-for-farmers-by-farmers/


    Written by:  Mallory Paige


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