Collaborative effort helps CSA owners improve

CM-MR-2-CSASchool1by Jon M. Casey

Approximately 50 CSA farm owners gathered to participate in a daylong program presented by Penn State Extension and Dickinson College covering important aspects of CSA Farming, including food safety, finances and finding shareholders. The notable Jean-Paul Courtens of Roxbury Farm of Kinderhook, NY began the day with a presentation reminding attendees of the importance of staying the course with the CSA business model while also allowing change to improve profitability and customer service.

“The importance of dialogue and collaboration is essential. We need each other to become self-aware,” he said. “People say our CSA has changed their lives. Some people have never tasted ‘real lettuce.’”

Quoting Lou Sabin, Courtens said if CSA members would focus on doing their jobs and doing them well, success would follow.

In morning breakout sessions, selected CSA farm owners served as presenters. Mike Brownback of Spiral Path Farm talked about food safety and the importance of providing quality, safe products to CSA members. Brownback stressed the importance of maintaining proper temperatures for vegetable storage, noting that he worked diligently to maintain the farm’s integrity when it comes to organic production. By offering fruit and vegetables to CSA members, local farm markets, and members who wish to visit the farm on pick-your-own days, Brownback said his staff is always diligent about food safety in the CSA setting.

He said he is extremely reliant on his own recordkeeping. One of the most valuable tools in this arsenal is his, “What I planted in which field on what date” spreadsheet. This management tool allows him to make changes to help him improve his planting and methods in coming seasons. It also helps him in securing his organic certification as well. He said keeping accurate records helps everyone get better.

“Is recordkeeping a pain in the neck?” he asked rhetorically. “Absolutely,” he answered. However, he said the importance of documenting things like cooler temperature, weather forecasts and other associated information, is so critical, it may prevent a farmer from financial failure if the information is used to prevent problems.

John Good of Quiet Creek Farms shared ideas on how to staff a CSA operation with seasonal workers, seasonal interns and formal apprentices. He noted by staffing in this way, owners might keep costs down. Some of the places he and his wife have found these various kinds of workers for assistance include the Internet, ATTRA (a national sustainable agriculture information service database), various CSA databases, networking and other current employees, among others.

Elaine Lemmon of Everblossom Farm, Judi Radel of Yeehaw Farm and Heidi Secord of Josie Porter Farm presented a panel discussion on three models of CSA farming, demonstrating that there is no one particular formula for success using this form of farm product distribution.

Lemmon said designing shares and crop planning help her make sure her customers have a wide variety of vegetables year-round. She has a winter CSA business model, which requires some additional planning, but it is very doable with the proper scheduling.

Secord said their business model is the multi-farm model, where several growers provide crops for the main farm that does the sales and distribution of the crops. She said this method helps provide higher quality produce and involves less risk when looking to produce several varieties of crops because the risk is spread over several farms. She and her husband originally began doing all of the crops themselves, but by switching to relying upon others for their crops to supply the CSA members, they were able to increase profits.
Judi Radel, a CSA owner on a 4th generation farm, said they supply not only fruit and vegetables, but also beef, free-range poultry, pork, goat, eggs, honey and other items as well. She said their “whole-diet” CSA works to supply their products via monthly deliveries of some items, and they operate a farm-based retail outlet as well. They even bake their own bread made from wheat grown on their farm and milled there as well.

Simon Huntly, Small Farm Central, and Penn State Extension Educator Brian Moyer, discussed ways to keep CSA shareholders happy and how to entice them to return to do business in ensuing years. Huntly said it is important to “be upfront about box value,” as a way to encourage members to appreciate their weekly deliveries. “CSA members want to know they are getting a fair value for their money. You can head off misunderstanding by telling them how you calculate the size of each box and what they contain each week. They need to understand how you arrive at your costs and what you charge,” he said.

He emphasized the importance of maintaining high quality standards, especially by keeping the members foremost in the overall scheme of things. “Survey your members every year, even if you know they are happy,” he said. “Be sure to have a rating system to give the surveyed members a way to grade the CSA.” Moyer added that products sold via the CSA model need to be affordable, convenient and to appeal to the customer base.

Additional presentations included a session by Ted Lebow of JRI Consulting on understanding how to read financial documents for more efficient farm management; as well as a presentation called “Finding the Right Niche” by Brooks Miller of North Mountain Pastures and a concluding session on tracking successes by Jean-Paul Courtens.

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