CSAs: Thinking inside the boxby Courtney Llewellyn

Data collected in 2015 by the USDA indicated that 7,398 farms in the U.S. sold products directly to consumers through a community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangement. In that year, CSAs accounted for $226 million (or 7%) of the $3 billion in direct-to-consumer sales by farms. Anecdotally, that number skyrocketed over the past two years, thanks in large part to COVID and consumers’ desire to both shop and eat local.

Every farm and every farmer has their own way of establishing and running a CSA, but it’s oftentimes that first step that’s the most daunting – getting it started. “Thinking Inside the Box: Growing CSAs Across the Tri-State Region Virtual Conference” recently shared the experiences of those running successful CSAs, along with insight from experts at Michigan State Extension, Ohio State CFAES and Purdue Extension.

Mandy and Cameron Way of Way Farms in Waverly, Ohio, related their story, which began in 2003, when they established their farm with the goal of providing fresh, accessible produce to their southern Ohio community. The Ways started with three acres of sweet corn and now provide 100 acres and a ton of fresh produce annually. They practice succession planting and sell their produce year-round. They practice diversification with strips of row crops, pollinator strips, etc., and also sell at three markets.

Their CSA venture, however, is still relatively new. 2022 will be the third season of their CSA. Mandy said that it took some time to connect with consumers to try new vegetables they’d never seen or heard of before (such as kohlrabi). “We wanted to provide education as well as produce,” she noted.

Partnering with education is longevity. They start their season with hanging baskets and planters. “When we started, we were only really farming June through August,” Mandy said. “When you take months off it’s hard to connect with consumers.”

The Ways start all their vegetables from seed in the greenhouse, then transplant them into the field using a mechanical transplanter. That way, Mandy said, they have total control of quality from start to finish. They currently have four high tunnels and three caterpillar tunnels for tomatoes and bell peppers. They utilize plasticulture for crops in the field. Sweet corn is still the bulk of their produce, with 35 to 40 acres in succession planting, started in low tunnels.

Mandy said 90% of the business is direct-to-consumer. They started utilizing high tunnels for greens production (like lettuce, spinach, kale and chard) and that really diversified their CSA.

One Farm, One CSA Model

“One of the biggest early issues was calling it a CSA,” Mandy said. “That didn’t really connect with individuals, so we started calling it a ‘market share membership.’ That made it feel exclusive, and it gives them a slight discount.” They promote the program on social media, the farm’s website and at farmers markets. One of the biggest hurdles when starting a new CSA program is its marketing. Getting the word out and helping people understand what CSA is if they’re unfamiliar with the concept can be a full-time job at the onset.

Establishing an ordering and payment system is the next step. The Ways utilize an online ordering system called Local Food Marketplace to sign people up and take orders. Way Farms allows customers to choose what goes into their share box, which helps minimize food waste. They also allow customers who come to their market to place orders for next day pick-up and to pay with a gift card since so many do not have easy access to the internet. If those customers don’t show up, the farm is able to sell that produce to someone else. The CSA funds are only on gift cards, and they can be used online or in person.

Deciding what payment options to accept is also something to consider. The Ways can accept SNAP benefits, but not directly. There is a special terminal at in-person markets that allows customers with SNAP or WIC to use those funds, and Mandy said they can use a promo code at checkout on the website that tells her when they come to pick up they don’t have to swipe their cards. “It’s a risk if they don’t show up, but we haven’t had it happen yet with these recipients,” she said. She added that they also accept PayPal and Venmo – “I don’t mind getting direct payments,” she said.

Growing the food is just the beginning. How to share it in a CSA is another critical decision to be made. In addition to custom orders, Way Farms also offers prepacked boxes. “Many customers enjoyed prepackaged boxes because it takes another burden off their minds,” Mandy explained. “And it gives us more control of what we’re harvesting that week.” To help those with CSA uncertainty even more, they use Cook With What You Have, a website specifically for CSAs to share a recipe database. Consumers input the produce they have and it gives them recipes based on that information. “We have received positive feedback from customers because of that,” Mandy said.

There are pros and cons to offering custom order CSA shares, though. Mandy said the pros are customers order exactly what they want, produce waste reduction, less prep work, early season revenue (including accepting installment plans for those who request them) and forming new and stronger partnerships with local producers – such as sugarmakers, beef and dairy farmers, beekeepers and flower growers. “The more we diversified, the more members we received,” she said.

Livestock farmers can follow the same model, partnering with local fruit and vegetable growers to provide a more varied CSA share to lure in more customers.

The cons include customers possibly becoming overwhelmed by too many choices, working with other producers can be challenging, weather issues and the need for constant communication with customers and other producers. Another con is with a small community, it can be hard to recruit new customers, as there are only so many of them.

Tips from a Current CSA

One of the most important things Mandy emphasized was this: “Make sure you have the time to run a CSA. It can be a job in itself.” When they first started, she estimated the CSA was taking up about 15 to 20 hours a week. She suggested that if you can assign tasks to other people, do so. The good news is the time commitment will lessen as you go along.

Because of the Way Farms experience, Mandy also suggested abandoning the term “CSA” and finding another way to describe the program. “You just have to know how to best communicate and connect with your customers,” she said. That includes giving them a realistic expectation of produce seasonality and availability. She added that 20 to 24 weeks a good amount of time to start and run a CSA.

They have found prepackaged boxes without customer choice to be more successful, but that may not be the case for everyone. An important key to a successful CSA is strong communication. “Get feedback in person but also use MailChimp for newsletters,” Mandy said. They do a survey at end of year but they may switch it to quarterly during the season. They also get a lot of feedback at pickup.

For more information on how they do it, visit way-farms.com.