Assessing the farm’s future: 2012 CSA?

In 2011, we will continue with the Columbia Farmers Market and local restaurants as our primary outlets for produce sales. However, with multiple years of full-time farming under our belt, we’re considering whether we want to replace the farmers market component of our sales strategy with a Community Supported Agriculture model, starting in 2012. We tend to start planning well in advance, so we thought we’d seek some early feedback on this possibility. The decision will affect our plantings as early as this fall (overwintering greens and garlic, for example).

OUR CONTEXT
We chose the farmers market as our start-up sales venue because it offers a great deal of flexibility for a growing business, and it helped us smooth over mistakes and growing pains by not promising anything to anyone. We did not want to start a CSA without having production records to reassure both ourselves and potential customers that we could fulfill our end of the bargain. Selling at market allowed us to establish a reputation and work through the kinks in our farm management plans while offering the potential to continue growing through increased sales and visibility as a regular, known vendor. We still like the energy, visibility, flexibility, and community of market sales. However, with fees rising significantly, income potential a concern with flat/declining customer spending spread over ever-more vendors, bad weather a real risk to sales (the Pavilion project is going nowhere), and some other factors I don’t want to get into, we want to consider other options.

OUR POTENTIAL
Converting to a CSA would have multiple benefits for us; here are some we’re considering:

1) Reliable production and sales expectations. We would know before the season started what quantities of products we need, and could plan for this. Market always carries the risk that someone else will show up with lots of, say, garlic, and wipe out our sales margin within a fixed customer base. CSA is a guaranteed outlet if you can sign up the customers in the first place, and weather won’t interfere with getting product to customers. This also ensures we can distribute what we grow; even the most loyal market customers (and we have many) miss weeks or make other choices at times, which is perfectly ok for them but hard on us with fresh product that has to be sold in that short time window.

2) Better use of our farm’s diversity. Many of the things that set us apart from most other farms (our serious home food production & cooking skills; diversification into animals, mushrooms, fruits, timber, etc.; diverse landscape and ecological focus; and so on) do not translate easily into marketing success at a farmers market, but would become direct benefits to CSA customers. We’ve spent a lot of time hosting events, cultivating news coverage, and doing all sorts of the right things to gain public awareness & market customers, but it’s a very inefficient process in a sales environment in which immediate price and appearance matter far more to the general public than background ethics & management methods. Rewarding CSA members with not just produce but also cooking advice/recipes, on-farm dinners, access to our trails & landscapes, educational/outdoor events, unique farm products, and so on helps target our strengths more effectively toward the people who are specifically supporting us.

3) Emphasis on direct customer relationships. As regular readers know, we take openness and free-, direct-marketing very seriously. We want people to be able to make their own decisions without intervention from regulations or legal obscurities. While market sales get us partway there, and we love our core customers who take us very seriously, we still sell mostly to folks who haven’t been to our farm and don’t really know how we do things. There is also an increased threat that market sales could be subject to more stringent regulation. Any CSA we run would involve many opportunities for customers to really engage with the farm and understand where and how their food is being produced, thus fulfilling our philosophy more effectively.

4) Access to new customers. Of the >100,000 people in Columbia, only a tiny fraction can or do visit the farmers market. While the market is a wonderful place for many customers, I’ve also heard from/of many sources for whom the market just doesn’t work. Maybe they’re busy Saturday mornings; maybe they get claustrophobic; maybe it’s just a hassle; maybe they live on the far side of town. But at market we’re fighting for a small share of the same customer base, whereas through a CSA we can draw customers from a wider segment of the population who would theoretically want fresh, local food if it was made easier to get. Developing a series of delivery nodes for CSA shares makes that possible.

5) Improved efficiency. We think that a CSA would be more time efficient and would result in more efficient use of the produce. Saturday Market takes a significant chunk of time out of our week. Even if we delivered each share door-to-door, it would probably take less time than the 8-10 hours that market day eats up (plus the extra packaging and container washing needs from retailing at market). And at market, there is no guarantee that we can sell all of what we produce; there’s nearly guaranteed waste. In a CSA model, we can plan for consistent production while rewarding members with extra product if desired. Also, a CSA allows us to do the marketing work of finding customers in the winter and early spring when there are fewer overall demands on our time, meaning that we can focus more intensely on the actual production during the active growing season.

MAKING THE DECISION
We haven’t made any decisions, and are certainly remaining a market farm in 2011. We do know that it’s an either/or decision for us. It really would not be cost- or time-effective to attempt to do both market and CSA at the same time, especially considering the ever-increasing market fees (though we certainly intend to continue restaurant sales). This is a major topic that we’re exploring in our own heads, and want to put it out there for feedback from customers and readers. What do you think? What models do you prefer? Do you see pros or cons to us taking either path that we haven’t thought of? We would greatly value your feedback, either as comments or emails to contactus@cherthollowfarm.com

6 thoughts on “Assessing the farm’s future: 2012 CSA?

  1. I'm certainly in favor of it and know that you'd do a great job at it. One thing I would be a bit careful about (and knowing you I'm quite sure you've thought of it) is what happens in the event of a crop failure. I would assume that like most CSA's you would plan on a "shared farm" concept where members would join you in both bountiful crop production and failures as well. The reality for 90% of the people out there that may join is, that is something that would only happen once, and they wouldn't come back. I would think that if tomatoes don't do well, for instance, you may buy a batch from another organic farm to provide to your CSA members, kind of as an insurance policy. This way they're less likely to think back to the times when they went to the market and it didn't matter if one farmer had a bad tomato year because someone had a good one and they would just buy from them. I would see this as perhaps the biggest obstacle. It probably only matters on "important crops" like tomatoes, something that everyone counts on. Less important than the watermelon radishes that didn't do well, or the golden beets I really love. Just a thought I wanted to share. I know you'll do a great job with it if you do it.

  2. Ryan,I hear your concern about the crop failure issue, but disagree with the solution. To me, one of the core values of CSA is that it involves the customer "investing" in the farm and accepting a share of both profit and loss during the season. It is not simply a production contract, like one might sign with a grocery store, but an assumption of shared responsibility. The customer joins a CSA in part to provide a higher level of stability for a business (farming) that is extremely unstable; at least that's the philosophical idea upon which CSA was developed. It's not just a novel way to get produce to customers, it's almost a free-market subsidy in that it helps make this kind of farming a more stable form of living.In a way, one might compare it with purchasing stock in a company. In theory, you do so because you believe in what the company does and want to support it, and in return recieve any dividends or share price increases that result from the company's success. However, if the company has a bad year and your shares fall, you don't get the difference back. You can choose to sell the shares, but no one expects their literal money back. In the same way, if a given CSA doesn't please you, you can easily try another one (many people move between different CSAs looking for the right fit), but I don't think CSAs have a moral responsibility to make up crop faitures. That being said, there are multiple CSA models out there, including some which are literally multi-farm (drawing from lots of production areas to guarantee items), others which may supplement with a few off-farm items they just can't/won't grow (sweet corn, say), and others which are closest to our philosophy of single-farm support. Customers looking into CSAs should know both what model they are most interested in, and what they're getting into; it's the responsibility of the CSA farm to make the terms abundantly clear (some do this better than others).For us, guaranteeing that we'd make up any crop losses from off-farm sources would both violate the philosophical principle of the direct customer-farmer relationship (no third parties involved) and have real economic drawbacks (the financial, regulatory, and time burden of effectively becoming a wholesale dealer by handling and selling third-party produce). We would certainly try to ensure that customers got their overall value for their money; our diversification is one reason we think we can do that (if tomatoes fail, we may be able to make them up with mushrooms, say, or cedar mulch). But farming is too unreliable to be tied down to no-risk customer production contracts.If we move forward on this CSA transition, we'll make it very clear to prospective customers that they're investing in this farm in its entirety, both its ups and its downs, and will look for those customers interested in that kind of relationship.

  3. I didn't mean to imply that it should be a guarantee by any means. My fear would be that the idea is more philosophical than practical for a lot of people. However, your target customers would certainly be more prone to agree with the philosophy than average Joe. I think average Joe would see a CSA as a contract to provide produce, and if they see tomatoes on a crop list and don't get any, it wouldn't sit well. I don't agree with their thinking, I'm just trying to get inside of their heads and that's what I think the mentality would be for many people. Just wanted to provide an alternative point of view.

  4. I think the core point here is that both customers and CSA farms need to be very clear on what they want and what they're offering. Some do this better than others; I can think of one CSA who is not at all straightforward about their system. This area has CSAs of all kinds, serving the different "types" of customers (just like market, really). If we go this route, we'd make sure potential customers understood what we're offering within the range of options out there.

  5. I can see Ryan's point. Really, a lot of folks getting into a csa have never done one before and I can see where-yes technically they have been told/warned-but did it sink in? It seems a conscious effort to educate new customers would be important…but how to do so w/o scaring them off…hmmm.