Customizing CSA shares: Radish example

Our CSA offers limited share customization using LimeSurvey, an open-source online survey software that we’ve adapted to our needs. Members have the weekly option to request extras of any given item, a standard share amount, or none at all; the software helps us generate custom packing lists that make bagging individual shares easy. This allows our farm to use products more efficiently, by not forcing certain items on members who don’t want them, and by allowing extras/seconds to be sent to members who want more produce. The “extras” are otherwise unsellable but edible seconds (slightly damaged or overgrown), or items not desired by other members, or just overproduction of an item that did really well that week. Thus produce which might otherwise end up on the compost heap (or which we’d have to put extra work into selling through another outlet like a farmers market), finds a useful and efficient home while making everyone happier. We could (and will) write a lot more on how and why we do this, but in this post we’ll just illustrate the way this system works and why we like it, using this spring’s abundant radish harvests.

Our radishes are going crazy, maturing quickly and in some cases splitting because they’re growing too fast. We can sell some in bulk to restaurants like Sycamore, but they’re still overwhelming us. Radishes are a great example of love-em/hate-em reactions to produce; no standard CSA share can accommodate the wide range of consumer opinions on radishes. So we used our weekly survey not only to ask whether people wanted standard, extra, or no radishes, but also offered some amount of roots-only seconds that were split, misshapen, or otherwise just plain abundant. These are perfectly fresh and edible, but not always of the visual quality that we’d use for a standard share.

Above are two full shares from Distribution #6 in early May (herbs & strawberries not shown). They both have roughly equal amounts of lettuce mix, saute mix, kale, and green onions. What’s wildly different is the radishes.

The left-hand share asked not only for extras within the standard share, and so got two bundles instead of one, but chose the all-you-can-give-us option for extra seconds radishes, so got another 2 lb bag of radish roots. These folks love radishes (maybe they’re preserving some), and now are hopefully much happier to have this abundance than just the standard share’s one bundle. If they don’t quite use them all, we’re no worse off.

The right-hand share didn’t want any radishes, but does love radish greens. So they asked if we could, instead, include a couple pounds of radish greens in lieu of roots. Easy for us, as most radish greens just get sent to the chickens otherwise and it didn’t create extra work or unfair preference to bag up that “waste” product. So that share has two bulging bags of radish greens they wanted instead of a bundle of radishes they didn’t.

In effect these two shares balance each other out nicely, and that’s core to the idea. We’re not giving away extras for free and diluting the value of the share; we’re using the system to balance varying demand and preferences among customers, such that one person’s dislike is another’s gain. If anyone doesn’t want lettuce one week, those greens go into the bag of someone else who wants extra. Those who are willing to take extras get the best value for their money by saving us the work of marketing them elsewhere, while those who opt out of something reduce food waste and increase their enjoyment of the produce they do get, accepting that they’re trading a bit of product value for satisfaction value. Some weeks we don’t give extras even if requested, because they aren’t available.

Note that we generally don’t allow full substitutions; you can’t just ask for more lettuce instead of saute mix unless we have extra anyway for some reason. Full customization is too much work and undercuts one of the base concepts of CSA, members taking what the farm has to offer at any given time. This is why we call it limited customization; members are still generally expected to take what’s on hand and shouldn’t assume they can replace something they don’t like with something they do. But we really like how the current system offers better customer service and more efficient produce use while not adding much to our workload (and saving the significant time & cost of marketing extras elsewhere). This also makes us more flexible with members’ travel/vacation plans: any given week they just fill out a negative survey and their product goes to someone else’s extras; hopefully it’ll work in return a different week.

Finally, taking extras when available buffers against any crop failures later on. Although we’ve had an overall great start to the growing season, the reality of farming is something’s going to go wrong sooner or later due to pests, weather, you name it. And when that happens, the members who have been able/willing to take advantage of abundance will be best buffered against the inevitability of shortages. Another core concept of CSA is that members are investing in the farm for better or worse, but we like how this system gives them a better chance at getting their money’s worth.

So far we’ve heard positive comments and a few useful suggestions for tweaking the system. Other than a few quirks early on with iPhones, the system seems to be convenient and practical for members. We hope this unusual but so-far-effective approach to CSA continues to serve everyone well.

NOTE: LimeSurvey (the open-source software that makes this possible) is currently running their 2012 fundraiser. If CSA members or other readers like the service we’re able to provide through LimeSurvey, please consider making a donation to support the good work they do and thus allow us to do.

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