Assessing the 2012 CSA, Part I: what we did

Though our inaugural 2012 CSA season isn’t over yet, we already know it was a very generous one for our members. We advertised a minimum of 24 shares, and instead are already on 28 and expect to make it to 31, possibly 32 (the schedule posted here remains valid). Many of those shares included extras and even bulk produce, requested through our online customization system. From our perspective, we were extremely generous in the amount of food given out for the price paid, despite knowing that a cardinal sin of start-up CSAs is giving out too much food. Here’s a look at why it turned out this way, and an analysis of how our 2012 CSA compared to others in the area. Following posts will present data from our 2012 member feedback survey, and a discussion of what we’re considering for 2013.

Knowing the transition from market farming to CSA (a very different business model) could be challenging, we signed up fewer members than we felt we could serve, to ensure the first year was a success. Better to build on a small but successful year than do damage control from over-committing. We did have a plan to accommodate extra production, but that didn’t turn out quite right:

We planned to use restaurant sales to absorb the excess production we expected, as we’d increased our sales and relationships with restaurants for the previous five years, and had made contact & initial sales with several new chefs in early 2012 . As the year progressed, however, we were surprised by two developments. One was the spring closing of Red & Moe, which had become a major customer; we’d already planted and/or planned for a significant amount of crops dedicated to their needs, which suddenly would need a new home. Then as the year progressed, the rest of our restaurant sales took a significant step back, with our previous customers collectively buying less than half of 2011’s sales as of October and the new contacts fizzling. We have various understandings of why this happened, but it did, and meant that we had a significant amount of unsold produce every week. The opening of Trey Bistro (same chef as R&M) in August demonstrated what we’d been missing, as sales there immediately went back toward the level we needed, though it didn’t make up for all the other lost sales from other outlets throughout the year. This might not have mattered so much in a bad year, but instead we got:

As we’ve discussed before, the drought had an opposite effect on our farm as it did on the large commodity farms mostly covered by the media. We had a spectacular growing season, with all but a few items doing very well throughout the year, even though it took a real physical and psychological toll on us to do the work through record heat and drought to achieve this. The summer weather also cost more for irrigation water and electricity for cooling & storing produce. Thus a very good growing season compounded the problems begun by a small membership and inadequate restaurant sales. As it is, we’ve blown past our share projections and have barely begun distributing fall items like greens, root crops, parsnips, cabbages, leeks, and more.

Why is it that we produced for so many more weeks than projected? The warm winter and early spring certainly got us off to a solid start, and the flexible distribution schedule gave us no reason to hold back on planting for an arbitrary, fixed CSA start date. We’ve become more skilled as farmers over the past 6 years, our soil has improved with our growing methods, and our on-farm compost benefited plants tremendously this year. We focused on a conservative plan to ensure customer satisfaction, but didn’t thoroughly think through the implications of a productive year given the wide diversity of products we like to grow. When all these factors did come together to produce an overabundance of product, it ran afoul of another intentional choice in our CSA business plan:

We’d set up our farm’s structure and schedule to not consider farmers markets as an outlet, and still feel that was the right decision. Delivering CSA shares and restaurant orders in town twice a week (Monday and Thursday) worked very well for all involved; thus adding a third sales day (Saturday market) would have been completely impractical, and past experience suggests that the huge time investment wouldn’t have justified the sales made. In our experience here, attending a market takes a minimum of 8 hours (6am – 2pm), plus significant costs, post-market exhaustion, and more produce handling & cleanup work than CSA distributions (each of which takes only a few hours even with home delivery). Based on our experiences in 2011, it’s not at all clear we would have been able to sell our excess production at market this year anyway. So we’re happy to have left market, but our plans for compensating didn’t quite work out the way we intended.

So we took the only route we saw: make excess produce available to CSA members. We’d intentionally set up our share-customization system to allow members to request extras, to be provided if possible, as a way to get rid of occasional overproduction without bothering to try to collect lots of small cash transactions, and to buffer any crop failures. We wanted to be able to “share the bounty”, and we were able to, but too much so from our perspective. Under these circumstances, the extras system went into overdrive and the shares grew quite large at times. This worked better than a typical CSA in that we weren’t giving anyone anything they didn’t specifically ask for in the weekly survey, so there was no ill will about dumping produce on people. It also worked well in that members collectively were quite happy to absorb extra amounts of produce, so the farm generated little food waste. But it still meant we were giving out more than our fair share of value.

It’s not quite how we meant the system to work, but by mid-season we had little choice, and were still wondering if the drought would cause a major crop failure later in the year that the current abundance would make up for. This is why we didn’t just add members: having never farmed through what was shaping up to be a historic heat wave/drought we weren’t comfortable recruiting even more people just to have the rest of our season turn to dust. By late summer it was clear we were going to way over-perform our side of the deal, but too late to recruit more people & change our whole distribution scheme mid-season. In theory we could have cut back on fall plantings, but we also see this year as a trial for future years of CSA, we wanted to know what we could achieve from a fall that started in drought, and we had advertised fall crops as part of the program & wanted to stick to our end of the deal.

We did a basic analysis of our program relative to others in the area, taking into account two kinds of produce-distribution setups: single-farm CSAs in which members join one farm and receive a share of that farm’s production (a true CSA by most definitions), and multi-farm reselling services that package products from a wide variety of sources into a weekly share of produce. The latter tend to be cheaper, but don’t provide farmers with the same benefits as a true CSA as the customer isn’t really sharing the risks and the costs. They also generally don’t/can’t guarantee consistent growing methods, certainly not organic ones (especially around here). These programs do provide a useful context, though, and so are included here.

The results are broken down by number of distribution weeks, total price, and weekly price per share, based on information shared online. We used 31 weeks for ours, as that’s almost certainly what we’ll achieve this year, with 32 a possibility. All prices are for full shares, not counting the various forms of single/partial shares some farms offer, and not counting discounts for work offered by some.

Single-farm true CSAs (specific farms in the area)
Happy Hollow Farm, (certified organic)   25 weeks, $1075, $43/week
Salad Garden, (certified organic), no info online
Pierpont Farms, (sustainable methods)  25 weeks, $950,  $38/week
Chert Hollow Farm, (certified organic),    31 weeks, $1100, $35/week

Reselling programs (sourcing from produce auctions &/or farms in state)
Danjo,                                                        24 weeks,  $925, $39/week
Bounty Box,                                             ~24 weeks, $792, $33/week

So in 2012, we were cheaper per week than any alternative in the area except the Bounty Box (not organic, not a true CSA). Here’s how our season would have looked if we’d charged the same weekly rate for our total season as Happy Hollow Farm, the most comparable certified organic full-time CSA farm in the area:

Chert Hollow Farm
2012 season as actually happened: 31 weeks @ $1100 ($35/week)
2012 season at HHF weekly price  31 weeks @ $43/week = $1333

For more context, HHF offers an additional 8-week winter season for an additional $336 ($42/week). So a year’s membership at HHF would run $1075 (25 weeks) plus $336 (8 weeks) for a total of $1411 (33 weeks). This year our members received 1-2 less weeks for $300 less.

The value of our CSA also includes a number of features that aren’t available from most (if any) others in the region:

– Home/work delivery (available for most members) saves members from having to go fetch the share from another location, ensures higher produce quality as everything goes straight from our coolers into theirs with no sitting out in ambient temps (like at market).
– Diverse herbs For most of the year we’ve delivered 2-4 bundles of fresh herbs per week, generally customized to members’ requests from a diverse selection, a significant value.
– Share customization allows members to balance product value with desire, not wasting items they truly don’t like while often getting more of those they do.
– Bulk extras when possible gives members a chance at preserving abundance in a way that encourages use.
– Extra-sustainable methods like using on-farm fertility rather than composted feedlot manure, serious focus on ecological management & preservation, etc.
– Regular on-farm events and educational opportunities
– Many unusual produce items that most farms don’t grow (particularly organic), like strawberries, log-grown shiitakes, tomatillos, parsnips, unusual herbs, numerous obscure/heirloom varieties, etc.

Part of our 2012 plan, too, was to offer lots of possible features like those above to test them out and see what worked or not for us and members. This would help us make better decisions moving forward about the long-term structure of the CSA, based on actual evidence and experience. While we really like the structure & features we’ve put together and want to maintain them, as they offer unique service, products, and experiences to our members while offering some benefits to us, these numbers clearly show that we can’t do everything the same way for the same price in 2013. It would be unfair to other comparable growers to undercut them with more features for less money, and even more unfair to ourselves to undercut and undervalue our own time, skill, work, and production to this extent.

In the next post on this topic, we’ll present the raw data from our 2012 member feedback survey, to compare their perceptions of the CSA experience to our own presented above. In a final post, we’ll discuss options for 2013.

2 thoughts on “Assessing the 2012 CSA, Part I: what we did

  1. Interesting. I appreciate your transparency. My partial share cost $700 and based on 31 weeks that’s $23 per week. Most weeks I got just as much or more than when I did the Bounty Box (at that time it cost $30 per week) and it was better overall quality, organic, sustainable, and truly local. One million thank you’s for this great first year and I completely understand why you would charge a bit more next year.

  2. Thanks so much for the detailed blog. This was our first CSA and we have truely enjoyed every aspect. The produce was of such high quality that we often commented how we were like real chefs because of the amazing ingredients we had to work with. Many thanks, we look forward to participating in the future and watching you grow.