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Managing a CSA farm 2: community, economics, marketing and training (Research Brief #41)

Posted March 1999

Community supported agriculture (CSA) farmers need communication and management skills to meet a variety of challenges in building a community of members, balancing income and expenses, marketing their farm, and obtaining training. A multi-professional farmer-led research team including John Hendrickson and Marcy Ostrom, researchers for the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS), completed several case studies of CSA farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

For a more complete description of the research project and CSA in general, please see Research Brief #21, “Community Supported Agriculture: Growing Food . . . and Community.” Research Brief #40, “Managing a CSA farm 1,” discusses production, labor, and farm land issues. This Research Brief focuses on community building, economics, marketing, and training.

Building a community of members

In addition to providing fresh, wholesome food, many CSA farmers make a concerted effort to foster a sense of connectedness among their customers, and between customers and the farm. Hendrickson and Ostrom talked with CSA organizers who wanted to strengthen people’s connections to their food, its sources, and each other. The research team observed that as farm members become more committed and involved by helping a CSA farm with organizational tasks and recruiting members, the farmers have more time to focus their energies and skills on producing high-quality food, caring for their farmland, and caring for themselves.

CSA farmers and organizers say a good place to start building a community is the farmer’s own circle of friends-the nearby town, an existing loyal customer base, friends and family, or perhaps a community group to which the farmer belongs. Some CSA farms have developed relationships with churches through what has been termed “congregation supported agriculture.”

Hosting farm visits, such as field days and harvest festivals, as well as potlucks and membership meetings, helps build a committed membership. Through member surveys, Ostrom and Hendrickson learned that CSA members appreciate opportunities to plan, organize, and participate in field days and special farm events-even if they are unable to attend. Events with hands-on activities, like planting seeds, harvesting pumpkins, and pressing cider, are most effective in building relationships among members and creating a direct connection to the farm. “The members who build strong connections to the farm tend to renew their farm memberships every year and can be called on to help,” notes Hendrickson.

“Another facet of CSA that strengthens community is the extent to which members are actively involved in either decision-making, food distribution, or administrative tasks,” observes Ostrom. On farms with many member volunteers, especially on harvest days, people begin to see how they rely on each other for their food.

Many CSA farms could not survive without a “core group” of committed members who work closely with the farmer(s). “This group’s responsibilities may include helping decide what to grow and how much, setting share prices, organizing delivery sites, handling administrative tasks, and signing up new members,” explains Ostrom. Creating an effective core group requires negotiating who gets the work done so everyone does a fair share. Both members and farmers report that effective and frequent communication among farmers and members is a critical element of a successful CSA farm.

Defining boundaries is one challenge farmers face when they open their farm to visitors. CSA farmers may strive to deepen the connections between their members and the farm, but the farm is also their home. Frequent field days and unexpected visitors can cause farmers to lose the sense of privacy and solitude which may have attracted them to farming in the first place.

Balancing income and expenses

Interviews with CSA farmers suggest that many are committed to farming and to CSA as a matter of principle and as a lifestyle. Farmers face the challenge of developing their farms into successful business enterprises as well.

Since a CSA farm sells its produce before the growing season begins, the farm’s gross CSA income can be easily calculated. A 25-share farm offering $425 shares has an up-front budget of $10,625 to cover labor, supplies, and organizational expenses, while a 200-share farm offering $400 shares has $80,000 to cover its costs and generate a return to the farm family.

CSA farmers need to determine what costs they need to recoup from the membership income. For example, although much of the promotional literature on CSA stresses that CSA provides a model for economically sustainable farming, many CSA farmers report continuing struggles in getting adequate returns for their labor and a lack of adequate health care and retirement security. CSA farmers and members need to work together to solve these dilemmas. Educating members about what their membership money is used for is helpful in building a supportive and knowledgeable membership.

People wanting to use CSA as a startup strategy need to be aware that CSA income can help beginning farmers with some initial operating expenses (such as seeds and basic supplies) but it generally does not cover major start-up costs. For startup costs, new farmers either approach banks with a business plan and seek loans or start small and make large purchases as they become possible within the farm budget. In addition to labor costs, major important investments for beginning farmers include refrigeration, irrigation, and farm equipment (such as tractors), and one or more greenhouses. Most make do with used and homemade equipment.

Diversified marketing

Many farms combine CSA with other forms of marketing such as selling at a farmers market or to restaurants and retail stores. This can be an excellent strategy from an economic standpoint but it can also cause conflicts. For example, if a crop is in short supply should it be included in the CSA delivery or be taken to the farmers market where it may fetch a premium price? The CSA farms in this study all provided for their CSA members first, unless they had a special planting set aside for
another market.

Juggling the different marketing demands in terms of uniform quality, delivery schedules, and packaging standards associated with different markets is also a challenge. A common strategy among farms in the study is to grow one or more specialty cash crops (such as fancy salad mix or heirloom tomatoes) for niche markets while growing a range of other crops for CSA members.

CSA farmers say word of mouth is the best form of advertising and the best way to expand. Satisfied members are in a good position to tell other potential members about their experience with CSA. Targeted advertising to groups such as natural food store customers, environmental organizations, churches, and community groups can also help. The Madison Area CSA Coalition (MACSAC), a network of CSA farmers in the Madison area, has CSA open houses where the general public is invited to learn about CSA by meeting Madison-area farmers and seeing slide shows. According to MACSAC organizers, collective advertising can greatly increase public exposure to CSA.

CSA farmer training

In addition to the knowledge, skills, and experience required for managing a complex, ecologically based production system, CSA farmers need strong skills in building a social organization. Fortunately, training programs and conferences in agricultural ecology, market gardening, and organic and biodynamic production techniques are available in the Upper Midwest. CSA growers have also devised their own means of developing expertise. Groups of growers in Wisconsin and Minnesota have collaborated to hold relatively large CSA conferences as well as smaller regional gatherings and farm tours where growers share ideas and experiences, and discuss other issues such as community building and farmer quality of life.

Increasing numbers of CSA farms mean that aspiring farmers can start out by working as interns or apprentices on existing farms. One farm developed an innovative program in which apprentices gradually build up their own base of shareholders. Others have approached CSA farming from backgrounds in gardening. By starting small and gradually increasing in size, a skilled gardener can use the CSA model to start farming.

Other farmers in the Upper Midwest have drawn upon strong backgrounds in agronomy, greenhouse production, social work, and education in getting their CSA efforts off the ground. Still others have gained their experience through growing crops for the farmers market or for other retail outlets. Growing organic crops for a farmers market can be an excellent steppingstone to CSA production because it has a more flexible growing schedule without the pressure of meeting member expectations every week. Farmers cited several publications, conferences, networks, and courses as key information sources.

Few formal training opportunities existed for the farmers in this study when they began farming. Now CIAS offers a January School for Beginning Market Gardeners, where farmers and faculty teach about soils, crop production, and pest management. For more information about resources, publications, and other information for market gardeners, contact CIAS: or (608) 265-3704. The Michael Fields Agricultural Institute offers both home gardening and advanced professional vegetable production workshops. Contact them at W2493 County Rd. ES, East Troy, WI 53120, phone (262) 642-3303.

Published as Research Brief #41
March, 1999