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CSAs: Alternative Marketing for Growers

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and is sometimes called subscription farming. The system enables a farmer to sell shares of his harvest to shareholders before the growing season begins. CSAs are a form of direct marketing for farmers, like farm stands or farmers' markets. The farmer gets his produce paid for before the crops are planted, and consumers get an excellent source of fresh food and a chance to reconnect to the land. CSAs have been functioning in Japan since the 1960s, in Europe since the 1970s and in the United States since the 1980s.

Considerations for starting a CSA in your community

Location: Rural or suburban areas can support CSAs. The distance of the farm from the shareholders will determine whether produce is distributed from the farm or at drop-off points in town. Distant farmers are able to connect with city dwellers through CSAs.

Production Methods: Since the farmer makes an informal contract with the shareholders, it is important that production be scheduled to provide a wide variety of produce in plentiful supply throughout the growing season. CSAs frequently involve organic farms (certified or not), since likely shareholders are those who already have an interest in alternative agriculture and an interest in strengthening their personal connection to nature and the land.

Share Pricing: Ideally, shares (the amount of produce distributed to one household every week) are priced by budgeting anticipated farm expenses, determining how many shares the farmer can provide and dividing anticipated expenses by the number of shares. A standard figure on the East Coast of the United States is $375-$400 per share for a 20-to-24-week season. Big-city shareholders may pay up to $600. Rural CSAs, marketing shares to their rural neighbors, may charge as little as $150-$200 per share. Some farmers offer winter shares separately from growing-season shares for an additional price. Louisiana's climate allows for year-round harvest ,so a 52-week season should be priced accordingly. Shares may be sold as half or full shares. They are generally paid in full before the season begins but may be divided into installments. The installment plan insures cash flow for the farmer after the production season has begun. Shares may also be sold ahead of time on a per-week basis for around $13 to $20 per week. The most common regret of CSA farmers is undervaluing the initial share price and having to raise prices later and risk disappointing their shareholders.

Finding Members: Members are recruited to purchase shares at the beginning of the year, before any crops have gone into the ground. Recruitment begins with promotion. Brochures, newspaper ads, Web sites and e-mail chains (“Please pass on to an interested friend”) are all good tools. The community-supported agriculture concept is usually presented as a guaranteed source for fresh, high-quality food throughout the season. Once the CSA gets rolling, simple word of mouth attracts new members. Farmers who market both as CSA farmers and at farmers markets can find new members by distributing their shares at the market. Baskets of beautiful CSA vegetables and fruits, visible in the back of the truck, can bring in new shareholders from among the farmer’s market shoppers. Some CSA organizers target specific groups for membership, like cooking groups, church members, food club members, community groups and organic food store patrons. One unique approach to recruiting is to identify a possible member in a community and ask him or her to host a house party to talk about the CSA with 10 to 12 other potential members. Five meetings in different neighborhoods of a city could interest 50 new members.

Organization: The organization of the CSA members depends on the farmer. Most CSAs form a “core group” of members. It functions as an advisory group and oversees distribution of the shares either on the farm or at sites in town. Many members originally become involved because they want to obtain healthy food but also because they hope to develop a connection to farming. Most already have a penchant for social responsibility and a desire to support local markets. Core groups tend to take their responsibilities very seriously and can greatly reduce many organizational burdens that would otherwise fall to the farmer. The organization of a new CSA can also be as simple as having members show up at the farm and divide up their shares from bins of produce left by the farmer in a shaded shed with instructions on how much each is entitled to.

Working Members: Some CSAs can exist as a straight subscription service. The farmer is paid a fee and delivers a weekly share to members as promised, like a magazine subscription. More commonly, the shareholders are required to actually contribute 4 to 12 working hours to the CSA. The hours could be administrative, like helping with share distribution, writing newsletters, coordinating other members’ work times or assisting with recruitment of new members. Other shareholders contribute actual farm labor, such as harvesting, washing vegetables or packing shares. Most CSAs regard the members’ work hours as an excellent way not only to provide unskilled labor to the farmer but also as an important way to keep the shareholders “connected” to the farm and to hold on to members. Some CSAs offer a discount on the share price in exchange for labor. A free share might be made available in exchange for 75 hours (more or less) of labor.

Distribution Systems: Shares can be distributed directly from the farm. The farmer assigns pickup days (Ex: Mondays and Thursdays) to different members. The farmer might require members to pick their own produce (with guidance such as “4 zucchinis, 6 tomatoes, 1 head of lettuce per share”) or he might harvest the produce himself and either bag up each share or leave instructions for bagging your own. If produce is provided in boxes, it is understood by the members that the containers will be returned. Grocery store hand baskets make good produce holders. Off-farm distribution gets a little more complicated. The farmer transports produce to a distribution site in town, already divided up or in bulk. This method works best for shareholders who are city dwellers and live a considerable distance from a rural farm. There can be more than one distribution site. Sites can be churches, space loaned in community buildings or a shady porch or garage at a member’s home. Days and hours are understood by the members, and specific quantities per share are defined by the farmer. Members are usually in charge of overseeing the actual distribution. Produce is split up either by the piece or by the pound, but scales have to be provided to the distribution site if using the pound system. Sometimes members forget or are unable to pick up their shares, and someone must take responsibility for the leftovers by home delivering or transporting produce to a local food pantry or feeding program. Occasionally, with small CSAs, farmers deliver directly to shareholders on specific days

Share Size: Share size (amount distributed per week) is not necessarily, for example, 1/300th of all produce for each of 300 members. The farmer may instead fill his CSA obligations and wholesale or direct-market the rest of his harvest. Share sizes usually vary somewhat as the season progresses, beginning fairly moderate in size in early spring and increasing when the harvest begins to come on strong. Many farmers set the size at around ½ of a shopping bag (approx. 2 lbs.), but some farms provide up to a ½ bushel of produce per week. A standard full share should feed four people for one week. It’s a good idea for the farmer to survey the shareholders at the end of the season and ask if the size was too small or too large. Discarding over-large supplies of produce is nearly as disconcerting to members as feeling shortchanged by getting too little.

Multiple Farm CSAs and Theme Shares: Sometimes several farms get together to provide produce for one CSA shareholder group. Besides the standard vegetable share, Winter Shares (with vegetables like winter squash, root crops, greens and potatoes), Flower Shares (usually an extra $10/wk), Meat or Poultry Shares, Fruit Shares or Egg Shares can also be offered at an additional cost. Some offer Theme Shares such as Freezer’s or Pickler’s Shares, with large quantities of specific items like peppers or cucumbers. 

Retaining Members: Happy members are the ones who automatically renew for next year. Farmers keep their CSA members happy by involving them with the farm. Some growers require work hours just to help members bond with the farming experience. It’s a good idea to hold an annual meeting on the farm and to survey members about their satisfaction. Events like pot luck suppers in the country are also a good way to build a feeling of community and make shareholders feel connected. A CSA on Long Island annually holds a very popular, well-publicized Tomato Taste-off of 29 varieties that is open to the public and always brings in new members.  Long-term members of CSAs establish a strong feeling of community with both the farm and their distribution groups.

Last Updated: 1/14/2014 12:09:49 PM
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