by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Community supported agriculture (CSA) programs have become another means for producers to bring income to the farm as well as lock in markets and a revenue stream. Garrett Ziegler, MSU Extension Community Food Systems Educator, recently spoke on the topic as part of the MSU Extension Beginning Farmer webinar series.
“Most CSA farms depend upon seasonal labor, not year-round labor,” Ziegler said. He added that many CSA farms don’t consider themselves as offering paid labor and use contracted crews for occasional large harvests. Their source of workers includes high school volunteers, “WOOFers” (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms programs), 4-H and FFA clubs, CSA participants who provide labor for their shares and family members. Farms with nonprofit status allow local businesses and organizations to host volunteer days on the farm and other community-focused events. But using volunteers may have its drawbacks, as this labor pool tends to thrive on easy, monotonous, large-scale tasks. They’re not appropriate for highly specialized labor.
Ziegler believes when considering volunteer labor sources, it’s vital for farms to review costs versus benefits and said the primary labor challenges include an inconsistent pool of skilled labor, difficulty retaining quality labor from year to year and creating pathways for growth for labor, such as education, promotion, increased pay and side hustles.
Farmers use a variety of definitions for farm viability and there are a variety of goals growers have for their CSAs. This is reflected in their labor practices. Farmers see a need to grow the pie of local eaters and understand they are working in a very competitive marketplace that requires large changes in the way consumers eat.
The CSA model lends itself to utilization as a tool for healthy food access. There are programs designed to bring new customers to a CSA market, increase farm viability and provide greater access to healthy, local food. Federal assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC), in addition to state-funded programs, help increase access between consumers and healthy food.
Access of West Michigan and the West Michigan Growers Group formed a partnership to connect CSA farmers with local food pantries, which can help farmers gain access to a wider, more diverse audience. Grant funding began the effort, but the organizations are still working on long-term sustainable funding models.
“We think that those connections can really be strengthened and developed to help farmers and help people have greater access to healthy food,” Ziegler said.
Benefits to the workplace include improved dietary patterns, a sense of camaraderie and community among employees, convenience, possible lower healthcare costs as employees eat more healthfully, an attractive employee benefit to boost recruitment and increased job satisfaction and employee retention.
CSAs also provide many benefits to the farm. Ziegler listed guaranteed sales, reduced burden of finding members and coordination logistics and lasting relationships. Farmers need to consider their timeline, minimum number of share requirements, drop-off/pick-up site logistics, communication to members and a policy about missed share pick-ups.
“Who is your target customer?” Ziegler asked. “How can you meet the need of that ideal customer?” As an example, he said that among 300 CSA members interviewed in New York’s Hudson Valley, 90% had at least two years of higher education, 83% were white, 82% were homeowners, 82% were female, 74% were employed, 74% were married, 53% lived in suburban regions, 50% had an income of $100,000 or more and 47% had children.
When beginning a CSA, it’s vital to accurately explain what it’s about. Ziegler said consumers should understand that it works like a subscription to a farm’s or a group of farms’ produce. Members receive either a weekly or bi-weekly box of produce or other farm goods selected by the farmer based on what’s in season. Consumers benefit from enjoying the freshest possible food at the height of the season and studies show that they adopt healthier eating habits than non-members.
Next, it’s important to emphasize the following aspects of CSA, according to Ziegler: fresh, high quality produce (or meat); prices compare favorably to farmers markets and grocery stores; supporting local economies; and encouraging healthy eating habits/improving health. “Consider advertising the price of your share per week or per pick-up rather than by lump sum,” Ziegler suggested. For example, consider advertising $650/season or $46/week (rather than $1,100/year).
“Pricing models are important too,” he added. “In the Hudson Valley study, potential members found payment plan options to be more appealing than up-front payments. Younger and lower income individuals in particular are more likely to prefer payment plan options, insurance incentives, subsidies and/or working shares.”
Ziegler said the Hudson Valley study indicated that with a 24-week CSA with 50 kinds of vegetables, the cost of 250 pounds of produce compared to prices of equivalent produce at three nearby grocery stores. The CSA was more expensive than conventional produce options, but was cheaper than organic or regional options at grocery stores, he noted.
Farmers also need to note member satisfaction. The Net Promoter Score (NPS) is a worldwide metric use to estimate customer loyalty ranging from 0 to 100 (100 being the best). Anything above 70 is considered “world class,” and the Hudson Valley CSA scored above 77.
Of the current CSA members interviewed in the Hudson Valley research, 90% expressed satisfaction with their shares and intend to continue their farm memberships. Aspects of CSA that members valued most included quality of food (98%), variety of food in the shares (83%), growing practices at the farm (84%), the amount of food in each share (67%) and payment options/structure (21%).
To better retain CSA customers, Ziegler said it’s important to offer incentives, discounts or other types of special deals. “This can make all the difference when people are on the fence,” he added. “Remind them why they signed up for CSA in the first place.”
Frequent updates such as newsletters communicating the contents of each share, social media and asking members to share their stories can also foster a better relationship with CSA members.
“The CSA model is experiencing some changes that’s really due to changing buying habits and people looking for more convenience, and there’s saturation in the food market buying place,” Ziegler said. “Opportunities exist for CSA farmers to access new and different customers by partnering with local employers. Opportunities exist for CSA farmers to work with food access nonprofits who are looking to increase local food choices and options for their constituents. It is important to know who your customer is, so that you can develop messages and marketing strategies that reach those ‘ideal’ CSA members.’”