by Bill Rose
How are CSAs evolving to meet marketplace demand? That was the subject of two idea-packed educational sessions at the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, PA. The first session was presented Penn State Extension educators Brian Moyer and Carla Snyder. The second session was presented by Common Market staffers Lindsay Gilmour and Molly Johnston Heck.

Snyder, who is a former farmers market manager and home bakery owner, explained that more CSAs are participating in food hubs or collectives where multiple farmers go together to provide a wider selection of goods and services. An example is the Yehaw Farm in Perry County, PA. It is a “whole diet” CSA, which attempts to provide nearly everything you would need for the diet of your family, as well as extras such as soap. Many CSAs also offer a meat option, either by partnering with a meat farm, or by doing it on their own. Dairy CSAs are also growing in popularity, including value added dairy products such as cheese and yogurt. One farm usually can’t do all this, so partnerships are needed between vegetable farms and those specializing in dairy.
Snyder believes that one helpful way to evaluate new CSA options is to look at the risks of CSAs from the customer’s point of view. “You might be asking them to pay up front; you might be asking them to not choose exactly what they want; you might be giving them what they get in the bag every week. And those risks are in exchange for your very high quality product, which is why they’re signing up for your farm.” The answer to these risks is to give customers options — in payment, personal involvement, computer access, delivery and product choice.
One payment option includes offering a discount for early registration. Another approach is to give incentives for partnering with another farm, especially a farmers market. So if a person signs up for a CSA, they might get an incentive coupon to get cheese at the farm next door.
Some CSAs are beginning to participate in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Farms can sign up with the federal government to participate in this program. Snyder says, “Many folks are incorporating this into their on farm sales, especially if they have an on-farm market in conjunction with their CSA. They are able to open up their CSA to a wider range of customers, and this allows them to pay for it a little easier.”
Many CSAs offer options in personal customer involvement. Snyder explains that there is some truth to the saying that 10 percent of your customers drive 90 percent of your business. Some farms use these champion customers as organizers for the CSA, doing things like helping the day of the pickup and setting up areas with weekly bags of food.
Further customer options come through the use of computer technology. Snyder notes that there are many innovative technologies now available for online ordering, especially those that can create a “virtual farmers market” tied your website. This allows customers to order products simultaneously from several different farms, allowing collaboration in a food hub type setting, while still delivering product like a CSA.
Farm to Work
Marketing to groups of employees at businesses, or to members of other organizations, is another way to provide CSA customers with options. This is what Gilmour and Johnson Heck’s Common Market does.
Says Gilmour, “[Workplace deliveries] are a really fast-growing program for us. We started in 2010 with 125 shares. This past summer, we did nearly 1,000 shares. This winter we’re doing 600. Last winter we did 200.”
Each workplace receiving farm share delivery is different, leading to unique challenges with this type of marketing. Johnston Heck of Common Market notes that in downtown Philly, it is necessary for a workplace to come up with at least 20 members in order to make the produce delivery worthwhile. In the suburbs, at least 40 members are required per site.
The site host is one of the keys in the farm-to-workplace strategy. A site hosts are basically the people who are most excited about the program at their workplace. Site hosts get a free share as incentive for their help. Johnston Heck estimates that site host duties take about five hours a week. “It’s mostly dealing with people who have issues, and being there to receive the delivery, and making sure that people are taking what they need, and staffing the tables. That is one of the ways we keep our costs down significantly, because we don’t have to staff these pickups. If we had to send a staff person for three hours to each site, the cost would be totally crazy.”
Many site hosts are employees at the site whose job title is wellness coordinator or sustainability coordinator or director. In those cases, that person, as part of their job responsibilities with their employer, simply does farm share all day on pickup days. Other site hosts might coordinate farm share activities over their lunch hour.
Johnston Heck says that people typically want morning deliveries, “but we try to push the time back into the afternoon.” Members come through and pick out their share in a marketplace-style CSA. Therefore it helps if the site host lays things out nicely. At some sites, refrigeration is not available for share members after pickup, so they must keep their share items at their desks. Nevertheless, Heck explains that “We do provide coolers for the dairy and the eggs. . . every member gets an insulated bag at the beginning of the year.”
The cost of each share is kept low by biweekly, rather than weekly, deliveries. The half shares are $27 per delivery. People have to commit for the season, but they don’t have to pay up front. In fact, there are a few workplaces that are set up to take the payment right out of their paycheck, before taxes.
Another way to keep the price down is not to pack individual boxes. Everything goes in case lots to the site, where items are laid out for people to pick their own. Heck explains that in summer, they offer six to eight fruits and vegetables, and a dozen eggs in each $27 share. In actual practice, they give eight to nine fruits and vegetables, in order to exceed the set expectation of six to eight. There is an add-on dairy share available.
Another option is to provide a “swap box.” During each delivery, they leave a box with a few extra items in it. Customers are then free to swap with items in this box, if there are things in their share that week that do not appeal to them.
Others use this approach a bit differently. Carla Snyder of Penn State Extension notes that some CSAs with, for instance, eight items per share, will set out 12 bins of different products at a site on pickup day, so that customers can select their eight items from 12 choices. Other CSAs even go so far as to allow duplicates of items, so that if you’d like to pick eight eggplant that week, and nothing else, that would be allowable. Nevertheless, this approach can lead to shortages of some items on pickup day, and tends to work best for larger farms.
The bottom line is that customers like options, and the more that can be offered, while still keeping the CSA economically viable, the better.