by Sally Colby
The concept of community-supported agriculture (CSA) isn’t new, but farmers who have chosen to market fresh farm products in this manner have had to change things up a bit to keep customers coming back.
“With CSAs, we’re always trying to put a new slant on things,” said Stephen Komar, Rutgers University Cooperative Extension. “We’re thinking about building a great experience. Sometimes we’re building on agritourism — people want to come to the farm and experience a different way of life.”
Although the CSA model has grown substantially to include more than 3,000 farms across the nation, the concept started in Japan in the 1960s when a group of women became concerned about their food and a loss of local farming. They started sharing farm products and the CSA was born.
“From the consumer benefit side, everyone is looking for local food — the local food movement is very obvious in the United States,” said Komar. “It’s particularly obvious in certain parts of the United States. Folks are really concerned about where their food is being produced, and they want to have a relationship with the farmer so they understand how products they’re putting in their bodies are being raised.”
In addition to offering fresh food, there’s a tremendous amount of social interaction involved with CSAs. For many, pick-up time is an opportunity to share recipes as well as discover and ask about new fruits or vegetables they may not have tried. Consumers seeking better eating habits are encouraged by receiving fresh produce along with recipes and tips on how to prepare and eat vegetables new to them. Environmentally-conscious consumers are becoming more interested in a farm’s IPM practices, particularly in regard to pesticide use and pollinators.
Komar describes the two primary CSA models: Farmer directed and farmer cooperative. “A farmer directed subscription-based CSA is what we think of when we think of a CSA,” he said. “A person purchases a share in the farm operation and the farmer is responsible for all management of the operation. Shareholders give us their money, we do all the work and we give them a percentage of the profits in the form of products. We’re responsible for crop management, distribution and communication.”
A farmer cooperative CSA involves several farmers who work together to form a CSA, so perhaps a vegetable farmer works with a beef or poultry producer to provide a variety of products. “This is starting to get a lot of attention because our consumers are telling us that they want more diversity in the CSA,” said Komar. “They want everything they can to feed their family in one-stop shopping.”
But are people becoming weary of CSAs in general and seeking something more? Changing consumer demands have driven changes in CSA shares. “They don’t just want vegetables, they want everything in their CSA share,” said Komar. “They want to be able to feed their entire family with locally grown food raised by the farmer, and they want to shake the hand of the farmer when they pick up their share. The consumer wants more and more from a CSA.”
In response, creative CSA managers have adopted marketing strategies to serve what consumers are seeking, and in many cases, adding value is the answer. “A traditional CSA says ‘I have a lot of this so you’re getting a lot of it’,” said Komar. “A bag full of cabbage doesn’t always cut it with the customer who believes they will be receiving a unique and carefully chosen assortment of fresh vegetables.”
Komar describes a group of fishery producers who started a cooperative seafood CSA. “From oysters to lobster and scallops — everything you can imagine that comes from the sea,” he said. “They got together as a farmer cooperative and sold shares of fresh seafood. There are pick-up locations, and depending on what the catch was, that’s what people got in their share.”
Another option is including value-added items in the CSA share. “Adding these products to CSA shares is becoming more popular,” said Komar. “By incorporating value-added CSA shares into our market, we maximize our potential for profit. I can maintain more of my profit by selling you a jar of jelly made with my garlic than just selling you garlic when garlic is in season. By adding it to the CSA share, we can increase the potential for profit by increasing the share a little bit because we’re offering a more diverse share.”
There’s also potential to lengthen the CSA season with value-added products. Fall specialties such as pumpkins, gourds and related decorative items are perfect after Labor Day, followed by Christmas wreaths and other greenery and specialty holiday baked goods such as pies.
“Once your farm products are featured in a holiday meal, others may start to ask about those items and spread the word,” said Komar. “It becomes a marketing opportunity that you didn’t have to work that hard for.”
One relatively easy way to work added-value items into an existing CSA is to include items you may be growing but not adding value to, but potentially could. For example, in addition to traditional fresh vegetables, CSA shares from Green Mountain Girls Farm in Vermont include summer vegetables which have been turned into salsas, pickles, tomato puree and soup ingredients for winter meals.
An increasingly popular CSA addition is fresh flowers. There are several ways to handle fresh flowers: customers can receive a pre-made bouquet with their share, select a premade bouquet when they pick up their share or cut their own selection of fresh flowers when they come to the farm to pick up their share.
If you start crops in a greenhouse, shares distributed in springtime or late summer could include an option for vegetable plants. Although not every shareholder will be interested in that option, many will be and growing at least one tomato or broccoli plant is likely to give the novice more appreciation for what you do.
Another increasingly popular CSA addition is grain products, such as stone-milled wheat or rough cut oats. If the product isn’t something which comes from your own farm, CSA members are usually satisfied if the product is produced on a nearby farm.
Full Circle Farm in Idaho offers a 16-week program of full or half shares which include an option for artisanal goat cheese. But more importantly, they also offer a means by which subscribers can add a percentage of the cost of a share that goes toward a share donated to a local needy family.
Grant Farms CSA in Colorado offers an assortment of share options, including ‘All in Kitchen Share’ which includes a variety of size options such as Family Sized, Couples, and Urban Dweller designed for busy people who don’t prepare as many meals at home. The All In shares include vegetables, fruit, pasture-raised meats, eggs, cheese, yogurt, canned goods, fresh herbs and organic mushrooms. The vegetarian option includes locally made tofu and tempeh and additional vegetables.
Keep your CSA fresh and interesting for the customer, and they’ll keep signing up. If interesting means added-value products, think about what you can do on your own farm, or how you can work with neighboring farms, to add value to shares and maintain customer enthusiasm for the products you work so hard to produce.