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Starting a CSA?

Posted by ajsmama (My Page) on
Tue, Aug 28, 12 at 7:27

I've been thinking of starting a CSA but have been nervous about figuring out what to plant, how much to plant (I know there's a thread on that) to be able to have enough stuff that people will actually eat for a whole season. How do you figure out how much you're going to have and what to charge per share, how many shares? I'd love to start small, just family and neighbors if they'll give me a "trial run" next year. Perfect opportunity since this year 1 local CSA cut the number of shares and raised their prices, and another one is moving out of the area next year.

I was going to ask my cousin who has a share in the CSA that's moving what they get (though it's a market-style CSA and not a fixed box - gotta figure out how that works too!). Maybe poll the neighbors to see what they don't grow themselves and what they might be interested in? I'm in a pretty rural area so it's a bit tough - everyone here has gardens, though there are some people (like single guy on the corner, young family with 2 small kids) who just don't have time to garden, I know the family had a CSA share last year but dropped out this year when the prices went up. They haven't bought from me, though I have to say my "hours" are limited, only put out the sign when I'm around the house (not out back) and have set up in garage since I haven't checked with town about putting a stand out at the road (long driveway).

Lots in this neighborhood are small, too, so there's some room for gardens, but not acres worth. My cousin lives in more affluent town to the southwest, have really tiny lots, they have 4 kids so a CSA is great for them, and if I could get their neighbors too...

Is there a good book(s) someone could recommend about starting a CSA?


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Starting a CSA?

There is alot of information on the internet about CSAs, just start checking it out.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

Don't really have the time today to go into it, but go to Local Harvest or Facebook (a lot more pics on FB) and look up Votum Farms & Gardens. You can see the size of my small shares and see the different types of stuff I have in there. Drop me a message if you want too. Please note I am really bad about taking pictures and that doesn't even bgin to show what all I do.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

What helped me was to find pics and lists of other farms' weekly shares online. Some people blog about their CSA baskets. I did 20 weeks for $400 the first year which is low but I was worried. The next year I stayed at $400 but advertised that it wasn't huge shares but more small family size and it was 19 weeks. This year I stayed with $400 again but for 18 weeks. I add up everything they get each week (records are important) and make sure it is a good value for the season. The first 4-6 weeks are not easy though, then it gets real easy to fill up the basket! Shares this time of year are $40 per week in value but only $20 in June.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

Thanks - I'll check you out later this w/e when I have time, Votum.

Minnie - are the shares basically the same items but value is double beginning/end of the season?

I've seen spring/fall baskets with greens, fall root veggies but you know I just didn't do well with greens this year other than lettuce/arugula. No one really wants kale, chard, beet greens.

What do you think about my idea of asking friends/family what they would like me to grow if they wanted to do a trial CSA? I know everyone will say they want tomatoes in May ;-) but I want to grow things people will actually eat. Newspaper has been running articles on farming in CT, and yesterday's Food section had article about a food pantry garden and how they had to provide recipes to "sell" people on things like kale and chard. At market I never even had people ask me about the chard, much less take the time to look at a recipe. It's easier to just stick a recipe in the (CSA or pantry) box when someone's just taking what you have.

I would love to be able to promise people X pints of berries since I am growing strawberries, wild and cultivated blackberries, wild and cultivated blueberries, and 3 different kinds/seasons of raspberries but since I just planted the cultivated stuff this year I don't know what to expect for yields. Even the wild berries vary so much from year to year - blueberries and blackberries looked good this year but didn't produce much, 2010 I couldn't keep up with the blackberries!

What about a "market-style" CSA where for a prepaid subscription (low price for first year), they get a "credit" to shop at my stand/place an order for pickup, and while I may have to restrict quantities to be fair (so my cousin with 4 kids can only get 2 quarts of blueberries each week so that the ones with 2 kids can get 1 each if they want them), they can come pick up whatever they want at reduced prices (so say they buy a $200 share, they can buy that quart of blueberries for say $6-7 when I'm selling them for $4/pint at market, and when the $200 is used up we keep reduced price but they pay cash, or price goes up slightly, though not market rate, to encourage them to buy bigger share next year)? I've already started offering some reduced rates to the people DH works with who have ordered from me a few times (wish it had been all summer, but with one or the other taking vacation, DH hasn't been able to deliver each week). Think I should ask those 2 people at the end of the season if they would like a "subscription" for next year (as well as asking what they'd like me to grow)?


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RE: Starting a CSA?

The nice thing about CSA is you don't promise any special crop, since the CSA idea is a share of what does produce. I would ask what people's perfect idea of what could be in the baskets and then TRY to produce.

Tip, when I had my little CSA, I gave lettuce/radishes for several weeks, DON'T give more than 1/2-1 pound of lettuce for more than 2 weeks straight. The members were becoming rabbits, so they said.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

Well, I wasn't going to promise anything (though was thinking of refund if it was really not good value, I know that's not a "true" CSA but I'm talking family here). I just wanted to know what to plant, and what produces, produces. I didn't want to plant lots of zucchini for example if everyone says "oh, I get zucchini from so-and-so on the other side of the family", but I will plant it if people like it, don't get it left on their front porch in the middle of the night, and don't have room to grow it themselves. And I won't grow chard and kale again, even though it's something to have in cool weather, unless someone says they like it - I don't want to be forcing my family/CSA customers to take it. But if someone says they like it, I'll plant some extra and maybe I'll get someone to try it? What do you think of the idea of a "market-style" CSA (like the one that's moving out of the area) vs a traditional "here's your share of what I harvested this week" like-it-or-lump-it kind?

Time to go back out and pick cherry tomatoes and peppers - been picking zukes and beefsteaks for 3 hours now, and it's already getting hot...


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RE: Starting a CSA?

Here, we are waiting on when the rain starts from the left overs of Isaac. I need to look at my Romas and Vintage Wine/White Beauty to see what's happening with them. I may be canning, I guess, this weekend.

Tomorrow, we going to the farmers market to use some of the senior Nutrition vouchers that we received this last week.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

I offer a 100/120 program. They pay $100 and get a $120 tab. Then over a few weeks they get a CSA share with an itemized invoice in it. If they want to quit they can, and 2 did! and if I am short on produce they aren't owed $400-600 worth in the season. I vary how much I give them over the season if they don't tell me a ballpark per week. They get more than what I sell stuff for at market because I am afraid they will be out of touch with prices at market. So I throw in extra. This year I have 13 shareholders and 4 are doing the 100-120. I also have a large family share for $600 and the regular for $400. The 100/120 program eases worry and I think it would be great for someone trying CSAs for the first time. It also gives you money throughout the season.

I start my main season about the middle of June and there aren't many crops ready at that time. I give a few things besides veggies and the shares are only $20-25 worth per week. As more crops come in there is more to put in there and so the value goes up.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

I thought about selling vouchers/coupons for discounted prices. Like pay $25, get $30 worth of goodies. What do you think? I'm thinking that the $25 increments would work well to start with. That way nobody thinks they'll NOT buy that much.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

So someone can add more to their "prepaid" account mid-season if they've already used their $120 credit? Do most people who take that option instead of the regular $400 share just take $10/wk so it lasts them 12 weeks, or do they tend to ask for more early on and then add funds after a couple of months (and maybe the next year go for the $400 for the full season)?

Half shares and full shares are running in that same range here, I worry about having that much stuff, something in the $150-200 range (maybe less for singles and couples) sounds right to me to start.

I think unless someone's used to a CSA, $400 sounds like a lot of money upfront too, where if you say $100 for $10 worth every week for 12 weeks that sounds like a bargain, after the "rabbit" phase is over and the berries start coming in they realize they can easily spend $20-30/wk on produce (at least a family can) and not feel like they're forcing themselves to eat it so it won't go to waste.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

Ajsmama,

I have been doing CSA for 15 years and have done both market style and the prepacked bag. Both styles have their merits. The prepacked bag is better for the farmer as you plan your garden to pack the bags and since you make the decisions all you have to do is figure out what crops your will grow (you will rarely get more than 15% of your member to respond to such questions as "what would you like me to grow" and at least half the answers will not be feasible-coffee, lemons, bananas, nuts, etc..) and than set a number of how many members for which you want to grow and go out and recruit those people.

The market style is better for the member as they get to pick and choose exactly what they want from choices given. Unless you know your members' likes and dislikes well. You can figure this out by watching what each member takes week after week and keeping track of what stays and what goes. After a season it is pretty clear what they like and what they don't and how long they will tolerate a particular item before they become collectively bored with it. (this helps with planning succession planting). But the farmer cannot estimate exactly what to grow for this style of distribution as they can for prepacking. It also makes harvesting a bit tricky. I knew from running kitchens in restuarants that take reservations that if you have 100 guess coming in and 5 different dishes you never made 100 portions of each dish, but rather divided 100 by 5 and made 20 of each dish. I do the same with the market style distribution. If i have 11 members coming in and 35 different crops than I will pick no more than 4 to 5 portions of any crop. But there are exceptions to this rule-when you have a lot of a parishable crop that has top be moved through the CSA. than you do things a bit differently.

I do not recommend CSA to anyone who has been farming less than 5 years. CSA can be tricky and the members generally expect a lot of the farmer. I set up a lot of limits for my members such as set hours for pick up and no delivery. I do not give refunds for Acts of God, missed pick ups or if someone leaves mid season. I would give a refund if they did not get food because of something irresponsible I did such as simply not harvest even though there is plenty to be picked but in 15 years that has not happened. The sharing the risk between member and farmer is a really important part of CSA, I know most people see this as a crazy anti capitalism ideal and they are correct as CSA doesn't really work in its pure form in a capitalistic paradigm and most CSA's, including mine, are not pure but rather hybrids that have other markets (because while CSA ain't a capitalism idea, we do live in a world where money is absolutely necessary so we have to make $$ to continue business). But in a community everyone shares the risks and other burdens such as work which is why many CSA'a have a work requirement of their members ranging from several hours a week to a few hours season. And of course the financial burden.

Check out my Facebook page which has a lot of CSA photos and videos from the past couple of years. On that page is a link to my farm's website which has a whole section devoted to my CSA (Farm Share initiative/FSI).

Local harvest's forum also has a lot CSA threads

Here is a link that might be useful: Boulder belt FB Page


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RE: Starting a CSA?

Thanks - I didn't even know Local Harvest had a forum. I know I don't have much experience, that's why I've been nervous about it but figured maybe I could experiment on friends/family first with an inexpensive share, and very few of them. Can increase prices and/or number of shares as I gain more experience and can feel more confident in consistent plentiful harvests week to week.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

If you experiment on friends and family know they will likely complain more than strangers will and you will make all sorts of mistakes the first several years. So the complaints can be helpful or since it is family it can quickly turn hurtful.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

I'm hoping it would be helpful. But what approach would you suggest while I'm learning? I am just tired of $50 days at market, and not sure it's worth going to more markets each week since the fees add up, if I'm only selling $50 at each one (did double that this past week, hope it continues but season is winding down so I can't count on it). The one market that had no fees quit after 2 days (1 each month in June and July) b/c of lack of turnout (I think they should have given it longer).


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RE: Starting a CSA?

Next year's sales should be better.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

I agree with Lucy that friends can be so bold they become hurtful. That happened my first year when a friend shared with an acquaintance and she complained about everything.

My 100/120 people generally 're-up' several times in a season but they like being able to pay $100 at a time. I don't think you should aim for people of lower income who cannot pay $400 or think produce should be ultra cheap, but the 100/120 program helps the ones nervous about committing.

Anytime you do little sales, BOGOs, free stuff with purchase, etc, at market your sales go up. I always have an herb day where the customers can pick a free herb with $5 purchase and they spend $5 when some wouldn't have. I also have one sale item per week of something I am overstocked on and it sells through. So vouchers or a buying club type thing might help sales at market.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

My first couple of years at farmers market were bad. If I had a $50 day I was really really happy. I remember the first $100 day followed by weeks of $25 (or less) days). I did not keep financial records my first year but I believe I netted around $100 that year.

Than I tried CSA on my third year and i have no idea why I kept at as it did not make me much money and was a real PITA and i made a lot of newbie mistakes that meant for the first 8 years around 90% of my members left after each season which meant I had to do a lot of marketing to fill the CSA (which I rarely did and a couple of years ended up with 2 to 3 members meaning the CSA generated maybe $1500 in gross income those years) and until I moved to this farm and took a couple of year off from CSA to assess what I was doing with it and than made some serious changes to my program did it start to succeed.

CSA is a much, much harder way to sell produce than farmers markets in my opinion unless you happen to live in an area with a really strong local foods scene

Have you considered restaurants or health food stores as additional markets?

Frankly to make it in this business you need to have several different kinds of markets or do 3+ farmers markets a week.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

Minnie - there aren't (too m)many really low-income households in my neighborhood or family, but *I'd* shy away from $400 committment, esp. with a new farmer, and I'm sure DH's coworkers (highest income I know of all my customers/neighbors/family) would. Though I know of 1 cousin and 1 neighbor who have been CSA members in recent past so they might not hesitate, I want to start small and not bite off more than I can chew.

Lucy - I would love to have even the 1500 income - I need 2500/yr gross to keep farm plates, tax exemption, etc. I'm not trying to earn a living from this (DH supports the family), but I am trying to make it self-sustaining and if I can actually profit (my goal is to be able to pay the real estate taxes after paying farm expenses and farm income taxes) that would be great. I think it's going to take years just to get to that point. I think there is a good demand for local/organic food here, I just got into the wrong market. But please do share what you've done to make your CSA succeed (you can email me). I'd love to learn from your mistakes.

I did talk to produce manager at The Meat House, she wants to get together this week to talk about next year (specifically tomatoes since I mentioned I had a lot of them this year, but we'll talk about what else moves well for them). I also thought of asking the Chinese place we've been getting takeout after market at whether/what they would use - I joked to DH that they used a lot of zucchini in the dish he was eating (mine was celery and I'm not a fan of celery), maybe they'd buy the extra zucchini I had this week. But I can see selling them green beans next year too (maybe not edamame - depends on how much they'd pay, I can sell out of edamame at a good price at market). It's a small place in a small town, but they seem to be busy on Friday nights at least. I just have no idea of how much produce they go through during the week.

I'm a little nervous of selling wholesale though - that might be an even bigger contractual commitment than a CSA? A CSA member signs on to share the risk, but a store/chef wants what they want when they want it!

The thing about doing more markets each week is that I'm so small, and only selling $50 per market, but each market costs $200-300 per season plus gas to drive there, I'm afraid I'd lose more than I am now (and would definitely not be able to buy takeout 3 times a week LOL)! If I could grow the same amount of produce and sell it through a CSA with pickups here, or a central place (like 1 farmers market I'd also do), that would automatically give me say $500 more profit than doing 2 more markets a week.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

I disagree with CSAs being harder than markets. There are way more hours that go into a market day than a packing CSA day. Market day doesn't allow me a minute for anything else and CSA days generally give me a half day to cultivate after packing. That is why I do not add more markets because I wouldn't have any garden time. Per vegetable you make more at market than in the CSA format but I only starting making a decent profit after I started CSAs. Looks like I will be taking in about $7000 with my year round CSAs and about $3500 at market (I skip about 6 weeks of market).
Personally I am not going to get into selling to restaurants until I have a good high tunnel system going.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

From what little experience I have with CSAs (2 years) the hardest work was getting and keeping those members. I even followed a long-time successful CSA that gave up. I just didn't have enough experience, I believe.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

What i mean by CSA is harder is it is a much harder sell than a farmers market (especially if you let the FM do all your marketing for you). In my area people are just beginning to catch on to the CSA concept though way too many get into "fake CSA's" which are either a broker who sells locally sourced food from many many farms or the broker who sells food from a few farms and the rest from the same sources as any grocery store. But either way these are not true CSA's as the member doesn't assume part of the risk nor ever meets the person/people who grow the food they are buying much less gets any opportunity to visit the farm and participate in farm activities.

As far as harvest/set up/etc.. it is far easier than doing a farmers market but frankly we sell more at FM's

Ajsmama it sounds like one of your problems if you are not growing enough to sell $500 a week at a FM and that is typical of newbie growers. It takes time to learn how to grow for market and it takes time to get a customer base and there is no cheap and easy way around those factors. in time, if you stick with this for say another 5 to 7 years, you will be able to easily make $600+ at a single FM most weeks.

As I have said before my first couple of years i made far less than you are making at your markets. i know the forst year I lost money and the second year (after tripling the amount of ground we used) we grossed a whopping $2500 (I cannot remember what the net income was but farm under that). Our 3rd year we got an acre to play with and netted $4000. We also got ourselves into Transition to Organic certification and also got laying hens. Around year 6 we were certified organic and also had established customers, a CSA (which was not making us much) and we were able to crack the $10K mark.

I guess what I am saying is be patient, your are still learning and the learning curve for market farming tends to be a steep one.


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Thanks - it is pretty much just me (at least for the day-to-day stuff) and hand tools right now, it really is a "market garden" and not a farm. But once we can get the hoop houses built maybe I can get more production, even if I have to force the kids to get out there more often (or get CSA members to work, or other "slaves" if I need them). But I can't get too big without having to hire some people - DS is off to college in 4 yrs (he may even get paying summer jobs in last 2 yrs of HS) so I can't count on him. DH can't retire until DD is out of college (she's starting 3rd grade now), so it's pretty much going to be just me for the next 14 yrs - by which time I'll be 63 and ready to retire myself.

The town is still running their "sampler" program which is a broker-style "CSA" as you describe above, but I didn't have good luck with that this year since I couldn't pick enough in 1 day to supply 30 families. Might try next year - also get on the "Farm Tour" day like they're starting this year (Sat!) since next year I'll have hoophouses to show instead of just a few garden areas with dead potato vines and dying squash plants, bare ground where I pulled out the cukes (mini-pumpkins look like they're getting a bad fungus too, almost looks like late blight if curcubits can get that? Harvested a couple of gallons of them today).


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RE: Starting a CSA?

I see what you mean Lucy. CSAs are a harder sell and make less profit but take less time, much less time. Markets give you income over a longer period and help you take in more customer feedback, but they add a lot of work. My next step is buying a new pick up with topper so I can possibly go to metro markets with my stuff and have it not fly out on the freeway. I will find it intimidating I think at first and it will be hard to build a customer base over again at a new market.


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RE: Starting a CSA?

When you get to the new market, be sure to check the prices all over again.

I remember I decided to do an Indy market on my 2nd-3rd year. In my market, radishes were barely selling at 50 cents a bunch. I took a small amount more than I could sell in the smaller market and priced them just alittle more. I sold out almost instantly. I found out later than radishes were selling at $2.00 a bunch. the next week I priced them at that and still sold out. All I can figure is people tried mine at 75 cents and liked them, came back to buy them again at $2.00.

It is scary to start any new market.


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