NC State Extension

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Resource Guide for Farmers

What is Community Supported Agriculture?

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a production and marketing model whereby consumers buy shares of a farm’s harvest in advance. Consumers become CSA members by paying an agreed amount at the beginning of the growing season, either in one lump sum or in installments. The annual cost, generally ranging from $400-$700, depends on the length of the harvest season and the variety and quantity of products provided. This upfront payment helps buy the seed and other inputs needed for the season and provides the farmer an immediate income to begin the season. By paying at the beginning of the season, CSA members share in the risk of production and relieve the farmer of much of the time needed for marketing. This allows the farmer to concentrate on good land stewardship and growing high quality food.

In return for their membership fee, consumers receive a variety of freshly picked vegetables (usually organic) every week. Some CSAs also offer fruits, herbs, meats, eggs, dairy, cut flowers, and other products. Consumer-members eat healthy, sustainably produced food and have the satisfaction of knowing where it came from and how it was grown. Many CSAs offer on-farm social and educational activities for members, further strengthening their connection to the land and with the farmers who feed them.

The CSA concept originated in Japan in the 1960s by a group of women concerned with the use of pesticides, the increase in processed and imported food, and the loss of farmers and farmland. By the early 1970s, farmers and consumers in several European countries, concerned about the industrialization of their food system, created the CSA model that we know today. The first CSA in the U.S. was created in Massachusetts in 1984. Today there are over 2,500 CSAs in the United States. North Carolina has over 100 CSAs, and more are created every year as interest from both consumers and farmers grows.

List of Chatham County CSA Farms

 

Who Can Start a CSA?

  • Producer-Initiated CSAs – the majority of CSAs are started by farmers interested in alternative marketing and strengthening their connection to consumers
  • Member-Initiated CSAs – a group of interested consumers works together to find a local farmer to produce their food
  • Multiple-Producer CSAs – several farmers band together to provide consumers with a wide variety of products
  • Organization-Initiated CSAs – organizations such as businesses, churches, schools, etc. offer an existing community of consumers that forms a CSA

How to Get Started

  • Meet with Potential Members
  • Establish a Core Group
  • Develop a Business Plan
  • Create a Budget

Meet with Potential Members

  • Start with the people you know best: friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, etc.
  • Existing groups or communities (environmental groups, businesses, churches, community action organizations, health food stores, fitness centers, schools, civic organizations, etc.) are a perfect place to find members; use their meetings and newsletters as way to spread the word about CSA and recruit members

Establish a Core Group

  • The core group is comprised of the farmer(s) plus several consumer members and is reponsible for working out the details of the CSA
  • Core groups broaden ownership, spread the workload, and decrease the chance for farmer burnout; much of the organizing work of a CSA can be done by a core group
  • The core group generally does NOT deal with farm-based decisions – these are left to the farmer
  • Activities may include crop selection, helping determine share prices, payment schedules, organizing distribution, volunteer activities, newsletters, special events, etc.

Develop a Business Plan and Budget

  • Both done by the farmer
  • Budget should meet the true costs of production and organizational costs and provide a fair salary for the farmer
  • Capital expenses – land, equipment, structures, tools, irrigation, etc.
  • Labor expenses – farmer and worker salary and benefits, FICA, workers’ comp, etc.
  • Operating expenses – seeds, plants, water, taxes, fuel, soil amendments, supplies, etc.
  • North Carolina Organic Vegetable Production Cost Study
  • Web Resources for Farm Business Planning

Share Price and Payment

  • Share prices, amounts of produce distributed, and length of season vary among CSAs
  • Most CSAs offer full shares and half shares
  • Half shares usually cost more than half the cost of a full share
  • Decide on length of season before setting price
  • Most local CSAs charge from $400-$700 per year for a full share
  • Some CSAs offer a choice of paying in installments

Determining Share Price

  • The biggest contributing factor to CSA burnout and failure is setting the share price too low
  • A waiting list indicates that people will pay more for a share
  • If members are complaining about getting too much food or lots of people are splitting shares, the share size is probably too big

Methods for Setting Share Price

  • Sell at market price
  • Approximate market value
  • Calculate costs
  • Established community farm model

Methods for Setting Share Price: Sell at Market Price

  • Most farmers use this method
  • Charge members a set amount (usually $15-$20 a week), then give them a share of produce which would cost them that amount if they bought it elsewhere – usually use farmers’ market prices to determine value

Methods for Setting Share Price: Approximate Market Value

  • Estimate how much a family spends on veggies for the season (consider where they currently purchase them) – this is the share price
  • Decide on what you want your income to be (you need to know what your farm can produce and its supply and labor requirements)
  • Divide the gross income by the share price to come up with the number of shares you can offer
  • Example – if members spend about $600 for 9 months of veggies, and your goal is to earn $24,000, you need to sell 40 shares

Methods for Setting Share Price: Calculate Costs

  • This method takes more time but provides detailed accounting for farmers and members
  • First decide how many shares you can produce from your land, and then figure the costs for raising that amount (include farmer and worker labor for growing, harvesting, distributing, and ALL production costs)
  • Divide the farm budget by the number of shares and you have the share price

Methods for Setting Share Price: Established Community Farm Model

  • Farmer works with members to determine overall budget and share price
  • Requires a very committed community, but provides for real costs of production from year to year
  • Farmer calculates income requirements, production costs, and farm expenses for the year – full cost of farm operation
  • When the total farm and farmer needs are determined, that figure is divided by the number of current or potential members
  • Example: share price would be $650 if the total farm budget is $65,000 and there are currently or potentially 100 members
  • Works best if number of members is high

Share Payments

  • Full payment at beginning of season minimizes bookkeeping and assures income
  • Many CSAs offer payment plans to increase accessibility to low-income members
  • Some CSAs subsidize or donate shares to low-income families or homeless shelters

Working Memberships

  • Some CSAs offer a few work-share memberships to members who work on the farm a certain number of hours each week
  • The work-share membership may cover all or part of the cost of a share

Shared Risk, Shared Bounty

  • A unique characteristic of CSA is the concept of shared risk between the farmer and the members
  • Some CSA producers write a statement explaining that they will grow vegetables for a certain time period to the best of their ability under the conditions of that upcoming season, and that the members agree to share the risk and are expected to contribute their share price no matter what the season brings
  • CSAs generally do not refund money in the event of crop loss

Recruiting Members

  • Best advertising is word of mouth, open houses, field days, group presentations
  • Brochures should explain the concept of CSA; the benefits of CSA; the story, vision, and goals of your CSA; what products members can receive (how, when, where); share price; how members can join; and whom to contact for more information
  • Try to provide a harvest schedule and an idea of what may be included in each delivery (early-season, mid-season, late-season)

Retaining Members

  • Many CSAs have a high turnover rate, losing between 25-70% of their members each season
  • CSAs that encourage shareholder participation on the farm have better retention

Tips for Retaining Members

  • Make the farm feel like a second home – communal workdays, social events, youth activities, etc.
  • Educate members – provide them with a schedule of when to expect their shares of certain fruits and vegetables
  • Dig out your best recipes; offer classes on canning and storing
  • Renew memberships in the fall, rather than waiting until spring
  • Decide what the “Top 10” vegetables are for your area and increase the quantity and length of season of these (e.g., carrots, lettuce, corn, greens, tomatoes, broccoli, green beans, onions, potatoes, etc.)
  • Continue the newsletter during the winter months, to help members stay connected
  • Select varieties for eating quality
  • Grow something different, like cut flowers, mushrooms, and berries
  • Perform end-of-the-year surveys, and use these to help plan next year’s crop

Member Feedback

  • Conduct end-of-the-season surveys (be sure to provide feedback to members on the survey results)
  • Provide suggestion/comments box at the pick-up site

Member Education

  • Important part of the success of CSA – how to eat seasonally and locally
  • Many people today are not accustomed to preparing and eating fresh food, so direct communication from the farmer can help members transition from the supermarket model to the CSA model
  • Special events on the farm
  • Newsletters
  • Cookbooks
  • Food books for regional CSAs

Newsletters

  • Try to provide weekly or bi-weekly throughout growing season – don’t need to be elaborate
  • Provide a list of what’s in the week’s harvest
  • Info on how to wash, store, prepare, and preserve produce
  • Recipes and nutritional information
  • Farm updates – crops, weather, pests, yields, what produce will be coming in
  • Encourage members to help with newsletter

Community-Building Events

  • Offer a variety of events
  • Know your members’ ages, families, and interests
  • Schedule and promote events early in the season
  • Have food as the central theme of all events
  • Provide hands-on and participatory activities
  • Incorporate animals into the event
  • Potlucks
  • Farm field days and work days
  • Seasonal festivals
  • Educational workshops
  • Youth education activities

Crop Production for CSA: Growing Experience

  • Farmers must have experience in growing large quantities of lots of different vegetables before signing up any members
  • The more experience you have, the more stable and secure your members’ food supply will be!

What do Members Want?

  • Members prefer the traditional, basic, and familiar veggies they are accustomed to buying (small amounts of exotic produce are welcome!)
  • Fruit is in high demand
  • Most members do not favor large quantities each week – members sometimes drop out of CSAs because they feel overwhelmed by the amount of vegetables
  • Members generally prefer wide variety rather than a large quantity
  • High-quality, clean produce

How Much Should I Distribute?

  • Weekly shares vary in size and variety over the course of the season
  • Typical CSAs offer an average of 10 pounds of produce each week (may range from 5 pounds/week early in the season up to 20 pounds/week in late summer)
  • Aim for 5-12 different types of produce each week

Planting and Harvest Amounts

Selecting Varieties

Develop a Crop Plan

Distribution

  • On-farm pick-up
  • Central distribution site
  • Farmers’ market distribution
  • Home delivery
  • Bulk distribution
  • Some CSAs offer a choice of 1-2 days to accommodate a variety of schedules

Other CSA Products

  • Cut flowers
  • Baked and canned goods
  • Poultry and eggs
  • Meat and dairy products
  • Fiber
  • Honey and beeswax products

Supplementing Products from Other Farms

  • Benefits
    • Increased diversity of products
    • Reduced risk
    • One-stop shopping convenience
  • Drawbacks
    • Extra labor
    • Extra bookkeeping
    • Increased costs

Considerations for Supplementing Products

  • Adjustment of share prices
  • Partnership with local farms
  • Maintaining philosophy of CSA
  • Delivery schedules and storage
  • Liability

Ways of Increasing Diversity Without Supplementing

  • Distribution at local cooperatives
  • Distribution at farmers’ markets

CSA Resources

* Portions of this guide were adapted from Iowa State University’s CSA Resource Publication.
 

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