Source: Gary Brock videoFarmers at two Ohio conferences talk about Community Supported Agriculture - subscription customer shares or plans to provide the members with weekly fresh local produce for about 20-22 weeks. Is it right for all farmers?
By Gary Brock
COLUMBUS — If you operate a farm or have a large vegetable garden, you probably have thought about the possibility of starting a CSA — Community Supported Agriculture.
But can such a subscription-based food service between growers and customers make money?
Farmers at two gatherings in February asked that very question, as well as hearing how such CSAs operate from Ohio farmers who have been selling directly to consumers.
At the Young Agriculture Professionals conference in Columbus Feb. 3, farmers Jess Campbell of Carroll Creek Farms in Warren County, Stephen King of Kings Farms in Union County, and Jamie Johnson, of Bluescreek Farm Meats in Union County held a panel discussion on the pros and cons of a CSA and how they have made them successful.
A week later, at the Ohio Environmental Food and Farm Association conference in Dayton, Columbus vegetable farmer Milan Karcic talked to prospective farmers about how he operated a city-based CSA.
What is a CSA? Community Supported Agriculture is a meat or produce-based subscription service between farms and consumers directly. Customers pay up front and the farms are responsible for delivery of specific produce or meats each week to the subscribers, usually for a period of 20 to 22 weeks.
At the YAP Conference, all three members of the CSA panel suggested to anyone wanting to start a CSA to learn from others across the state who operate CSAs – ask them how they got started, what opportunities and challenges they’ve faced, and how they continue to grow their CSAs.
“This is our fifth year with a CSA. We do a vegetable CSA for 20-22 weeks. It is definitely a challenge,” said King, whose farm is near Marysville.
Campbell said her farm is in Warren County. “We run a meats CSA. We raise grass fed beef plus lambs and free-range chickens. We started in 2015. We do a monthly shares CSA that runs by the month. We specialize in going to farmers markets and selling directly to the consumer,” she said. Her farm is located near Waynesville.
Johnson said her farm has been doing a CSA of meat that includes beef, lamb and pork for four to five years. “We started this because our customers wanted CSAs. Our customers would come in and ask about the CSAs. In meat, CSAs are not as common. We looked into it and found we would be able to meet our customers’ needs. We also do custom CSAs.”
“We market to a specific group – people who value locally produced, fresh produce. One of our challenges is educating our customer base in how to use the produce after getting it. This is through interaction with the customers; community events such as farmer’s markets. This is invaluable,” said King.
He added that you need to make it “as easy as you can for the customers to pay you. If you want to start a CSA, are you prepared and what things do you need to plan for? Our CSA has 7-9 vegetable groups for a vegetable CSA. Can you sustain this for 20-22 weeks?” King said those are things those considering a CSA should ask themselves.
“We’ve experimented with delivery and pickup time. Quality control is most important, especially in planning the delivery day. That is why we got rid of delivery. For us, all the produce is picked up at the farm at a scheduled time. Maybe you give them two pickup time and date options. This way, you can control the quality,” King said.
Johnson said that with her CSA, if people don’t pick up items within a week, they lose their CSA, because it hurts quality.
King said that while he works at a farmer’s market, the CSA must be the priority. “When I have seen a CSA fail is when they don’t understand how to keep the crops coming, and to have a rotation. They are not planning for the worst. That would be my recommendation – plan for the worst. You name it, it could happen. I do redundant beds. I have an acre protected by chicken wire. I’m trying to keep the crops safe.”
Campbell said farmers with a CSA need to network with other CSA and farmers to have a backup plan in place. “You need to have someone who can help and know that they are on standby in case something goes wrong.”
King said customer expectations are important. “You need to make sure up front the customer knows what to expect. Every week take pictures of the produce. Make sure the customer knows what is in the box. Maintaining that social network connection with customers. Not all tomatoes are beautiful; red and blemish free. You have to make sure that they know that some tomatoes are for canning. Let them know this.”
Johnson added that they provide cooking instructions with each piece. “We have recipes on our website. We develop a relationship with the customer so we know what they like.”
All of the CSA farmers said planning ahead is vital.
“You need to think about what’s next. Will you expand? Can you expand without over-reaching? If I mess up, I’ll fix it. If you are new to agriculture, I’d say to start slow; grow your customer base; get good at managing the CSA before going all-out. Because if you are not good at managing your folks, and you have 30-40 customers and you don’t have the staff to carry it out, you will not succeed,” predicted King.
Campbell said she found door hangers in neighborhoods would be a good way to reach the mommies, “which is what I thought would be our market. But, guess what, it’s not Mommies. It is actually the gyms. The crossfit movement is our best friend. The ‘bro’ market has been good. We sell to gyms and make some deliveries to gyms in Cincinnati. We have about 50 shares in this.”
King said they have about a 30 percent retention year after year. “We find that people don’t know how to use the vegetables we send out. There are only so many ways you can cook certain products.”
Campbell suggested honesty to the new CSA providers. “Don’t be afraid to tell people you are just starting out. Let them know, and they will be more understanding. We offer a CSA Appreciation Day. One day we have the customers out to the farm for a cookout. It is fun and also an educational thing. They felt like they are part of the farm. If people like to cook, it is amazing. They will love it,” she said.
Ease of use is also important, they suggested.
Campbell said, “We designed a website where you can buy your shares online. We wanted to make it easy where they can do it themselves. It is operating 24 hours, even when we are not. One of the biggest challenges with a CSA is keeping up with people. Keeping them enrolled, keeping them engaged and getting it out to people. Always be able to take credit cards.”
King said it goes back to the connection with people. “We operate in a pretty small town of under 20,000. If people can’t make it out, we try to get the box to them. We try to do things for the customers to show our appreciation.”
Johnson said they go through what is in each bundle with the customer. “We want to expose the customers to new cuts and the variety of meats we can offer. Like a hanger steak. A lot of people haven’t had a hanger steak, but they get it in the CSA and they try it and love it.”
At the OEFFA annual conference a week later, Columbus farmer Milan Karcic, as part of the Urban Agriculture seminars, talked about his CSA and advice he would give to those starting out.
“I make money both at the farmer’s market and a CSA. Ideally, I do CSA delivery on Monday. I do farmer’s market on Saturday. If you have farmer’s market on Saturday, do the CSA Monday. Green’s last a couple of weeks. Things that don’t sell at the market then won’t go to waste,” Karcic explained.
But he had a warning: “A CSA is a ton of work.”
He said the second best sales he has, after the farmer’s market, is from the CSA. “If you are in the city, it should not be too hard to attract customers for a CSA. There are lots of ways to advertise for it. The closer to your house the better. Our whole CSA is within 10 miles of our home. Last year we were delivering 20 CSA bags. And it took me 45 minutes to deliver, one day a week. This year we will have 40. We charge $350 per subscription. This is times 40,” he added.
“I sometimes question the CSA, but you get a much better price than selling to a restaurant. Our CSA runs 22 weeks. A half share is intended to feed two people three to four times a week. Full share is three to four people,” he said.
He was asked about a CSA that allows labor to offset the cost, and if that affects the organic certification of his farm. “I can’t imagine it would be a problem.”
What are the drawbacks of a CSA? “For me, what happens is that during the winter when I don’t have a lot of money coming in, I live on the CSA money. I should be putting it in an escrow account; so when spring comes around, that’s when all the work for the CSA needs to happen, and that money is gone. That is why I am reluctant to do it. But never in the nine years of doing a CSA have I ever failed to live up to my commitments,” he added.
On the plus side?
“On the other hand, a CSA is a guaranteed sale. The sale is already made. If I can sell 52 CSA shares at $350; that is $350 a week for the year. But it is a commitment.
“The good aspects is that I think you can get a better price for your food than selling to restaurants; and knowing the people you sell to is very satisfying. In the CSA, I sometimes look at buying from other farmers; so if I have money, I will buy things like corn, which I cannot grow – I don’t have the room.”
Does he get input from CSA customers about the produce? “I do. I hope that no one asks for anything special,” he laughed, “but if someone wants something special, I try to do it.”
Gary Brock is editor of Rural Life Today and can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock4.