By: Bethany Hellmann
Purpose: To inform four-season farmers and four-season incubator farms of how, where, to whom, and when to sell and market their products. The following section is on CSAs only.
Where and to whom do I sell the products from my farm?
There are several ways that you, the farmer, can market and sell your farm’s products. Some of the more popular methods of sale include: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farmer’s markets, restaurants, grocery stores or food co-ops, and food stands.
Community Supported Agriculture: What is a CSA?
Community Supported Agriculture is commonly referred to as “CSA,” and is an investment in a local farm by community members. Generally, a CSA member buys a share in a farm, and in return receives a basket of produce or other farm goods from the farmer each week. The CSA members form a relationship with the farmers and are known as “members”, “shareholders” or “subscribers” of that CSA. [Source 1] [Source 2]
Generally, the CSA members receive a box of fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables or meat and dairy products every week. Some farmers may encourage or require their CSA members to work a few hours on their farm during the growing season. Many CSA seasons start in late spring and end in early fall. However, four-season farmers can greatly extend their CSA seasons and may sell different shares throughout the year. In 1990, there were approximately fifty farms with CSAs. Today, thousands of farms offer CSAs with tens of thousands participating members. [Source 2] [Source 3] [Source 4]
Why use a CSA?
CSAs are gaining popularity in the United States along with the environmental and local food movements. The CSA was introduced into the United States from Europe during the 1980s. Americans who prefer fresh and healthy local food above the more conventional supermarkets are making CSAs across the nation a success. CSA members enjoy receiving a weekly share of the best produce from their farmer and feel good about decreasing the carbon footprint of their food. [Source 5]
The Framework of a CSA: How much and what do I include in my CSA?
Most farmers try to provide a variety of items, each week, in a quantity that is neither scarce nor too overwhelming for their members. Some farmers find it useful to ask other local farmers in the area how much they include in their CSA and at what price. If you have worked at a farm where they distributed a CSA, you may use their quantities and prices as a guideline, especially in the beginning. Over time, each farmer will learn what amount of food is fair and reasonable without it going to waste for their individual community. Most CSAs do not provide enough food to feed their members for the whole week. However, CSA members still want a good portion for their share. [Source 2]
For example, Tilian’s Green Things Farm had a 2011 CSA with 29 members who bought 35 shares. Each of their 2 CSA seasons ran for 15 weeks. The Spring/Summer share ran May to September and the Fall share ran from September to December. Each share included six to fourteen items per week including mostly vegetables and some herbs. The type of produce in each share varied seasonally. A full share was designed for a family of four and cost $500. A partial share is designed for 2 people and cost $350. [Source 6]
How do I communicate effectively with my CSA members?
Each farmer develops his/her own relationships with the CSA members. Part of this relationship is established through the farm’s policies and guidelines for their CSA. For instance the farm must decide what happens when a member doesn’t pick up their box because of vacation or just absent-mindedness. It is the farmer’s responsibility to inform the CSA members of their policies and what will happen to their box if it is not picked up on time. For instance, Tilian’s Green Things Farm strongly encourages that a friend or family member pick up the share, if the member is unable to. If the member misses the Thursday afternoon pick-up time, they have a final chance to pick it up on Friday morning. [Source 2] [Source 6]
Be prepared to answer the following questions from your CSA members.
- How long have you been farming?
- How long have you been participating in a CSA?
- Are any items in your CSA shares grown by other farms, and if so, which farms?
- How did last season go?
- May I have contact info for a couple of “references” from your previous CSA?
- How much produce do you expect to deliver each week?
- How will the amount of produce you deliver vary throughout the season?[Source 2]
In addition, you may want to ask your CSA members early in the season:
“Do you want to purchase extra quantities of any fruits/vegetables for canning or freezing?”
Localharvest.org also offers many resources for potential CSA members, so you, the farmer, can always direct your members to this resource if they have further questions.
How do my CSA members pay for their shares?
Most farmers ask that CSA members pay for their shares near the start of the season. However, some farms accept payment from their members on a weekly or monthly basis. The farmer chooses a convenient pick-up location where the members receive their share each week. This may be at the farm, a local church, the farmer’s house or another specified location. [Source 2]
How many CSA shares should I sell?
Generally, there is no restriction on who can and cannot be member of the CSA, although most members will come from the surrounding community or nearest urban center. However, each farm can only manage production for a certain number of CSAs which must be decided by the farmer before he or she starts to sell shares. It is important to set a realistic goal on how many CSA members can be supplied each season. The farmer must factor in how much land will be used, how much each member of the farm can produce , how much was produced in the past, and whether the farm will sell through other venues like restaurants, farmer’s markets, or grocery stores. However, as in most endeavors, a farmer won’t find the perfect number of CSAs until a few growing seasons have passed. Be flexible and integrate what was learned last season into this season. It’s also helpful to find a few mentors: experienced farmers, businesspeople and/or people active in the local food movement to help guide you through the first several seasons of CSAs. [Source 4]
Variations in CSAs
Some farmers opt to vary somewhat from the traditional “each CSA member gets one pre-packed box per week” method of distributing CSA shares.
“Mix and Match” or “Market Style”
With the “mix and match” or “market style” variation, CSA members are granted some personal choice in what produce will go in their basket that week. Each member takes an amount of total produce pre-determined by the farmer. The CSA members then choose which pieces of produce they will take home There may be some stipulations such as only one box of raspberries per family. This variation is becomingly increasingly common. The farmer may donate any leftover to a local foodbank. Tilian’s Green Things Farm uses a similar buffet style CSA. They do not pack the boxes themselves, but rather allow their members to choose the produce themselves. In this way, the member can choose a larger eggplant they know their family will enjoy and a smaller squash if they aren’t sure they will like it. [Source 2] [Source 6]
Beyond Produce Shares
In many parts of the United States, consumers have become hard-pressed to find local sources of meat, dairy and eggs. However, this is starting to change and farmers may include eggs, homemade bread, meat, cheese, fruit, flowers or other products from the farm with the vegetables in their CSAs. Two or more farmers may offer their products together. For instance, a produce farmer and neighboring chicken farmer may partner to provide their CSA members the option to buy fresh chickens when they pick up their CSA baskets.
Some farmers offer CSAs specifically for meat, flowers, eggs and other farm products. Additionally, some third party sellers are setting up businesses where they sell boxes of local food in a CSA-like setting. CSA shareholders enjoy buying locally for the superior taste and freshness as well as to support these local, small-scale, environmentally-conscious farms. [Source 2]
How do I advertise my CSA?
There are many online services that can help advertise a CSA. For instance, Green Things Farm uses Realtimefarms.com, Localharvest.org and Facebook.com to advertise their CSA. They also send out a weekly email to their CSA members to discuss what’s happening at their farm and sometimes include recipes designed for use with their produce. [Source 6]
Advantages to CSAs
CSA members build relationships with the farms and farmer. The consumer learns more about how their food is grown and becomes re-connected with their food source. The CSA member walks away with a basket of delicious, locally grown, fresh, seasonal food. They enjoy eating the very fresh, local food with tons of flavor and vitamins. They can become acquainted with new vegetables and experiment in new ways to cook them. Many members have found that their children are willing to eat the fresh vegetables from a farm that they won’t typically eat from a conventional grocery store. [Source 2]
The farmer is also rewarded for the hard-work through shares sold and positive relations with their community. CSA farmers benefit from directly selling their harvest to their community because, in general, farmers receive a better price for their harvest, more financial security and spend less time marketing than with other selling methods. Additionally, farmers benefit from CSAs because they market and try to attract CSA members earlier in the year and can spend the growing season primarily planting, weeding and harvesting. The payment early in the season helps the farmer’s cash flow and the farmer can also spend more time getting to know the people who are eating their harvest before the growing season. Everyone involved benefits from a successful CSA. [Source 2] [Source 5]
Along with the many advantages to participating in a CSA, there is also some risk involved. Initially, CSAs were set up by a group of people who hired a farmer to plant and harvest on a farm they had purchased. Each person took a share of what the farm produced that year for better or worse.
Although today’s CSAs are structured differently, some of that shared risk still exists. To account for this shared risk, some farms ask their CSA members to sign a policy form stating that they will graciously accept, without complaint, whatever harvest is collected from the farm. It is also important to talk openly with your CSA members about what they can expect and review the questions stated in the “How do I communicate effectively with my CSA’s members?” section.
There is also the possibility that something catastrophic could happen, such as: drought, crop disease or pests, flooding, divorce, unexpected death or illness in family, or an inexperienced farmer getting in over his/her head. However, if the CSA members already know and trust their farmer, they will, likely, take this situation in stride and hope for better harvest next year. This is especially true if members have received good, abundant shares in the past and the catastrophic situation seems unfortunate but understandable. Consumers who are not willing to accept this shared risk, but still want to enjoy local food may shop at the farmer’s market or locally stocked grocery store. [Source 2] [Source 5]
Shared risk is not solely negative. It can, in fact, bring the members and farmers closer together in a sense of community. Together they can cheer on the produce that’s doing very well and be disappointed together if a heavy storm damages a different crop. CSA farmers generally feel very responsible to their members and will always serve the CSA first, especially if there are less of certain crops. [Source 2]
Advice for Beginning Farmers from Tilian’s Farmers
Green Things Farm suggests that online marketing is the easiest method to attracting the community to a CSA. It is best for the farmer to develop his/her own website and get the farm’s name put on Localharvest.org and Realtimefarms.com. Getting written up in a local newspaper like AnnArbor.com also helps to increase the farm’s visibility. Word of mouth from friends and family is also very helpful for starting a farm business. Green Things Farm also found that being a part of Tilian Farm Development Center was very helpful because the media attention that Tilian received trickled down to Green Things Farm. [Source 6]
A CSA may not be right for every farm. It depends on the personalities of the farmers and what the farmers want to produce. For instance Tilian’s Seeley Farm chose not to grow the diverse produce required by a CSA. They rather concentrate on growing high quality greens and sell wholesale to local restaurants and grocery stores. They want to perfect growing salad greens and salad green mixes, which they are able to sell at a premium. Seeley Farm also felt that growing a lot of different types of vegetables would bring more pests and diseases to their farm and they felt that might be too overwhelming for them. [Source 7]
1) USDA website Accessed December 3, 2011.
2) Local harvest website Accessed December 3, 2011.
3) Come to the Table North Carolina Website Accessed December 3, 2011.
4) Tilian Farm Development Center, Ann Arbor, MI
5) USDA Website Accessed December 3, 2011.
6) Tilian Farm Development Center, Ann Arbor, MI. Based on an interview with Jill and Nate from Green Things Farm on December 9, 2011.
7) Tilian Farm Development Center, Ann Arbor, MI. Based on an interview with Alex and Mark from Seeley Farm on December 13, 2011.