Community-supported agriculture as a scalable marketing model

Enthusiastic home gardeners often find themselves producing far more than they need for themselves. In an effort to try out interesting new varieties of a diverse range of crops, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with more produce than one family can handle. With some planning, productive home gardeners can transition to market farming by developing a community-supported agriculture (CSA) venture.

CSA is a direct marketing structure that allows customers to purchase a share of a farm’s harvest in advance. Most standard CSA shares are distributed weekly and typically contain a variety of vegetables, herbs, and/or fruits — whatever a farm is producing that given week. Some CSAs even offer meat, dairy products, eggs, mushrooms, honey, flowers, fresh bread, and other value added products. Multiple farms may even collaborate to reliably offer consumers a wider variety of products. CSA shares are usually offered in full, half, and sometimes quarter shares to meet the needs of different customers. There are a wide variety of CSA models to choose from and adapt to the needs of a specific farmer or consumer group.

Whether practicing intensive small-scale agriculture or aspiring to make a full-time career from farming, CSAs offer many benefits to the farmer. The most widely touted benefits are the advance working capital and the shared risk. Receiving payment on the front end gives farmers the financial security to invest in the land and operation as needed. Also, farmers are able to set their crop prices early in the season instead of bargaining on fluctuating market prices. Most CSA consumers sign a contract developed by the farmer and the farmer’s attorney. The contract states that purchasing a share of the farm includes purchasing a share of the risk associated with farming. Of course, no farmer should assume the contract means they no longer have to keep their customers happy. Instead, CSAs often distribute recipes and educational material along with their farm shares. During drought or drowning, the relationship between farmer and consumer builds trust and an understanding of all that goes into agriculture behind the farmers’ market booth.

As with any other business venture, creating a CSA for your operation comes with important considerations. Perhaps most importantly, farmers should understand that implementing a CSA may influence the legal structure of a business or impact the insurance options available to a farm. Aside from developing a detailed business plan, or incorporating a CSA into an existing business plan, expect an increase in workload. CSAs require farmers to advertise their service well in advance — think six months ahead at minimum. To encourage customers, farmers will need to determine when, where, and for how long produce will be available for pickup. For newer farmers who lack years of growing experience, this can be tricky to figure out.

Community-supported agriculture has its share of risks and benefits, but can provide a smooth transition to aspiring market gardeners. Farmers and consumers can work together to understand and appreciate all that goes into fresh, locally sourced food.