Photo by Stacy Spensley

Running a CSA: Advice for Farmers, by Farmers

We gathered farmers and ranchers from across the state on 5/4/2020 for a producer discussion on what goes into operating a successful CSA program.  Our discussion ranged from the physical economy of CSA’s (boxes, pints, and produce bags, oh my!), to the features and add ons some successful CSA farmers are bringing to their customers.  Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion.  Here are the resources we discussed:

Starting a CSA

CSA programs can bring joy and connection with your customers, but they do take a lot of time and effort to pull off.  This helpful flowchart from OSU Small Farms and PACSAC has a ton of great resources to get you started and to learn about the history of this delivery model.  Work your way through the steps to see relevant resources, or use the “view all resources” link at the top to see the full list.

Packaging

When packing CSA boxes it is sometimes practical to use additional packaging (produce bags, pint containers, etc.) to make sure your products stay whole and well during the journey to pick up, or when your customer takes them home.  Knowing where to find these products can be a barrier to new CSA  farmers.  Some of the tips and strategies employed by the farmers on the call include: 

Asking your customer to bring their own container. 

  • This could mean asking them to bring their own grocery bags to transfer their share into when they pick up (therefore preventing the problem of disappearing bins), or a vessel to receive your specialty products (the folks at Garnett’s Red Prairie ask their customers to bring their own container for milled grains).

Bulk orders of containers with your friends and neighbors.

  • Some OSU Extension Small Farms programs have helped coordinate these (example came from Central Oregon).
  • This is also something that happens on the PACSAC listserv, get in touch with PACSAC Executive Director Holly Hutchason to be added to that list. You do not need to be a member of PACSAC to be on this listserv!
  • Ask your farmer friends and neighbors if they would like to split an order.  For example, FoFF Executive Director Shari Sirkin just got a notice that one of her neighboring farms in the Columbia River Gorge is looking for partners on a large order of reusable produce bags.  If you farm in the Gorge, email Shari for more info.

Suppliers used by your fellow farmers**

  • Nolt’s Produce Supplies – traditional supplier, catalog order.
  • Uline – Ships quickly and in small quantities
  • Seattle Tacoma Box Company – good for cardboard boxes and waxed boxes
  • Rose Paper Products in Salem – Good for paper pulp containers and grocery bags

REMEMBER: When picking containers and establishing norms for your CSA program, remember to review the FSMA standards of what is food safe and designated as reusable.  For example, under FSMA standards, wax boxes are not considered reusable.

Payment Options

Payment Plans

While the traditional concept of CSA is to pay a large, lump sum at the beginning of the season to boost the farmer’s early season income and share the burden of producing fantastic food, some farms are more creative with their structure now.  Farmers on the call discussed having payment plans for:

  • Monthly commitments
  • Half season commitments
  • Paying on a quarterly basis for a longer subscription
  • Creative pricing for one time add-ons to larger plans.

Payment Processors**

Many farmers on the call wondered how their peers get paid.  Many CSA customers no longer have a check book, so farms have had to explore other payment options.  Some of the platforms farmers mentioned using were:

  • PayPal: Be aware, customers must make the decision to use the invoicing feature, or go through the Friends and Family channel.
  • CashApp
  • Venmo for Business
  • Online credit payment processors like Stripe and Square: make sure your website is compatible before committing to one of these options.

There was discussion about how to efficiently get paid using some of these options without entering shipping tracking numbers (because CSA is most likely pick up or delivery based).  One farmer suggested setting up your CSA as a subscription service instead of a specific product on these platforms to avoid that requirement.

IN ORDER TO TAKE SNAP FOR YOUR CSA you can become a member of PACSAC and ask them to do your SNAP processing for you.  There is also an opportunity for your SNAP (also called EBT or Oregon Trail) customers to receive some matching funds from the state.  You will still get the full price of your CSA share and they will get a discounted price.  For more information on that opportunity, check out our blog post.  It is also possible to sign up to take SNAP through your farm directly. Get more info on that process here.

Delivery and Customization

These services are becoming more and more popular.  Especially as the COVID-19 pandemic forces people to limit their travel and time away from home, customers are looking for more options like this. When it comes to these options, the folks on the call agreed that these features are good for business, but they require more time, energy, and capacity from the farmer.  No matter what your farm decides to do, it is important to create reasonable expectations for your customers and charge what these services are worth to your business. Here are the main points from our producer discussion:

Pros of Customization

  • This is a competitive service that will make your shares appealing to people who have special health concerns, or those accustomed to these options from larger services (Amazon, Whole Foods, etc.).
  • You can ensure that your customer only gets what they will eat and reduce waste in the system.
  • Your customer will never get something that they don’t like which may improve your reviews and retention year over year.

Cons of Customization

  • This takes a lot of time on the farm and you will need to have the labor to make it happen.
  • If you don’t have a diverse enough group of folks, or a large enough number of shares, you may end up with crop no one chooses.
  • This idea may be counter to the founding principle of CSA that the customer shares the burden of production as it stands.

Pros of Delivery

  • This reduces non-essential travel for your customers during the pandemic.
  • This prevents people from coming to your farm, which is especially important if you have anyone on your crew or in your family who is at high risk for COVID-19.
  • You can collaborate with local delivery services and build partnerships with other businesses in your area. If you are interested in bicycle delivery in the Portland Area for you farm, contact Holly at PACSAC!  They are negotiating group rates with BeeLine right now.

Cons of Delivery

  • It can take an entire day out of your farming schedule.
  • You will have to pass the cost on to your customer.  Producers on the call reported charging between $6 and $10 per delivery.
  • This might not be possible for all farmers based on delivery radiuses, and vehicle constraints.

CSA is here to stay.  Whether you are new to this model, or an old hand at packing weekly shares, as we move into an era of more mobile ordering and delivery of all services, there is always something new to learn.  The only constant is that people need to eat, and Oregon’s small and medium farmers are the best ones to feed them!

**Friends of Family Farmers does not endorse or receive compensation from any of the mentioned suppliers/vendors.  These are just suggestions from your fellow producers of what has worked for them.