The Next Wave: Find Your Market
From the farm’s point of view, it’s a great advantage to have a critical mass of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) customers in one location sharing and talking about your food. Surely this has the potential to increase your customer retention from year to year, because people aren’t making decisions alone. They have banded together, sharing a common goal.
In the early years of CSA, these groups were social circles and, as a demographic, overlapped greatly with natural foods shoppers. Many came from the same sector of the baby boomer generation who sought social change as 1960s-70s youth and were “grown-up” consumers eager and ready for the CSA trend to begin in the 1980s-90s. This group is now retirement age, and are still a top set of CSA customers, but they are not the next wave. CSA share supply already has, or will soon, outgrow the food buying power of the baby boomer customer base. These are now smaller households with kids who left the nest.
The next wave for CSA marketing is already forming and has certainly not crested. To succeed in the future, CSA farms will need to aim their marketing efforts toward new affinity groups, new demographic sets, new social circles. For a CSA to now enter the market, it has to think like a marketer. Who is my customer?
Does my customer attend church? Use social media? Are they “foodie” young people who like to experiment, or people who are intimidated by all the kinds of greens? Have children who play soccer? Work at a particular place or in a certain industry that is locally deep-rooted? Are they urban? Rural? Recent or historically immigrants from a particular part of the world?
For 15 years most (not all) CSAs used similar language. They used similar communication systems (shifting together over time from paper to web). So, they found similar customers. You must zero in and find the communication streams, ways of talking, and CSA systems that work for your “next wave” market. The contents of your basket may also shift depending on who’s buying. The experience of the product needs to reinforce how you promote your product.
Developing Champion Customers
A rising trend (and all-around smart strategy) is to relieve yourself of the full burden of finding customers one by one by getting customers to do the outreach for you. Farms that take this route can choose to entirely stop selling shares one at a time, or not. Organized by neighborhood, town, congregation, or workplace – each “cell” of your CSA program has a coordinator (“host,” “leader,” or “captain”) whose job it is to recruit others and organize share distribution. You may or may not wish to provide a discount or other reward to the people who take the coordinator role.
The potential to relieve your sales and marketing burden is tremendous using this model. The other advantage is in logistics support. Is it a peak summer vacation week and a third of your subscribers are out of town and don’t want their shares? The vacationers tell their coordinator, who finds a family or food bank to take the extra shares. You don’t take 20 phone calls. Did someone forget to pick up their shares? Any gradually-rotting produce is clearly defined as not your responsibility – the coordinator can take care of that.
One Farm, Multiple CSA Programs?
Hand-in-hand with this trend is a shift in how you think about your farm CSA program. Here in Western North Carolina, farmers tend to think of their farm as having one CSA entity. The CSA program has no name other than the name of the farm.
Here’s the mental shift. What if your farm were actually made up of more than one CSA program, each focused on reaching a certain group, town, or neighborhood? Each CSA has a name. For example, Fellenz Family Farm in Ontario County, New York, has three CSA programs:
- Transfiguration CSA is named for the Church of the Transfiguration in Pittsford who coordinates those shares.
- UUCC CSA is named for the Unitarian Universalist Church in Canandaigua, the members of which take a strong role in implementing the program.
- Geneva CSA is named for the town where the pick-up point is located. This program appears to be more farm-managed and less clearly tied to a congregation, even though a church does provide the pick-up point.
At Fellenz, each CSA program has a separate application. For the first two programs, the application seems to be designed hand-in-hand by the farmer and the congregation together. Both church and farm are promoting themselves and sharing a message in their own way of speaking. Applications are returned to a program coordinator at the congregation. For the third program, it is returned to the farm.
Prices appear to vary slightly. This may or may not be because one of the congregations has chosen to include an extra fee to subsidize shares for the needy.
Does it sound like a hassle to track three kinds of application form and maintain three different parts of your CSA website and promotions? Maybe. Is the hassle worth having people on the ground, out in various communities, with a defined role of selling thousands of dollars of shares on behalf of your farm, and saving you time dealing with distribution logistics? Could be.
Faith-Based and Workplace-Based CSAs
Around the country and across faiths, food is rising up as a focus of congregational discussion and action. It makes sense. The links between spiritual sustenance and nutritional sustenance are as old as our most hallowed sacred texts. Congregations are interested in connecting with local farms as a form of fellowship, as social action, and/or to follow scriptural guidance.
One strategy to establish faith-based customers is to work through your existing customer base. You need a gatekeeper to let you in. At an open farm day or farm workday, or through social media or a newsletter, extend an invitation to meet with congregations. Talk it through with those who show interest. Get invited.
Reinforce the personal outreach by publicly stating your intentions. We know that church members are out there searching for local CSAs, so put relevant keywords on your website.
As a side note, this same strategy is absolutely worth pursuing with workplaces. Ask your customers where they work, and openly pursue interest in selling shares to others there. Or, go right to the source. Human resources departments and employees at large and small workplaces are seeking a connection with fresh, local food.
Working Together With Other Farms
By working with other farms on supplying your shares, there is no question you can lower your production risk and better guarantee a positive food experience for your customer. However, there is an almost philosophical debate underway about multifarm CSAs. Is the direct relationship between a single farm, its farmers, and its customers, absolutely essential to the whole idea of a CSA? How much product can come from other local farms before some perceived value is lost?
Farms have sought help to supplement their baskets ever since the origin of North American CSAs in the 1980s. That’s not new. Specialized items such as fruit, land- and water-intensive foods like sweet corn, and entire other product lines like meats and eggs have been add-ons or part of base CSA shares.
Clearly, though, farms worry that their customers won’t like this, as it is common in CSA brochures and websites to see detailed information to justify when, how, and why other farm products are used in the shares. Listen to your customers on this point. Some CSA farms may find that the customers value variety and reliability and have no concern about you providing items from other farms; other customer bases may be passionate adherents to the idea that “this is my farmer” and may perceive that add-on products dilute the value of their share.
But in some places, with some customers, the sky is the limit. Check out the Intervale Food Hub website for an example of an amazing array of CSA offerings from one program.
Fully Collaborative Multifarm CSAs
Local Harvest: A Multifarm CSA Handbook is a 130-page SARE document by Jill Perry and Scott Franzblau, entirely focused on the subject of multifarm CSA programs. After a long introduction, it provides very hands-on, down and dirty information. The document relies on and builds on the experience of Local Harvest CSA, which grew out of a single CSA started in New Hampshire in 1989.
Multi-farm CSAs typically involve coordination of multiple growers to both overlap supply and specialize supply. The Intervale Food Hub is another example. Overlapping supply means, for example, that three farms plant a crop of peas in weekly succession, hoping that at least two plantings pan out. This saves any one farm from doing the super-intense level of succession planting sometimes needed to reduce the risk that you disappoint your customers. Specializing supply means, for example, that one or two farms grow
tomatoes and invest in all the latest disease-combating structures and programs, and the other farms don’t have to grow tomatoes. Maybe they grow sweet corn, berries, green beans, or another resourceintensive crop, and the tomato farm doesn’t have to worry about those.
Multi-farm CSAs typically try to grow to a point where either a skilled person at one of the farms, or a contracted outsider, or some of both, are paid to do some level of supply coordination, customer service, and bookkeeping functions.
Next, read about CSA Systems of Operation.