CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription programs are a business, and farms are no longer pretending otherwise. They are signing contracts with customers, hiring management employees, using sophisticated planning tools, and putting custom software to work.
Customer Education and Turnover
Retention rates of CSA customers are generally poor. Sixty to seventy percent of customers from any one year returning the next is considered a good rate of return. Most farms do worse. That means you need to recruit the equivalent of your entire CSA customer base every two to three years. The above systems (multi-farm programs, champion customers, affinity groups) are all designed to increase retention.
But short of trying those new models, much is written about how to keep subscribers engaged and give them a sense of personal connection with the farm. This may be through newsletters, social media, farm workdays or celebration days, or just simply spending extra time talking with your customers when they call or stop by. This has value. Sauvie Island Organics Farm Blog and Waltham Fields Community Farm are good examples of customer interactions.
Less-discussed is the challenge of interns and apprentices. Farm owners tend to be enthusiastic about customer interactions, in part because of their pride in the product, but also because they are depositing the customer’s checks and depend on them for livelihood. Farm interns can be less enthusiastic with customers. We have witnessed dull, unwelcoming interactions when customers arrive eager to pick up a share at market – the asking of a name, crossing it off a list, and silent handing over a box. That’s it. So, be sure to train your interns in great customer service. Give them scripts, practice customer interactions, and work alongside them to set the tone.
A CSA customer survey from the University of California found that a majority of customers do feel engaged with the farm. The minority who don’t may be some of those who fail to renew. But the survey showed that the number one reason people leave CSAs is product mix issues – because there wasn’t enough variety (Too many greens! Too much squash!), or because they would prefer to choose their purchases themselves. A very closely related issue comes up number two: “problems with quantity (threw out too much, etc.).” The study goes on to conclude:
“Most people leave the CSA due to lack of choice, yet the idea of “receiving what is available when it is available” is an integral part of the CSA concept. Therefore, turnover is likely to always be an issue, and thus finding new members will continually be required.”
Are customers really that irrational? They sign up for something, excited with eyes open, and six months later the very thing that excited them is the reason they leave the program? Maybe not. Part of the issue is that new farms overpromise. At the same time that farms warn “you get what you get,” they also show off a spectacular product calendar that they may not yet have the growing expertise to pull off. So, one way to manage customer expectations is to not even launch a CSA program until you have several years of experience on your land, trying to grow a CSA-like bounty and variety.
Maybe, even with experienced farms, the likely number one reason subscribers drop off is that they have the wrong expectations. They imagine they’ll get something familiar and easy to cook every week, and maybe they won’t. They imagine they’ll get just the right amount of food for their family, and maybe they won’t. They imagine produce will look like it does it the store, and maybe it won’t. They imagine they’ll now make time to cook a whole lot more than they ever did, and maybe they won’t. They imagine that getting berries, or cucumbers, or corn, or something, is guaranteed, and nothing is guaranteed.
As one small step toward preventing wrong expectations, consider reposting or handing out this wonderful information sheet from Local Harvest.
Formal Agreements and Contracts
Another great way to adjust customer expectations is to have them sign a formal contract. There’s nothing like a simple, clear signed agreement to make someone really stop and think.
A signed contract has other purposes, too. If you use a payment plan, it’s a payment agreement. If you want the right to give food to the needy when it is not picked up on time, your contract can bind customers to that understanding. If you want to protect against demands for refunds, do it on the contract.
Every CSA farm should have customers sign an agreement. The 2009 University of Kentucky CSA survey of 200 farms found that more than half did not.
A Few Planning and Management Tools
There is recent growth in custom management software solutions for CSA farmers. These include Farmigo, The CSA Toolbox, CSA Member Assembler, CSAware, and others. Pricing is either per share sold or a percentage of sales. Features include online sign-up for your customers, ongoing customer communication, delivery and pick-up site tracking, financial tracking and billing, reporting, production planning, and more. It’s beyond the scope of this document to provide detailed information and reviews of each. Explore them and let us know what you think.
One downside of using a custom system for things like billing and recordkeeping is that more common systems have broad support and wide application. There are simple things farmers can do with homemade planning sheets, using paper, or using widely available tools you may be using anyway, like Microsoft Excel and Intuit’s Quickbooks.
Richard Wiswall’s excellent The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook (2009) includes many such ideas and tools. It’s a recommended read for all farmers, organic or not, and does include a section specific to operating and planning CSA farms. His writing, while in some places providing complicated planning systems (along with a CD of Excel files), also assumes that nothing is too simple to be of use to other farmers.
A time-tested, deep planning system that has been successfully adapted by several farms we’ve met is the Brookfield Farm set of Excel spreadsheets. These sheets can be hard to pick up, especially for the Excel novice, but once used they masterfully allow you to coordinate your planting and harvest schedule with your customer demand, and even your seed order and soil amendments.