The 'Real CSAs' article from last week obviously touched a nerve -- I got a lot of positive feedback from our farmers about this dedication to farm-based CSAs. I am really interested in this subject and I would like to know how this issue is affecting your marketing in your part of country. Please send thoughts to simon[at]smallfarmcentral.com.
There were some vague comments that California is pursuing a "certified CSA" strategy. Does anyone have more details on this?
Today, I'd like to review some of the responses that I have received so far:
Gary of Ploughshare Farm in Minnesota says:
CSA need to define ourselves before somebody else does this for us. Already, the state of California is looking at ways of labeling CSA’s so that customers can know the difference (potentially for regulation purposes). I welcome some clarity for consumers so that they can differentiate between wholesale subscriptions, box schemes, and farmer driven CSA’s, however those efforts should really come from farmers themselves. In the Midwest, we are trying to organize CSA farmers around such issues. We look forward to this next year in having a CSA conference in the Midwest.
I personally believe that within the definition there has to be some amount of shared risk between customer and the farm. If we start watering this part down then we really take away the key success potential for CSA farmers. This is only one of many issues however that we must wrestle with.
"I like your article. This is an area of much importance to me, this idea of CSA, which for me boils down to having a relationship with a farm."For his response, he shared this excerpt from his weekly CSA newsletter
Much of my life has been devoted to sharing the story and the bounty of my farm. I would like to re-invigorate this impulse. Simply receiving a box of vegetables from Angelic Organics each week may seem like enough for many, but there can be so much more. Deepening ones connection to a farm is a gift for the earth and humanity; it guides us toward love and understanding, which gives rise to healing and transformation. This can lead to real change in our society.
On my film tour, I implored people all over the planet to find a farm to connect with. As a shareholder, you have a place on the earth that you can ponder, visit and eat from. You can directly experience our farm’s weather, workers and soil not only through the box you receive, not only by reading about the farm in our newsletter, but by actually visiting our farm. The more one takes a farm into one’s heart, the more restorative and transformational will this be for humanity and the earth alike. And the more you are involved with our farm, the more we can get to know you. This will help us to find our way together.
"but a csa is different in that it asks its members to assume the risks of a farm, and those can be quite formidable: weather, pests, water issues, soil problems, and the myriad other issues that keep farmers feeling anxious.Your Perspective?
by signing up for a csa, you’re shouldering part of that worry, you’re providing support and emphasizing to farmers that they’re not alone when it comes to facing the hazards. and to do that, you’re taking a risk. most of the time, that risk turns into reward, but there are plenty of stories where that risk turns into loss."
This notion of community involvement and shared outcomes seems absolutely central to the CSA -- that just isn't possible in some sort of wholesale "box scheme".
I'd love to hear *specifics* about how this issue is affecting your marketing -- if you are feeling pressure from these non-farm CSAs, how does that change your marketing approach? Maybe you are trying to be more full-service by offering add-on shares for fish, coffee, or honey? Maybe you are committing to 'telling your story' through a weekly newsletter to tell your members the unique story of your farm?
Send your perspective to simon[at]smallfarmcentral.com.
Missed the original article? Read it here.
I ran across an article about Andrew Stout at Washington state's Full Circle Farm who has 18,000 subscribers in four states -- including "several remote Alaskan towns that are only accessible by boat or airplane" such as Barrow, Alaska.
I have been aware of Andrew at Full Circle Farm since they were running a paltry 2000+ members in 2004 when he spoke at a NAFDMA conference in Austin, Texas. He was looking at huge growth even at that time, so I'm not surprised to see that he has increased his membership so much over the years. I remember being pretty humbled after hearing about his operation and comparing it to our 130 weekly shares which seemed like a big deal!
For me and many CSA farmers out there, I know there is a lot of consternation about food delivery services that are calling themselves CSAs and watering down the term, so I was heartened by this:
"Stout eventually dropped the term CSA and changed the description of the company’s offering to a ‘Farm-to-Table organic delivery service’. Stout isn’t trying to fool people into thinking they’re getting all local food, and he wants the business to be as transparent as possible, he said."
In the end, it is all about the relationship between farmer and customer, so if you really are a grower growing for a CSA, you will be able to tell your story and differentiate yourself from the non-farmer CSAs. However, it is worrying to see the term watered down and I am glad that Full Circle Farms has decided to change the name of their program to be true to what they are actually doing.
I am not a complete purist -- I feel like it is acceptable for CSAs to supplement with items produced off the farm as long as those products fit the same profile of those that the farm produces and the farm is completely up-front with customers that some products are not grown on farm. This makes sense. As a customer trusts you to grow healthy, delicious food, they may also trust you to source other high quality products like coffee, fish, eggs, or poultry. The key is transparency. If a "CSA" is simply buying off the wholesale market and delivering those goods to consumers, that is not a CSA.
There are other models that I feel are completely valid such as cooperative CSAs, multi-farm CSAs, and selling additional shares for items that are not grown on-farm. The only model is not the one-farm boxed model -- though that is certainly an ideal for me -- there are many farms that do not have the skills or interest in jumping through all the hoops to direct market (think Amish farmers). Also, there is a lot to be said for specialization in crops grown and variety in CSA boxes. It is a very hard agricultural and managerial problem for one farm to grow all the products that a customer may want in a CSA box.
Those farmers that specialize or are not good direct marketers should still have access to this wonderful business model because they are producers of high quality local food, but they do not have the interest in marketing it. Some flexibility in CSA is obviously required as we serve more eaters and it becomes more mainstream. The first CSAs had weekly or seasonal work requirements and that is obviously not a scalable business model as the concept grows.
There is a certainly a place for delivery services and the variety of business models that are sprouting up around this demand for local, fresh food. More fresh food in people's homes hopefully leads to more healthy cooking at home and I am all in favor about that. I just don't want people to be misled to think they are supporting local farms when they are not.
Let me make myself completely clear: for me and Member Assembler, I want to support grower based CSAs and not produce delivery services. Our software is built for the needs of real CSAs and we are not attempting to provide technology to businesses that water down the "CSA" model. I know how hard it is to grow 40+ crops in succession planting to fill interesting, diverse boxes each week because I have done it myself. That's hard enough. We don't need to make the marketing harder by competing with "CSAs" that just buy their food from the wholesale produce market.
Keep telling your unique story and put pressure on those non-farmer CSAs to be transparent about the source of their food. We'll do our part here by developing technology for farm-based CSAs. Long live real CSAs.
Update! Farmers had thoughts on this and I posted a follow up article.
Fresh, timely updates about what is going on at the farm are important and compelling for customers, but extremely hard to maintain in the busiest part of the harvest season. There are a number of strategies to make this happen including blocking time out of your schedule or writing content ahead of time.
However, I think one of the most important things to realize is that short is okay for your blog updates. A timely photo and a few lines of text may be more interesting to a customer than a 1000 word essay on integrated pest management. I think there is a place for longer form copy on, for example, growing practices, but that is in the "static" part of your website that does not change all of the time.
People are in a rush to read your updates most of the time, so the extra effort to write a long essay each week may be wasted. Keep it brief and compelling.
The Small Farm Central crew attended PASA's (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture) 21st Annual Farming for the Future Conference last week to check in with friends and colleagues and find out what's new with small farmers in our immediate area. While not exhibiting in a booth this year, we did host a mixer for new and beginning farmers and Simon ran two interactive workshops on web marketing for farmers.
Simon & young Eliot take a break and get some food at PASA.
At the Opening Keynote address, we heard of many exciting trends that we wished to share with you. First, there were over 2200 people in attendance at the conference, the largest amount ever. Of those, more than half of them were farmers and almost a third of that number were first-time attendees. Second, there was a 30% increase in farm shares last year. Third, the biggest increase in Dept. of Agriculture loans last year were beginning farmer loans. Add these trends together and it seems like the push toward sustainable, small, local farming is going strong.
Drew and Joan Norman of One Straw Farm, one of our initial Member Assembler customers, were applauded by the entire assembly for their courageous decision to voluntarily surrender their organic certification to farm more environmentally responsibly despite a disagreement with the National Organic Program's classification system. Read more about it here. We add our thanks to the Normans for continuing to take the lead in the organic movement.
In addition to seeing the Normans, we also caught up with John and Eris Norman (no relation) from Norman's Farm Market, Karlin and Lydia from Penn's Corner Farm Alliance, Ben from Three Springs Fruit Farm, and many other friends. In addition to all the practical information, PASA's conference is a great community-building event that reminds farmers that even though the seasons can be tough, they're not in it alone and that people care about the work you do.
Last week, Small Farm Central crossed the nearest border and headed up to the 31st Annual Guelph Organic Conference in Ontario, Canada. Four days long, the conference featured workshops, symposia, and a trade show to provide farmers all the information they need to start, improve upon or convert to organic farming.
After some slight confusion about being in the wrong place (see right), we got our booth set up at the trade show. Saturday was literally a non-stop current of curious, enthusiastic, and friendly people who wanted to hear all about Small Farm Central even if they had absolutely no use for our services. Having amazing Ecuadorian chocolate sampling on one side of us and a beloved 40-year old environmental journal on the other, it was affirming to get any attention at all. As it was, we hardly had a chance to take a deep breath. By Sunday, things slowed down a bit but we still made lots of good connections.
We met folks from advocacy groups such as Beth McMahon from Canadian Organic Growers (COG), Katie Sandwell from Ontario Fresh, and Jacob Pries from the Organic Council of Ontario (OCO). We met with other service providers who specialize in working with organic farmers like video producer Devin Smith, writer and marketer Susan Ratz, food consultant David Cohlmeyer, and fellow software developer Bill Huneke.
Mostly, though, we met farmers: All kinds of farmers, big and small, livestock and crop, young and old, experienced and beginning, and a far more diverse population than we are used to seeing down in the States, which was great to see.
Rob Wallbridge of Songberry Organic Farm, who we've had the pleasure of working with for the past year, took time out of a busy day to stop by. We had the chance to explain what we do to some established organizations such as the Conestoga River Local Food Co-Op, Lakeview Farms, and the Shared Harvest Community Farm and also some fledgling farms like Omagarden, Blessed Tree, and Fiddlehead Farm. Many of the younger and beginning farmers had a strong interest in the technological and social networking aspects of farming in the 21st Century and, in general, the enthusiasm and energy of this local food community in Ontario was inspiring to be around. It was a great trip and we'd like to go back next year. If only we farmers could have our conferences in nice weather once in a while!
The Young Farmers Coalition rounds up a report by the California Agriculture journal which has some interesting stats on the growth of CSAs.
"Between 1990 and 2010, CSA membership in this area increased by 49 times, from about 672 members in 1990 to 32,938 members in 2010."
"According to the study, 54 percent of the CSAs were profitable and, out of the rest, 32 percent broke even and 15 percent operated at a loss. The average gross sales per acre was $9,084, which is almost seven times the average for California agriculture generally."
"Generally, small-scale farmers were more dependent on CSAs than larger-scale farmers. Many of the farmers in the study chose the CSA model as a way to diversify their income sources. Some did not have access to wholesale organic markets, while others wanted to increase their revenue beyond farmers’ markets and other direct sales. Many farmers responded that one of their motivations for starting a CSA was the advantage of being paid up front before the growing season and thus knowing sales volumes ahead of time."
If you've been thinking about processing credit cards this year -- either in person at the market or on your website -- you know there are a ton of different options out there. We've done a lot of the research to help you make an informed decision as to what will help you the most. For smaller farms processing less than $50,000/year in credit card transactions, PayPal is likely the best choice because there are no monthly fees with Paypal.
However, for farms processing higher volumes of payments or for farms that want a more seamless online payment experience, getting a full merchant account with Authorize.net may make sense. We are happy to discuss your unique situation with you and figure out if a full merchant account makes sense.
There are hundreds of merchant services providers out there and it can be very confusing. One thing we've learned is that for many CSA farmers, it can be a challenge to apply for a merchant account because of the "pay now/get something later" model of CSA. Some merchant services companies refuse to work with farms regardless of the farm's business model.
To help address this challenge, we've partnered with a full-service merchant account company called Total Merchant Services (TMS). TMS provides online merchant accounts with Authorize.net for your website, wireless merchant accounts with free terminals for markets, and even an app to swipe credit cards on your mobile phone. TMS has already cleared the CSA model through their Risk Department so applying is streamlined and usually only takes a couple of business days for approval. Even if you are already processing with a merchant account, TMS may be able to offer better rates for you.
Click here for a lot more detail about their services and how they compare with some of the other options out there. Hopefully there is a solution out there to help your customers pay you quickly and easily!
We've got a new content option that is kind of a mix between a gallery and a web page. We call it Showcase and it's flexible enough to serve a lot of different functions: a display of specialty products, a staff directory, a step-by-step page of instructions, etc. Basically a Showcase is the tool to use for any time you'd like a series of visual elements with text that you can move around in a display order.
The above example is the "bookshelf" layout style of a Showcase. The images can be ordered using the "weight" functionality you've likely used elsewhere on the site. "Lightest" items float to the top while "heaviest" sink down. You can have any number of images but can only add 10 at a time. If you have more than that, save after 10 and then go back in to edit. Each image has a title and a caption shown here. You can also write a longer description, which will be shown if someone clicks the "More" button or clicks a photo.
After clicking, you'll see you also get a larger version of the small image, for showing those fine details and longer descriptions.
"Bookshelf" is not the only option for displaying a Showcase. There are three different "list" styles, also: One with the images aligned left, one with them on the right and a "zig-zag" where the images alternate, like this example:
You'll see that the list style displays the full text with each image. Your visitors can still click through to get the large picture if they like.
We're sure you will have lots of ideas about how to use Showcases. Just head to Create Content > Showcase to get started. Please let us know when you've created some and tell us how you like the Showcase and what improvements you'd like to see. Happy New Year!
I came across this call for Washington, DC area CSA farmers on the Washington Post:
"In early February, the Food section will publish online a list of Washington area farms offering community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares for sale in 2012. Farms that would like to be included should e-mail the following information to firstname.lastname@example.org...."
If your CSA happens to serve the DC area, take the initiative and get on the list! For the rest of you, this is a good time to get in touch with the food reporter in your major market and encourage them to do a review of area CSAs this Spring if they are not already doing one!
The public is hungry for these kinds of stories and directories, so help your local reporter out and get some free publicity in the process!
I hope you get the chance to enjoy the Holidays with family and friends! After a season of planning, marketing, planting, harvesting, and etc, I hope you get the time to relax this off-season.
We'll be taking a light week during the week between Christmas and New Year to recharge our batteries going in to our busy season. We have the exact opposite season of farmers, so Small Farm Central gets busy as you have a little more time to turn your attention to websites, member management, and online sales.
During the week between Christmas and New Year, support will be available by email and of course we'll watch everything to make sure it is running smoothly.
We look forward to another great year making technology easy for your farm in 2012!
Top of the Holiday to you!
-Simon & the Small Farm Central team.