In early 2008, Kevin Kelly, a prominent digital technology thinker, wrote an article entitled "1,000 True Fans" in which he argued that new communication technologies allow artists and musicians to thrive in a whole new way than before. Instead of artists being reliant on the blockbuster, break-out hit, they can instead nurture a group of committed "fans" that will spend money often and reliably to create a steady stream of income for the artist.
"A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can't wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans."
Applied to agriculture, this "true fan" sounds a whole lot like a CSA member.
CSA members are willing to do certain things that no other rational consumer will do: pay up-front as much as 6 months in advance for produce, accept weather-related losses, take whatever produce is in season at the farm, buy all their fresh food from one farmer, and on and on. It takes a lot of trust and the mind-set of a true fan to be a CSA member.
Of course, the CSA member expects a lot from your farm: the freshest produce, the highest quality, a discount over market prices, a newsletter of what is going on at the farm, or a good conversation at the pick-up site.
The CSA is a bargain that benefits both the farmer and the member. As a farmer you are eliminating some of the marketing headaches of the direct marketing small farm, but there are a lot of responsibilities in this relationship. Namely, keeping your membership happy week after week and year after year.
Kelly explains the challenges and rewards of this set-up:
"The key challenge is that you have to maintain direct contact with your 1,000 True Fans. They are giving you their support directly. Maybe they come to your house concerts, or they are buying your DVDs from your website, or they order your prints from Pictopia. As much as possible you retain the full amount of their support. You also benefit from the direct feedback and love.
The technologies of connection and small-time manufacturing make this circle possible. Blogs and RSS feeds trickle out news, and upcoming appearances or new works. Web sites host galleries of your past work, archives of biographical information, and catalogs of paraphernalia. Diskmakers, Blurb, rapid prototyping shops, Myspace, Facebook, and the entire digital domain all conspire to make duplication and dissemination in small quantities fast, cheap and easy. You don't need a million fans to justify producing something new. A mere one thousand is sufficient. "
So, beyond providing a stellar product, the key is to keep your fans (ahem, CSA members) happy and engaged by communicating the difficulties and joys of growing their food. Your website and newsletter is a key part of that effort -- these technologies that we have at our fingertips allow us to keep CSA members in the loop at a very low cost. The unique story of your farm and individual relationships with customers will keep them coming back year after year.
We have one Member Assembler farm that opens their CSA sign-up at midnight on Sunday morning in March and sells 350 shares by that Sunday evening (almost their entire membership quota) with full payment taken at the sign-up. That is the kind of following we should all be striving for.
It should be noted that I am not suggesting that each farm needs 1000 CSA members. The number of CSA members that you need is the number members that would support the farmer and farm at a decent wage year-round, so this number will be different for every scale and locale.
The CSA concept, and in a larger sense, the "1000 true fan" concept, allows us to do what we love whether that is farming or playing the bass guitar without constantly struggling for one-off sales at the farmers market, a huge blockbuster, or the big wholesale contract.