Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Good Advice for Making Your CSA farm work

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LocalHarvest Newsletter, May 20, 2013

Welcome back to the LocalHarvest newsletter.
Several months ago, we sent out a survey to all of the CSA farmers in LocalHarvest in cooperation with researchers at Lehigh University and the University of Maryland. We were interested in learning more about how our CSA farmers are setting up their programs, interacting with their members, and using technology to support their CSA. Over 850 CSA farmers participated in the survey, and this month we are sharing some of the results with you.
One thing the researchers found is that the vast majority of these farmers rely on the Internet to spread the word about their business. Over 80% have their own websites, and three-quarters of them use Facebook to connect with their members. Back in 2000 when we launched LocalHarvest, many farmers did not have reliable Internet access, and only a handful were selling their products online. Times have changed, and farming has changed with them.
The aspect of the survey that was most interesting to us was the piece about CSA member retention. Many CSA farmers tell us that one of the most difficult aspects of running their CSA is increasing their membership. In many areas of the country, the public now has a number of CSAs to choose from, and that increased competition affects individual farms' CSA capacity for growth. Member renewal rates also affect growth. When it's low, farmers have to recruit many new members just to keep their CSA the same size. In this survey, 41% of CSA farmers reported what we would consider a very good to excellent member retention rate of more than 75% between 2011-2012. Approximately 30% reported a 50-75% return rate, and another 30% had less than half of their membership return in that period.
Many factors go into a shareholder's decision whether or not to re-join a CSA for another year: among them the quality and quantity of the food relative to expectations, a sense of connection with the farm, life circumstances, and what we would call "rightness of fit." Our sense is that this last piece might be the most significant. As the CSA model becomes more popular and available, a wider diversity of people are trying it. For some, it's a great match and becomes their new way to eat. Other people discover that they don't like to cook nearly as much as they thought they did, or that they really only want to eat a few kinds of vegetables. Unless they find a friend to split a box with, CSA may not be for them.
The researchers analyzed their data to find the practices that most influenced member renewal rates. Two things that CSA farmers can do in this regard, the survey found, are hosting special events on the farm, and building personal relationships with members. This makes sense. Many people join a CSA in order to develop a connection with a farm, so farms that are good at this will likely keep more members from year to year.
Far and away the strongest correlation for member retention found by the study, though, is allowing members to choose what items go in their baskets. The traditional agreement in a CSA is for members to accept whatever the farmer puts in the weekly box; nowadays, however, an increasing number of members and potential members are looking for more choice in their CSA. Some farmers meet this need by setting up farmer's market-style tables at the pick-up location and allowing members to choose their own vegetables within certain parameters. Others offer members the option to customize their box online, either completely or by selecting "Box A" or "Box B" each week. We at LocalHarvest have long thought that increased choice would become an essential part of the CSA model's long term growth, so we built several options for box customization into our CSA management software, CSAware.

If you are a CSA member, your yearly commitment to a particular farm means a lot to that farmer! When a farm has earned your loyalty, your annual CSA membership is a great contribution to your local food system. It contributes to that farm's stability and capacity for growth. Sometimes a long-term relationship with a farm may require communication, should issues arise. Are you getting too much produce and thinking of leaving the CSA because you don't like to waste it? Talk with your farmer! Getting what feels like too little for the money? Talk with your farmer! Many concerns can be worked out if addressed directly; if left un-communicated, they sometimes grow into a general sense of dissatisfaction, which doesn't serve anybody. We'll be taking up the issue of how to talk with your farmer in our June newsletter.
Meanwhile, if you have joined a CSA in the past, we'd love to hear what you have to say about your reasons for staying or leaving. If you're a farmer, what factors do you think most affect your renewal rates, and what levels do you consider a good year for membership renewal?
Until next time, take good care and eat well.

Erin Barnett


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