How creating a Community Supported Agriculture Program helps small farmers expand their customer base

The region known as the Ozarks is home to numerous small family farms – which are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as farms consisting of 179 acres or less, or a farm that earns $50,000 or less in gross income annually. While there are some arguments that owning and operating a small farm is no longer a lucrative business, there are plenty of farmers who are proving the opposite to be true.

In 2017, running a small farm can be a successful enterprise, but it requires a great deal of creativity on the part of the farmer. Many family farms have turned to options such as value-added products, selling at farmers markets, hosting agritourism events and starting Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, which is gaining in popularity.

What is a CSA?

Just Food, a New York City-based organization that supports community leaders to advocate for and increase access to healthy, locally-grown food, offers an easy to understand definition of a CSA program, an idea that got its start in Japan. When you become a member of a CSA, you’re purchasing a “share” of vegetables from a regional farmer. CSA members pay for an entire season of produce upfront. This early bulk payment enables your farmer to plan for the season, purchase new seed, make equipment repairs, and more. As most farmers already know, it can be difficult to afford the necessary supplies and repairs required at the beginning of the growing season, which is often a lean time of year due to coming out of winter. The payments from a CSA program help the farmer afford this, and also allow the CSA members a glimpse into the risks and rewards associated with growing and supplying food.

More consumers are becoming interested in how their food is being raised, so from the consumer side, a CSA membership is a valuable investment. Millsap Farm in Springfield, Mo, supports a 100-member summer CSA program and a 70-member winter CSA program, and says their CSA has allowed them to offer “diversity and transparency” to their customers.

If a CSA program sounds like a good fit for your farm, there are some things you’ll want to consider.

Products: Producers can’t start a CSA without the products and the knowledge of how to grow, raise and make them. Many CSAs are strictly vegetables, but not all. Blue Heron Farm, in Marshfield, Mo, provides their CSA customers with “everyday kitchen essentials.” This includes eggs and a variety of homemade bread products, as well as in season fruits and vegetables. Green Thicket Farm, in Springfield, Mo., emphasizes meat products in their CSA shares alongside eggs and produce. While it’s important to provide customers with staples they can use throughout the week, most CSA members are willing to try more unique items (kohlrabi, duck eggs or rabbit) as long as the farmer provides recipes and suggestions on how to utilize them.

Most farmers with an established CSA program caution that simply having the product is not enough – producers must continue to have the product for the duration of the season (generally May-October in the Ozarks region).

One of the most frequently cited factors in failed CSA groups is that the grower did not know how to grow a diverse, bountiful harvest.

Avoiding this downfall requires thorough research and advance planning. Talk to other producers in your area about their planning, production and harvesting methods, or consider joining a CSA yourself to learn more about the products.

Prices: To operate a successful CSA, prodcuers need a working knowledge of production costs. Some farms derive their share prices by determining an estimated dollar value of what their members will receive each week, or by taking their overall growing costs and dividing it by the number of shares they will be producing. Each farm will do things differently, but the goal is to make the share profitable for the farmer and affordable for the consumer. Millsap Farm achieves this by offering full, half and sampler shares and different price points for each share, with payment due at the beginning of the season, while Blue Heron Farm and Green Thicket Farm offer a month-by-month payment option. Also to bear in mind is a work share requirement – some farms choose make it part of their CSA program. Customers will come to the farm for a certain number of hours each season to help with a variety of tasks; the farmer receives the benefit of added labor, and the customer has the opportunity to get hands on with their food.

Members: Members are the lifeblood of a successful CSA. Producers must provide open, honest communication with their members and create lasting relationships that keep folks coming back season after season. It is important to help members understand that while you strive to provide a sufficient quantity and quality of food in each week’s share, farming can be a risky venture, and there may be lean weeks due to weather, pests and other unforeseen circumstances.

As you begin to enlist members, be mindful of how many shares your farm can actually support. Some farms may be able to support 10 members based on production and others, 100 or more.

CSA members can be recruited by talking with existing farm customers, advertising on social media or through local TV, radio and print publications, or by hosting a “farm day” for potential clientele to come tour the farm and visit with your directly.

A CSA program can be a highly beneficial venture for your business. With proper planning and research, you can support your farm and family while building your community doing what you love.


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