2014 24.2 Managing Your CSA to Maximize Profitability

Recap of the Regional CSA Workshop on January 15, 2014 

Growers from across Washington state gathered in North Bend on January 15, 2014 to learn from three regional farmers about various types of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations with a focus on successful practices and marketing techniques. The presenters’ and organizers’ goal for this one-day workshop was to assist growers who currently offer a CSA option to their customer base in maximizing their CSA’s success. Workshop attendees ranged from running CSA programs for many years, with weekly box counts ranging from 30 to 450 or more, to newer small farmers from both rural and urban landscapes managing shares for 20 to 80 members.

Presenter Claire Thomas from the Root Connection, a veteran of the CSA model, started her CSA 28 years ago in King County near the urban centers. Now delivering to 450 members, Claire shared her story, spread sheets, techniques, and farm maps. She detailed why information tracking is key, and revealed summary charts of how her farm crops’ net production and costs compare to one another. The Root Connection offers U-pick for members to harvest select crops out of the field, which reduces labor costs, and provides member customers a sense of belonging to the farm.

Zestful Gardens operates a 100- to 120-member CSA in the Puyallup valley. Co-owner Holly Foster has been farming for twelve years, testing and trying many situations. She presented lessons learned, proven efficiencies, and machinery information. Little marketing effort has been needed for Zestful Gardens to reach and maintain their customer base, which fits their farm’s overall plans. Their CSA size works well for their efforts and expected return, sustaining her family and farm.

Holly noted that you don’t want everyone: you want those customers that fit with your farm. Customers pack their own box in a designated “market booth” area set up by Holly, which allows her more time and ease to connect with customers while they do the labor of handling and packing. Holistic financial planning is integral to farm management and Holly revisits the plan regularly throughout the year and in-depth annually. Commitment and discipline in revisiting goals is key to providing Zestful Gardens a stable base for financial returns.

The third presenter, Annie Salafsky of Helsing Junction Farm, was ill and could not attend (see interview, facing page). Workshop organizers instead convened a panel of experienced farmers from the room to answer audience questions. Each shared experiences on a range of topics including insurance policies, which they all have shopped around for after changes were imposed. A thoughtful discussion considered how to serve low-income communities. Serving poses challenges, and many farmers find solutions in connecting with local food banks. For instance, Oxbow Farm coordinates with a food bank to have gleaners come to the fields. An alternate solution was shared by Growing Things Farm, which in addition to other efforts, fills bags with produce at a farmers market and discreetly passed them to those who appear to need.

Participants provided workshop evaluations and strong feedback. Attendees reported learning from both the details and overview data, and being inspired to continue their CSA work. The connection with other farmers was valuable, and many left the workshop encouraged to continue the dialogue. Participants are now communicating through emails as farmers aggregate their knowledge and products and learn from each other.

This Tilth Producers workshop was presented in partnership with the WSU Small Farms Program. For more information visit www.smallfarms.wsu.edu. Funding support was provided by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant #2012-49400-19575. To find more resources and programs for beginning farmers and ranchers please visit www.Start2Farm.gov, a component of the BFRDP.

Tags: Community Supported Agriculture, CSA, Direct Marketing, One Day Regional Workshop