Marrying CSA to farmers’ market

A debit-type CSA works well at farmers’ market

I have attended farmers’ markets since 1983, yet the whole idea of a CSA has always fascinated me as a practical method to market my farm’s produce. Having customers get a box of food each week that they paid for at the beginning of the season seemed to be a great system. However, we never wanted to adopt two completely different systems for packing and marketing our produce, so for years we focused only on our farmers’ market stands as our primary market.

Then, back in the late 1990’s, I discovered—in a conversation at the Ag Trades Show with Rob Johansen of Goranson Farm in Dresden—that there was another way of operating a CSA. That alternative system is a “debit type” CSA rather than a “box of food a week” type CSA. In a debit type CSA, the members get a credit that they use to shop at the farm or farmer’s’ market any time they choose for anything they want. Then each of their purchases are “debited” against their CSA account until their balance reaches zero.

The beauty of this system is that our farm gets the benefit of the early spring income of a regular CSA plan, yet our picking and packing for market remains exactly the same as it would be without having a CSA. Additionally, if a CSA member goes on vacation in August, there is no wondering what to do with their food; they simply aren’t drawing down their balance whenever they don’t shop with us.

Each debit type CSA is a little different, but here’s how our system works. To keep track of members’ accounts, each member has a line in an account book where each of their purchases are deducted—“debited”—from their account’s current balance. This account book accompanies us to each market. Our CSA members can begin shopping with us as soon as we receive their check, and their accounts are good until December 31 each year—no refunds and no rollovers. Shares are $100 each, a low threshold that allows painless entry into our CSA plan, and more than half of our members purchase more than one share. For each CSA share purchased before April 1, we credit the member’s balance for $125; for each share purchased in April, we credit the balance at $110. After May 1 we offer no bonus, since by then we are already bringing in income from the markets and are no longer in such dire need of cash. These percentages are very generous compared to other CSA farms but we appreciate the early income so much that we are eager to share the bounty of our farm with our CSA members. A member’s CSA credit is good at any of the five farmers’ markets we attend, or at the farm.

We began offering these CSA shares in 1999, and the first two years we offered this plan we sold seven shares each year. But interest began to grow and soon we were selling twenty, then thirty, then sixty shares in the following years. In 2012 our average member bought 1.91 shares; altogether we had 111 CSA members buy 212 shares which brought in $22,000 by early April.

This of course is a great help with our annual startup cost for seeds, potting soil, diesel and labor.  Aside from the customer loyalty that this plan engenders, we have realized the two other big advantages for our farm. One is that we no longer have to seek off-farm winter employment, since all we have to do is coast until April on what we made the previous year, and then the CSA money starts rolling in. The other big plus is that we now have the funds to hire plenty of spring labor and get far more done in the early season than we could afford to do previously.

Although we have found the debit type CSA to work well for us primarily because it integrates so well with attending farmers’ markets, we also recognize that for many farms, especially those not attending a farmers’ market, the box of food a week type CSA can work just as well or even better. Most local food buyers, as well as most farmers, will prefer one type of system or the other. Neither is “best;” what we must look for is the “best fit” for us and our CSA members.

About Tom Roberts

When I started attending the Brewer Farmers’ Market back in August of 1983, my sole concern was being able to sell the produce my farm was growing at a good price. After attending market for a year or two, I began to realize that how the market was organized had a great impact on my sales. And how the market was organized also influenced how it made decisions about dues, new members, what could be sold at market, and how it promoted itself—and this, too, had an impact on my sales. So I got involved in the market’s steering committee and began to understand how various market members thought the market should operate. Some wanted a market czar, some wanted everyone to be allowed to do their own thing. But everyone seemed to agree that if the market as a whole did well, then so did they.