Start in the field.
It goes without saying that you must know how to raise good crops. Before opening my CSA, I worked for five years on established farms. I think anyone serious about creating a CSA farm should do the same.
Price lower, sell more.
The most important order of business is figuring out the price point for shares. See what other area CSAs charge and study the price of seasonal produce at local farmers markets, health-food stores, and supermarkets. Then try to undercut them all. Just don’t forget your costs. It’s easy to underestimate expenses – time, labor, equipment, seeds, plants, containers for your crops, mortgage or rent – and price your CSA shares too low. Create a spreadsheet with anticipated expenses and income before setting your share price. Strike a balance between competitive prices and your costs.
Size the shares.
You’ve also got to figure out how large to make the shares. Ask around and estimate how much produce an average household would eat in a week. Then put together a calendar of what might be available during the season. You can find charts with average yield per area and harvest schedules in seed catalogs and on state agricultural college websites. You can also offer different-size shares. I started with one size and adjusted to find the sweet spot. Now we sell 18-week summer shares in small, medium, and large at $355, $510, and $715. The small size is for one or two people and does not include every item; medium provides a family of four with vegetables for nearly every meal; and large provides enough for four or five adults or teenagers.
Deliver the goods.
Research how nearby CSAs distribute. Some offer box delivery to central locations. Others have farmstand pickup only. To decide how to distribute your produce, you need to know your area. Are people willing to go out of their way to drive to your farm or are they too busy with their jobs? If the latter is the case, set up an off-farm distribution point along a busy commuter route. Your spot should have plenty of parking and good afternoon shade. And keep in mind that it might take two farmhands to work the pickup.
Subscribers like variety. If possible, allow them to pick among different types of vegetables each week. We spread everything out on a table and say, for example, “You can choose a two-pound mix of red peppers, green peppers, eggplant, and tomatillos.”
Make a marketing plan.
For a small operation, you can rely on word of mouth to promote your CSA. Ideally your farm will have a website and Facebook page. Make an effort to gather contact information from your customers and potential subscribers. Then send them emails with harvest updates. Tweeting is also a good option. We think it’s important to communicate with our members during the season so we can give them what they want. That helps to keep the “community” in Community Supported Agriculture.