Innovation in Community Supported Agriculture through Collaboration with Specialty Producers

Final report for FNE18-899

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2018: $14,987.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2019
Grant Recipient: Rusty Bucket Mushrooms
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Peter Johnson
Rusty Bucket Mushrooms
Expand All

Project Information

Summary:

We at Rusty Bucket Mushrooms sought to find out if we could increase our revenue through access to neighboring CSA farms, while improving customer experience on those farms. We did so by reaching out to said farms and inquiring if we could send an initial email to their customer network about interest in a supplemental Gourmet Mushroom Share. Response was good, so the 2/10 farms that agreed to the program allowed us to send fliers to their customers and distribute weekly shares of mushrooms to those who signed up. Varieties changed through the season, we offered two sizes of shares, and consistent delivery was achieve. Customer satisfaction was high and we already have dozens of repeat customers for the coming season, in addition to a more informed audience of vegetable CSA customers who may be likely to sign up in the future.

In conclusion, funding through SARE enabled our farm Rusty Bucket Mushrooms to reach out to multiple local CSA farms and offer an expanded menu to their customers. While only a small percentage of the farms we contacted welcomed us to reach out to their customers and distribute through their preexisting CSA programs, sales at those farms were acceptable, and are projected to improve dramatically in the second year. We are also anticipating more farms adopting us as a cooperating farm, despite initial concerns. Overall our SARE grant has enabled us to reach out to not only farmers to improve both our own revenue stream as well as their customer satisfaction, but it further deepened the relationship with local eaters and their food. We look forward to growing our farm and network in years to come, thanks to the opportunity provided by SARE.

Project Objectives:

By establishing the precedent of expanding inter-farm collaboration, we expect to see an empowered farmer community that actively connects consumers to its extensive network of producers and services. Ultimately this will contribute dramatically to the resurgence and stabilization of local-centric economies. Our objectives are as follows:

  1. Gauge farmer and consumer interest in collaborative CSA networks
  2. Determine economic and logistical viability of the model
  3. Establish effective working practices that foster positive relationships between producers
  4. Improve produce marketing via a supplemental weekly mushroom share pilot program

Simply put, Rusty Bucket Mushrooms’ objective is to further connect local consumers to local producers by expanding the range of food available at any single farm. Integration of mushrooms into Western New York CSA programs will serve as a pilot program to gauge interest, determine viability, and establish a working business model for future potential partnerships. By expanding upon the preexisting CSA options available in the area, new and existing farms could potentially access thousands of previously unconnected consumers. The proposed model could be applied to many types of farms and regions around the United States. The results of this pilot project will outline the successes and failures for their use.

Introduction:

In America, there is a rise in the number of small farms and customers committed to supporting them. The model of the CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is one system that was devised to connect the consumer to the farmer directly. This model was created in post-war Germany out of necessity due to food insecurity. While it has been a successful model, it is becoming outdated and insufficient in that a single farm can rarely provide a complete diet to it’s customers. In an era of local-centric consumers who also desire convenience, the limited range of foods available from a typical vegetable CSA represents a large roadblock for many consumers attempting to eat locally. While vegetable CSA programs have a great variety of vegetables, they often lack other products that would make up a complete diet such as dairy, eggs, meat, bread, or mushrooms. Multi-farm CSA programs have effectively adopted strategies that allow small producers to join together to create a full-fledged vegetable CSA, but this does not respond to the demand for variety. Incorporation of specialty options not typically grown by a vegetable CSA can do so.

Growers of specialties, such as eggs, dairy, or mushrooms, rarely have a local customer base large enough to sustain their farms. By incorporating their products into the pre-existing markets of vegetable CSA programs these small producers can access larger populations while complimenting their host farms. Without these supplements customers are forced to seek basic food items outside of the farm, ultimately drawing revenue away from the farm, and likely out of the local food economy.

Our goal is to improve the abilities of local CSA farms to meet growing consumer demands. This will be accomplished by finding farms willing to collaborate by hosting supplementary mushroom shares within their business models. We aim to demonstrate the positive effects of collaboration and create a framework upon which other specialty growers can access more local markets. SARE and the USDA have published data confirming the need for innovation within local farms. Farmers need to consider what is driving the competitive growth of online food delivery subscriptions and apply that to their product offerings.

Previous SARE grant winners are exploring the benefits and viability of providing more complete diets through the CSA business model (https://projects.sare.org/sare_project/gne17-157/). Our liaison, Abigail Thorpe of Thorpe’s Organic Farm has shared survey information that indicates their customers exhibit a strong desire for an expanded list of products, including eggs, dairy, mushrooms, bread, meat, flowers, and more. Beyond this, we have had many informal conversations with farmer colleagues that have repeatedly confirmed interest in providing a more complete diet to their customers. Most farms are limited by time, specialized equipment, and knowledge. Uniting multiple producers could alleviate these restrictions, increase profits, and boost customer satisfaction and retention.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Gayle Thorpe - Technical Advisor (Researcher)
  • Abigail Thorpe - Technical Advisor (Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

Methods involve:

-contacting local CSA farms to offer supplemental shares of our specialty product to their customer base

-We initially called the local farms for a basic initial inquiry. These initial calls took place between January and February before the season. January tended to be the least busy time for most of the farmers near us, and was the best time to contact them. Some farmers tended to "play phone tag", and so were difficult to contact.

-Ideally, contacting farmers earlier is better. "Planting the seed" of the idea of collaboration sometimes takes a long time for farmers, who sometimes tend to be distrusting of other businesses directly accessing their loyal customers. (Now, into our second CSA season, one farm that we have kept in contact with is interested in a trial one time offer for their customers. We are hoping this will lead to their inviting us to offer CSA shares in the future. Point being, it can be a long game)

-After initial calls, many farms had made it clear that they were not interested. It is a numbers game though. We had narrowed the pool from about 10 to 2 or 3. By February we had communicated further with these farms and scheduled meetings in person with all three.

-We made sure to pay attention to what potential farmer's concerns, as well as their motivations to want to participate. Following is a list of these observations:

1. Most farmers were very wary of giving out their customers' personal information

-This was resolved by simply offering the possibility of farmers forwarding an email written by Rusty Bucket Mushrooms to their customers. If a customer decided to respond directly to Rusty Bucket then that was their choice, removing any responsibility from the host farmer.

2. Many of the potential participating farmers were enthusiastic, if only to encourage and enable young new farmers to succeed.

-The participating farmers made it clear to us that they were entrusting us with their personal approval, which is of course influential to their customer base. This made it all that much more important that we hold up our end and provide a pleasing share to their customers.

3. Two of these farms decided to move forward with our mushroom CSA offering.

-We began by determining what fee would be paid to the participating farms

-Neither farm accepted any payment, both accepted a complimentary mushroom share however.

-We arranged to have a price schedule, share calendar, and general information fliers put together for the participating farm's preseason newsletters so that they could make sure the information got to their customers. This information initially went out in late February and March.

-We would have liked to have the participating farms send out our information more frequently, but both try not to bombard their customers with information. For this reason we were only able to have them send out our info 2-3 times before the season started.

-Attached to these emails were order forms that doubled as informational fliers. Customers could print out the fliers and mail payment, or sign up through our website. We collected our customer's emails so that we could use them as our primary form of communication with them in the future.

-Mushroom CSA newsletters were sent out weekly with shares. Mushrooms tend to be a poorly understood crop and under utilized ingredient, so these newsletters were important to customers so that they learned more about the crops and more about what they could do with them.

-Attached in the following link is the flier we used to inform potential customers about the existence of the share and for their use as a signup form: Thorpe CSA Flier 2018 - Google Docs

 

In addition to the above, we also made our best effort to communicate the following to our shareholders and participating farmers before and during the CSA season:

-make sure the plan is clearly understood, including types of shares, frequency of deliveries, responsibilities of different parties

-inform potential collaborators of benefits that their farm and their customers will receive from the collaboration, including increased customer participation, increased breadth of diet, increased local food network

-supply shares of specialty crop to customers who choose to purchase the supplemental shares through the designated season

-build and maintain relationships with collaborating farm owners as well as their customer base for future business

Research results and discussion:

-the number of CSA farms willing to collaborate was less than anticipated, with response rate at less than 50% and conversion rate at ~20%

-of the ten farms initially contacted two were willing to collaborate. They were mainly interested due to philosophical reasons as opposed to any economic incentives . In addition to simply wanting to help out new fellow farmers, they were also interested in seeing a broader diet becoming available to their customers through the local network. The farmers asked for no compensation in return.

-on the farms that participated, approximately 10% of customers purchased supplemental shares. There are several factors we believe contributed to this outcome. It is possible that there was initial success based on novelty of the available new crop. That said if novelty wears off we believe further exposure in coming years will increase sales. Personally representing the farm at the first few drop offs and pitching the new share roughly doubled sales from the initial email listing. Most customers did not notice the email information at all.

-now in our second season, we have many return customers as well as new customers. We hope to have more sign up, but even before the share started we had more members than we did the year prior.

 

Research conclusions:

We sought to diversify income streams for our specialty farm by offering supplemental shares through already established local CSA farms. We successfully offered shares through two collaborating farms in our first season, increasing our farm's gross revenue by more than $10k. This new sales method hopefully represents a sustainable income source for our farm that proves to be locally scalable and beneficial to the local food consumer/producer network.

 

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

22 Published press articles, newsletters
4 Tours

Participation Summary:

2 Farmers
Education/outreach description:

Each week we sent out a newsletter giving CSA customers an idea of what to expect with their upcoming share. While our initial expectations were to provide a thorough snapshot of the mushrooms we were to provide, at some point we began to modify the newsletter to include medicinal notes on certain species, historical references as well as shared recipes created by the CSA customers.

We collaborated in a Facebook group administered by our mentor farm, Thorpe's Organic Family Farm to encourage participants to share what they've created in the kitchen with the online community to help foster a connection and demonstrate the impact of farms collaborating.

Some CSA customers showed interest in seeing the farm in person and, by invitation only, we allowed those that asked to come and check out how we grow our mushrooms and encouraged them to ask questions to fully engage in the "Know your Farmer" mentality. 

Learning Outcomes

2 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

This being our first attempt at CSA, we had lots to learn regarding maintaining a weekly schedule, growing parameters for specific species, and customer communication. By the end, we did get requests for more communication. We had hoped to spend more time offering history, recipes, medicinal application, etc within our newsletter, but the time spent doing the actual farming took up so much of our attention.

We tried not to let the work bog us down though as we both maintained a positive demeanor throughout the whole season and beyond, though at points it did feel like we were just keeping our head above water. 

Expectations generally contradict reality as there are always things that we can't plan for or anticipate. Regarding the general thesis for the project, we believe we were successful in our attempt to enrich our host farm's existing CSAs.

Project Outcomes

3 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 Grants applied for that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

When we started this project, our goal was to help other farms increase their available share options to satisfy their existing clientele. We knew that we would viewed as independent from our host farms, but as the summer progressed, one main change was the strength of the business as a standalone farm. People reached out via email and calls and we were able to fulfill certain requests of our clientele, but we didn’t expect that the attention we were given spread to other CSA members throughout the summer, people who somehow missed our emails and flyers. Now that the word is out, the 2019 CSA season should yield more interest and help continue to reinforce our brand.

 

This summer was quite a good learning experience as it made us focus on maintaining the biweekly schedule, which requires precise timing to ensure that we have enough to satisfy the CSA. Like any first year business, we definitely made some mistakes. Mistakes that help us learn and hopefully transpire to a more organized, clean, scheduled and thought out 2019 season.

 

Where we thought we could initially hit 10 farms twice per week while maintaining our restaurant clients, we learned that everything takes longer than it seems. One look at our budget and you can see where our expectations were in Dec of 2017, verses the realities of the amended August invoice. 2 farms was enough to test our hypothesis, and our limits. The work necessary to satisfy the demand ultimately helped us change our approach toward growing mushrooms from square one. We had initially assumed we could, from spawn to fruitings, cover all parts of the mushroom growing process. Midway through the season, we began buying in already colonized blocks to help cut down our labor spent working on the farm. Time we had budgeted for doing the actual mixing/ cooking/ inoculating of substrate was now spent on figuring out how to maximize production as we transitioned the systems and design of our grow chamber. Balancing the deliveries and the time spent doing construction on the grow affected our perception on how this research would play out.

 

The expectations we had did not change however. We assumed that people would sign up for a mushroom share because they absolutely loved mushrooms. Though we had assumed we could grow more varieties than we ended up focusing on, people did seem satisfied with the “dealer’s choice” of mushrooms we were able to provide on a week by week basis. Our host farms are satisfied and we have already received requests for the 2019 CSA season, confirming the viability of the concept to help boost our farm with the help of the existing CSA customer base. 

 

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

 

The general work of running a farm required us to keep good records, something we definitely could improve on next year. We mainly used Excel to track our growth and sales obligations. While primitive, it did allow us to at least keep track of our weekly requirements and ensure our email lists were accurate. We have considered improving our strategies next year using more technology to monitor our systems parameters and using CMS software to help maintain better understanding of our clients needs and satisfaction.

 

The primary challenges of the project is determining the true levels of satisfaction of the customers. The assumption that “no news is good news” translates to the majority of customers as well. Most people took their shares and we can assume they enjoyed their mushrooms as we had limited direct concern via email. Keeping better track of daily tasks, sales, yields, etc to get a digitized and archived picture of where we can make improvements in our product to increase satisfaction should increase demand as well.

 

Economically, we did confirm the viability of the project by grossing 10k by integrating into existing CSA markets. Further study is required to determine whether the success was due to the novelty of the approach or a true desire from customers to help boost their local agricultural economy.

 

We are going to continue studying the opportunities in 2019 as we most definitely will be able to grow more species, source wild mushrooms better, offer flexibility in share size and cost to increase our market potential and pursue the same list of 10 farms we initially contacted in an attempt to gain more customers. Having a year of success under our belt should strengthen our reputation and allow others to include our mushrooms as an option for their customers.

 

The more we grow as a business the better we can comment on the success of the model. Most astonishing is the fact that a year one farm can succeed when propped up by a host farm’s existing clientele. Markets thrive when people get what they want. Interest in mushrooms at veggie farms confirms that they too can benefit by increasing their available options to provide to their customers and improving satisfaction. Despite not getting 100% of their customer base to join in, the majority of people watching those around them getting an extra ingredient in their CSA may be interested in other share options like baked goods, meat, spices, flowers, honey, and other local food options that one single farm may not be able to satisfy, opening the door for increased collaboration among other local farmers.  Any niche market farmer could potentially tap into the existing CSA networks and boost their sales, helping promote the success of a strong local agro-economy anywhere food can be grown.

 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.