Piloting a Year-round Sliding-scale CSA and Unified Online Management System to Improve Food Access

Progress report for FNE22-002

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2022: $22,275.00
Projected End Date: 05/01/2023
Grant Recipient: Bread and Butter Farm
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Brandon Bless
Bread and Butter Farm
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

1) Manage a unified online members portal, sales, and inventory system. This unified system will allow us to track, manage, and sync all of our online and in-person sales and inventory for all of our Markets enterprises. Once fully employed, we expect this system alone will save 5-10 hours a week of farmer time.

Update 1/11/23-

While we chose ultimately not to change our online platform, we did launch a new amazing program called the Annual Membership program in this time frame to help us restructure the payment model and engagement model for members. This program offers exciting perks, convenience (members don't need to think about paying once they set up their automatic payment plan with us, our online platform automatically charges them monthly), affordability (the sliding scale model applies to our annual members too), and deeper engagement as people are choosing to eat with us every single week of the year (vs the seasonal csa model which we run in parallel to the annual membership) and don't have to think about re-joining at the end of every csa season.

A large reason why we chose to stay with our original online platform, Square, is that it offers us the option to create automatic EFT payments with folks. Square didn't offer this feature when we originally applied for this grant, but has been making continuous improvements to their system which have been helping us get closer to our goals. 

2) Pilot a sliding scale year-round CSA membership program. Members may discretely self-select an affordable share price and payment frequency from monthly to annual to access the same high quality food we serve to all. We will show that a sliding scale CSA membership can simultaneously and synergistically meet both the local community's food needs and farm business profitability.

Update 1/11/23- This has been hugely successful for us! We've been clearly able to welcome members who are paying at all ends of the spectrum, able to self select without having to discuss it with anybody and we, as a farm, have come out as profitable as we would have when people were all paying at the median price. The sliding scale tiers include: standard pricing (median), below median income (-25% below median), well below median income (-50% below the median), above median income (+ 25% above median), and contributing neighbor (+50% above median). 

3) Partner with a local organization to serve as a satellite CSA distribution site for convenient food access to those members who do not currently have reliable transportation to our on-farm CSA distribution location and dates.

Update 1/11/23- This has been a TOUGH goal to achieve. Most locations who would be open to partnering with us to provide people with local food, need our CSA shares to be low to no cost. We've learned that we just can't sign on to do this given that once the grant runs out, we'd be taking that financial hit entirely. As a for-profit entity, this is tricky. We worked for the summer and fall CSA (28 weeks total) sessions with a local company called HULA who was interested in being a CSA drop-off location site. This wasn't our ideal as the folks participating do otherwise have the means (aka. have a car) to get to our farm. It was just making their ability to get our CSA more convenient for them.

We were never able to drum up enough members to make this truly financially worth it for us and communication proved challenging with them. We have ended that drop off location project as of this winter. We HAVE however made a wonderful connection with the local food shelf in Shelburne. They had grant money to purchase food with us and have been able to come weekly to get a large amount of produce for their community. SARE has helped cover the cost of our labor to communicate weekly with them, pack their orders, and offer them food at 10% off our retail price. We're also going to be having a meeting with NOFA -VT this winter to help us brainstorm partnering with organizations who have funding to help us offset the cost of offering low cost shares and who, hopefully, meet our demographic goal of not otherwise being able to get to our farm. Wish us luck!


4) Share CSA member feedback and farm financials. Members can opt into a continuous feedback dialogue throughout the project duration whereby they contribute feedback for improvement of our CSA program. We see this level of CSA member engagement as the next evolution of CSA members services.

Update 1/11/23- We created and completed a very successful survey this past summer with our Annual CSA Members. We received tons of helpful information and it was well received (especially since there were some complementary sunflower stems offered in exchange for their participation 🙂



As we look towards our next season of distributing produce through our collaborative CSA model, we are hoping to address some barriers that community members may face in their ability to access our food and participate in our local food system. Food access and affordability are often seen as contrasting with farmers' struggle to maintain  sustainable livelihoods. While we have seen many great examples of food access issues addressed by non-profit organizations and associated non-profit supported farms, we are eager to demonstrate that for-profit farms can be part of the solution and transformation to a more just food system, without sacrificing farmer livelihood. 

Farmers producing some the highest quality, hyper-local food available are often asked about how they are contributing to food access and affordability. "How do community members access your food who may not be able to afford it or have reliable transportation to your farm to pick up the food?" This is a critical yet somewhat complex question. The fact is that farmers are often among the most financially impoverished members of communities, especially more affluent communities where many direct-to-consumer farm food marketing occurs as a strategic approach to farmers being able to sell their food for what it actually costs to produce - hopefully with a profit too.  In these situations, if the farmers didn't have free access to their own food, they may not be able to afford the food they are producing on their farmer salaries.  We also acknowledge that affordability is only one of a myriad amount of barriers and challenges that members of our community may face in their ability to access food from Bread and Butter Farm. One additional barrier that we have identified is transportation. 

To create more affordable food for all levels of economic livelihoods, can essentially force the farmer to take home less financial return for the same work and products. Likewise, to create more physically accessibility to food distribution through drop off locations adds time, resources, and costs to farmers who then have to pack, transport, deliver, and store food off-farm for community members to access. That said, it is imperative that local for-profit farms continue to lead and join the work of creating universal food access for all community members regardless of financial or transportation resources. Sustainability for farmers comes in many forms. 

To address the problem of high quality local food access to meet community members' financially and transportation realities, while enhancing farmer livelihood and overall farm profitability, we will create 1) a sliding scale CSA membership program, and 2) a CSA share distribution site with more convenient share pick up access to those who need it. To do this well, we will employ a single unified CSA, Farm Store, and Cafe online sales and membership portal. We will also use surveys, focus groups, and text messaging feedback tools to solicit and record community member experiences to inform the project study and to innovate the model in real time to directly address feedback.

We hypothesize our project will demonstrate that sliding scale CSA membership is a viable economic strategy for direct-to-consumer farms by way of 1) collective social buy-in to sliding scale whereby affordability determines your CSA membership share fee with a target average share price returned to the farm for sustainable budgeting and financial management; and 2) socially conscious marketing that inspires and encourages the full spectrum of socioeconomic demographics within a community to join together around a farm and food hub designed to serve everyone.

Bread & Butter Farm manages 600 acres only 10 minutes drive from downtown Burlington VT and within 30 minutes of over 25% of the Vermont state population accessing both the most populated and the most financially affluent and impoverished populations in the state. Bread & Butter Farm is one of the largest direct-to-consumer for-profit farms by acreage in Vermont and is uniquely positioned to execute this project.

The model developed in this project is designed to serve both our community of eaters and our community of partner farms who we collaborate with in our CSA program, Farm Store, and Cafe selling shares, food, and meals-to-go. As our CSA grows, so does our demand for food production - both on our farm and those of our partner farms, with improved livelihoods for all.



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Materials and methods:

1) To understand the time and financial implications of the unified online sales system, we will track labor by category of system management. These categories are (1) financial bookkeeping, (2) inventory management, (3) sales tracking and reporting, (4) managing the system itself. Each category of labor data collection has a Standard Operating Procedure associated outlining how and when and who will record the data. We will compare these labor categories under the new system with the same categories under our current system that we used and tracked for 2021. Time labor units will be reported directly for each category. These categories are selected because they both represent universally distinct actions within Farm Markets management, and in our case they are also distinct roles/positions making for clarity of responsibility for the project and accurate comparison with 2021 labor.

2) To understand the financial efficacy of a sliding scale CSA share pricing system that best matches farm business profitability and members' affordability, we will record and track all financials associated with the new CSA sliding scale. This will include gross income by membership price point and share size, cost of food production/purchases for shares (CSA will internally "buy" food from BBF to show true CSA costs), labor to manage the CSA program including member distribution days and packing, and how our actual financials compare with our budgeted projections. We will compare this financial data with our 2021 CSA program that used a subsidized share model for affordability food access.

3) We will record all labor, fuel, vehicle costs, utilities, and rent costs associated with managing the off-farm distribution site. We will record membership income from those members that use the off-farm distribution site. We will compare the profit and loss of the off-farm distribution site vs the on-farm distribution site models for 2022. In the comparison, we will control for sliding scale membership price points as the off-farm site will be designed for members in need of a lower membership prices to match their affordability, but other farms may use this off-farm distribution site data regardless of a sliding scale program.

4) For member feedback and CSA program iteration, we will develop a standard Likert scale survey for feedback from participating members to complete quarterly. We will also make available in-person, text, and email ongoing communications for CSA programmatic feedback. Farmers will input feedback into forms with categories for qualitative and quantitative analysis to share member feedback among the Markets team and make decisions for quarterly programmatic changes to match member feedback and expectations. All iterations and decision making for the CSA program will be recorded and represented on subsequent member surveys to learn how these changes were received by the members. We will conduct a final annual survey for members to share their overall experiences for the 2022 CSA season. We will do the same annual survey at the completion of the 2021 CSA season to gain comparison of the two years and CSA programs. Surveys will include questions designed to gain insight and understanding of member experiences in:

convenience of food access

satisfaction with distribution pick up and membership services

food quality and flavor

satisfaction with diversity and familiarity of food offerings

perceived value and affordability of food offered

value of participating in a sliding scale CSA regardless of survey member's share price

Participation Summary
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.