Growing New CSA Farmers: Conference and Mini-School for Community Supported Agriculture

2006 Annual Report for FNC05-589

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2005: $14,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:

Growing New CSA Farmers: Conference and Mini-School for Community Supported Agriculture


This project will help farmers, especially new and prospective ones, learn about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and sustainable agriculture through support of a 'mini-school' for prospective CSA farmers, financial assistance to farmers for attendance at the CSA conference and/or mini-school, a CSA mentoring program, and a CSA "startup" manual.

We held the CSA Conference and Mini-school, for which the SARE grant provided partial support (some administrative, scholarships, mini-school honoraria primarily). The conference was an unqualified success, with a near capacity crowd (approximately 180 people attended). The mini-school was attended by 52 people; our goal was 35 but the response was such that we decided to ‘stretch’ to 45; another 7 came at the start, believing they were signed up already and of course we let them attend.

SARE support paid the honoraria for the seven growers on the panel that taught the mini-school.

Scholarship funds helped 50 growers attend the mini-school and/or the conference. Our goal was to bring in many young and prospective growers. We don’t have formal numbers, but simple shows-of-hands polls indicated a significant number of young (20’s) people in attendance, and also a significant number of people who had either little or no prior experience in community supported agriculture. We have surveyed this group informally, via email and we are starting to receive answers. So far it appears that many of the recipients were only able to attend because of the financial support. Others greatly appreciated having their expenses reduced, and their decision to attend was made easier. Still, most would have made an effort to attend, but may have depended upon other financial assistance; where that assistance could have come from is unclear.

The conference evaluations, completed by 67 of those in attendance, were extremely favorable. See a summary in Appendix A

1. CSA Conference held November 10-12, 2006
2. CSA Mini-school held November 10, 2006
3. Scholarship survey sent, results coming in
4. Mini-school survey first draft complete, database in process of completion.
5. Training Manual and Mentor program initial contacts made, preliminary planning initiated

We have learned, or perhaps more accurately, been reminded of, the importance of a conference like this one. Evaluations, follow-up comments, statements on scholarship surveys are consistently telling us that no other event speaks directly and specifically to this rapidly growing farming model.

We continue to learn ways to make the conference better. We added moderators to most of the workshop sessions, but needed to give them more guidance in how to keep presentations ‘on track.’ We need to expand and refine our efforts at promoting the conference; we found that many found out about the conference very close to the event’s date, allowing little time to plan. Others did not find out about it until it was too late to make plans to come, or even after it was over. We found out that giving extra attention to meal planning and seeking out local and regional foods turned us around from food complaints at the 2004 conference to praise at this one.

Though we expected the mini-school to be a popular event, still we were surprised and gratified by the response. We hope to take this project ‘on the road’ to bring it to people closer to their homes and farms, offering it as a ‘stand alone’ session. We are requesting SARE support for that in 2007, and have learned that Risk Management Agency support is also being solicited by others for this effort. We will keep looking for funding from other sources as well.

Our impression that scholarships would help young growers (and prospective growers) attend was reinforced. The enthusiasm and energy brought by those young people made the event special, and scholarships certainly eased the way for them. We believe the conference was very reasonably priced; but many would not have been able to come without assistance. We are convinced that many of those attending our conference have little experience with other conferences, and the significant expense that many of them involve.

We are in the process of making up the survey of mini-school participants. This is being funded with SARE grant money. The first draft of the survey is complete and being reviewed by Performance Solutions, a company that specializes in survey development and analysis, which will receive and compile the information. The goal, now looking overly optimistic, is to get the survey out before December 31 [2006]. We still are developing the database, and the survey still needs some work. We will have it out shortly after the first of the New Year, with a two-week turnaround time. Analysis and interpretation should be complete by the end of February [2007]. The results will be useful in determining how effectively we have encouraged new growers and enhanced existing but new CSA farms. Equally important, the results will inform the planning process of future events like this. We plan to contact mini-school participants again at the end of the 2007 growing season. Results of that contact will help us to asses the real success, on the ground, of the mini-school.

The training manual is in the earliest stages of planning; we hope that much of the material will come from the mini-school panel. We have some commitments already. We will solicit, or we will contribute, the portions that are either missing or incomplete.

The mentor program, too, is in the earliest stages. We asked for applications for ‘mentees’ at the mini-school. We need more to pick from, and will use the mini-school survey to solicit applicants. We hope and expect to be able to draw all individuals from this group. We have 2 grower-mentors tentatively committed and will solicit two more. With 1 or 2 ‘mentees’ per mentor, we are looking for 4 to 8 new or inexperienced growers.

We hope to have at least a draft manual ready for the 2007 growing season; final copy will be complete in the fall, if it not ready by the growing season.

About 180 participated in the conference, 52 in the mini-school. We are working on an article for The Community Farm newsletter and Permaculture Activist has expressed interest in an article. We will look for other publications or web-based resources for providing information on the events. Resource lists that were prepared for the mini-school are in process of refinement and are being posted at when ready.

Similar promotion of the mentor project will occur next fall, after the growing season and the project are over. Some of that promotion will probably extend into 2008, after the grant period is over.

We will promote availability of the training materials, offered at a reasonable cost via ag publication press releases and advertising and possibly mailed and emailed notices.

Appendix A
CSA Conference 2006 Evaluations

67 evaluations submitted

1. I am a (please select the ONE that best describes you)
30 ___CSA farmer
7 ___Farmer
6 ___CSA Farm Member
9 ___Ag professional/educator
5 ___Intern or student
4 ___other ___unspecified____________________
4 ___other ___gardener____________________
2 ___other ___ prospective CSA grower (we should have this in the list)

2. I would come to a conference like this again ___yes ___no
All yes except 1 maybe
3. I would prefer to come to a shorter (i.e., one day) event ____ yes ___no
10 yes, 3 both or maybe, some non-response. Remainder no
4. This was a good time of the year for a conference ___yes ___no
Most yes, a handful suggest later. This question is particularly subject to self-selection for ‘yes’ because the ones for whom this was a bad time didn’t come…
If no, what would be a better time for you? __________________
5. This was a good location ___ yes ___no
If no, what would be a better location? ______________________
Overwhelming yes, many adding !!! or other enthusiasms. Suggestions include Ontario, Wisconsin, southern Michigan
6. Please use the other side of this sheet to:
• Describe or list something that you learned that you will take back to your farm, job or home.
• List workshop topics that you would like to see included in a future conference.
• Suggest speakers or presenters for future conferences.
• Say what you liked best (or least) about this conference.

I did not tabulate the many things learned or taking back to the farm

Future topic suggestions: (* means several suggested it)
• How to juggle CSA and family
• Developing a land trust
• More specific ones, like ‘winter greens’
• Horse power on the CSA (Ken Laing volunteered to present it)
• Panel of researchers who study CSA benefits, to use in promotion
• Vermiculture – Will Allan (Milwaukee)
• Aquaculture (‘Flannigan, IL’)
• Soils/cover crops
• Equipment/machineryergonomics/body-saving tools
• *Labor on the farm
• More on succession, more crop plans
• Have a CSA grower do the business session
• * More on member participation including core groups, social events etc. Community issues
• Newsletter production
• Fermented food
• Member retention issues
• Incorporating low income members into the farm
• Fruit
• Management issues
• Member recruitment
• PR
• “Do’s and Don’ts”
Alert readers will notice that many of these were covered in the 2004 conference, suggesting that there will be good reason to have them again in any future conferences

Suggested future speakers: Nordell’s

General suggestion to improve:
• Bring in an equipment vendor
• Topic tables at lunch
• Better collaboration between multiple presenters
• Good coffee all the time
• Repeat sessions because there were too many good choices at the same time
• Go around the ‘Let’s Talk’ circle for comments from all participants
• Plan for walk-in registrations
• Some workshops too short – consider “part 1, part 2” (greenhouse mgt mentioned)
• Better job of moderating. We worked on this but clearly can still improve.
• Map with stick-pins for participants to show where they came from
• From the ‘unclear on the concept’ department: “many repetitions of CSA issues became tiresome”
• Mini-school could have been more structured

General Praise and selected quotes:
• Liked the relaxed atmosphere – several commented on the extra time allowed in the schedule, something we worked hard to provide
• Good food – mentioned in 10 surveys. Again, improved with worthwhile effort
• “good diversity of workshop topics, good balance”
• “incredible energy boost”
• “So many things to take home and implement for a startup CSA”
• “I loved the conference,” “Absolutely great,” “very well run” and the like
• “networking is priceless”
• “learned lots … but the biggest thing … is inspiration and reinvigoration”

We did not ask any questions about specific workshops or presenters; sessions or presenters mentioned (favorably) include:
• Both keynote speakers praised several times
• David and Barb Perkins
• Greenhouse management
• Oxfam
• Seeds and bugs sessions
• Arts and the CSA session (3 times)