Growing Community Supported Agriculture with Day-Long Mini Schools

Project Overview

FNC06-618
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2006: $4,200.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:

Annual Reports

Commodities

Not commodity specific

Practices

  • Education and Training: general education and training

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND
    We are a community supported agriculture farm cultivating about ½ acre of mixed vegetables in intensively managed raised beds, currently serving 20 families, a modest wholesale business with a local chef and a cut flower account with a local restaurant.

    We have been a CSA farm since 1994, using organic principles and practices, though we are not certified organic.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION
    Project Goal. Hold a series of three intensive daylong “mini-schools” for new and prospective CSA farmers. One was held in Tustin, north central Michigan, another in Kalamazoo (SW part of the state) and the third in Ann Arbor to cover the SE region of Michigan.

    Process. We already had a format for the mini-school from having conducted a session in connection with the CSA Conference (which had partial support from a separate SARE grant). We built on the success of that first session, refining some aspects of the presentation format and modifying content to make it even more relevant to the participants. Our goal, which evaluations suggest we accomplished, was to demonstrate, by having a varied panel of experienced growers, the options and variety of decisions that need to be made by a new CSA grower. We tried to offer both insights into various farm sizes and operational configurations available to growers but also emphasize the individual nature of the CSA farm: no two are exactly alike. To some extent we were less offering the answers to questions a new grower will have than presenting the questions (and some potential answers) that a new grower will have to answer for themselves.

    We decided on a full day, 9:00 am to 4:00 pm with lunch break in order to cover the breadth of information we needed to present. We used power point as a tool in keeping us on track, holding to our schedule of topics and offering visual representations where appropriate. It was not used in a typical ‘bullet point’ presentation style, and was purely backdrop to the panel’s presentations. Also, we learned from the ‘pilot’ session at the conference that we would be better off creating an atmosphere of ‘farmer- to- farmer’ discussion instead of more prepared presentations. In this way, the participants were able to drive the discussion in the directions that would be most useful to their situations.

    PEOPLE
    1. Jo Meller, Five Springs Farm
    2. Mike and Phyliss Wells, Wells Family Farm
    3. Jen Tutlis and Jon Watts, Meadowlark Farm

    These, along with Jim Sluyter (Five Springs Farm) were the ‘core’ panel that presented the sessions at each venue.

    At the two sessions held outside of our region, we invited growers closer to home to offer participants an example of a local CSA.
    4. Lee and Laurie Arboreal, Eater’s Guild Farm (Bangor) in the Kalamazoo session.
    5. Annie Elder and Paul Bantle, The Community Farm of Ann Arbor (Michigan’s first CSA) in the Ann Arbor session.

    RESULTS
    See questionnaire analysis in Appendix B for information on results. Our expectations were met, though in the future we will keep better track of the individuals and their plans.

    PROJECT IMPACTS
    See questionnaire analysis in Appendix B for this information

    OUTREACH
    Sample Training Manual has been provided. Press releases went to many ag publications, some of which printed it; many more put it in their calendars. It appeared on many online calendars. Advertising was included in Growing for Market, The Community Farm, and Biodynamic Journal. Posters and brochures were provided to ag conferences around the state.

    We planned to allow a maximum of 35 participants in each of the three minischools, to keep it small enough to allow as much interaction as possible. We ended up with about 75 participants total, mostly because a snowstorm kept attendance at the first session lower than anticipated.

    PROGRAM EVALUATION
    Outstanding program, reasonable procedures. Don’t change a thing!

    Appendix A: Original questionnaire
    Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Mini-school Questionnaire
    You attended a CSA Mini-school this past winter. We promised the agency that supported this series – USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program – that we would ask you about the effect of the mini-schools on your farming or gardening this season. And we would like to know, too! We hope that you will take just a few moments to fill out this questionnaire. Please use the enclosed stamped envelope to return this form. And take yourself out for a cup of coffee (if you can still find one for a buck).

    1. Did you have a CSA before the Mini-school? Yes___ No__

    2. How did the mini-school affect your decision process on starting a CSA: (please check all that apply)
    __made it more likely that I would start a CSA in 2008
    __made it easier to start a CSA in 2008
    __made it less likely that I would start a CSA in 2008
    __made it more difficult to start a CSA in 2008
    __persuaded me to delay starting a CSA until 2009 or later
    __convinced me that I should not start a CSA at all
    __had some other effect that we did not think of (please specify):

    3. Can you specify ways in which the mini-school helped with your existing CSA or in setting things up for a CSA (this year or later)? Check all that apply
    __ it helped with determining share types and definitions
    __ it helped with pricing a share
    __ it helped with farm membership issues
    __ it helped with communications with members, eg brochures, newsletters etc.
    __ it helped with planting schedules
    __ it helped with distribution issues
    __ it helped with mixing CSA and other markets
    __ it helped with other issues (please specify)
    __ it really didn’t help much at all

    If you have any comments, recommendations, criticism or praise, please feel free to use the other side.

    Thanks for taking the time to let us know how the mini-school affected your decision-make for CSA.

    If you have a CSA farm in Michigan, you may list your farm, at no cost, in the “find a farm” secion at www.csafarms.org. Please contact us for details.

    CSA-MI
    3480 Potter Rd
    Bear Lake, MI 49614
    231-889-3216
    anotherfarmer@jackpine.net
    www.csafarms.org

    Appendix B: Questionnaire results and analysis
    Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Mini-school Questionnaire
    Returned: 31 of 54 (more attended, approx 75 in all, but we had useable addresses for only 54)
    Rate of return over 55%

    1. Did you have a CSA before the Mini-school? Yes_5__ No_23_ 1: no response to this question.

    2. How did the mini-school affect your decision process on starting a CSA: (please check all that apply)
    _10_made it more likely that I would start a CSA in 2008
    _12_made it easier to start a CSA in 2008
    _2_made it less likely that I would start a CSA in 2008
    _0_made it more difficult to start a CSA in 2008
    _7_persuaded me to delay starting a CSA until 2009 or later
    _0_convinced me that I should not start a CSA at all
    _3_had some other effect that we did not think of (please specify): convinced to start a CSA, but in the future; inspiration!

    3. Can you specify ways in which the mini-school helped with your existing CSA or in setting things up for a CSA (this year or later)? Check all that apply
    _19_ it helped with determining share types and definitions
    _20_ it helped with pricing a share
    _18_ it helped with farm membership issues
    _23_ it helped with communications with members, eg brochures, newsletters etc.
    _18_ it helped with planting schedules
    _18_ it helped with distribution issues
    _16_ it helped with mixing CSA and other markets
    _6_ it helped with other issues (please specify) garden design, outreach in community, whether it was doable for me and recognition that CSA is a ‘niche’ market, equipment and weed control, start with a farm stand
    _0_ it really didn’t help much at all

    If you have any comments, recommendations, criticism or praise, please feel free to use the other side.

    A selection from the many comments:
    • The class was very helpful. This is our first season as a CSA. So far, so good!
    • I loved the classes.
    • We really enjoyed the learning format that the mini-school used; it was so much easier to understand being taught by seasoned veterans!
    • We came away with our questions fully answered, nice for a change.
    • [from someone who had a CSA already] I enjoyed meeting the panel and networking, but I guess the workshop was too beginner…the panel did a great job.
    • This was the best CSA school I have attended.
    • Helped us make up our minds to get CSA started this year, instead of next.
    • It was an inspiring class that sealed by resolve to make it happen.
    • It was informational and supportive
    Analysis

    We were pleased with a return rate over 55%, considered good by many survey experts (though others will disagree, considering anything less than 100% to be suspect). We made the survey very simple and easy to complete, and included both a postpaid return envelope and a dollar bill (hoping, with some apparent success, to increase responses).

    The overwhelming majority of people attending were not yet CSA farmers, and the program was intended for exactly this group. We encouraged new growers, with only one season in CSA and feeling a need for some help, to attend. Only a handful took us up on that, and these were the most likely to complain (gently, as it turned out) that the program was geared too much to the beginner.

    We failed to ask the question did you actually start a CSA in 2008. With 10 and 12 responding, respectively, that it made it more likely to start a CSA and easier to start a CSA we can say with some confidence that we have at least 10 new growers in the state using CSA as part or all of their operation. We are happy that we did not apparently turn anyone against CSA altogether, and also pleased that we had many consider delaying their project (7 responded that they were persuaded to postpone). We made frequent reference to the difficulty of the CSA model and the need for experience in growing a wide variety of crops, and also discussed the complexity of the cropping plans needed to serve a paid-in-advance (using the most typical CSA model) membership. The panel members all agree that burnout and failure of CSA growers (and consequent poor experience for members) is frequently a result of jumping into this appealing model too quickly. We can state with some confidence that many of those delaying will, in fact, start a CSA farm in the next year or two.

    The responses to the question of how the session specifically helped were gratifying and consistent with our own feelings about how the sessions were received. Slightly lower scores in planting schedules (a topic too complex to cover fully in the time available) and mixing markets (only applicable to those who will indeed have more than one market strategy) make sense to us. I am somewhat surprised by the similarly lower score for distribution strategies, which is a topic I thought was covered well and of importance to participants. Another surprise was the high mark for communication, a topic covered briefly and most applicable, we expected, as a CSA is starting up.

    Comments were gratifying as well, and there were no severe criticisms.

    Appendix C – Press Release

    CSA-MI

    NEWS RELEASE, November 1, 2007
    • Please publish in your calendar or resource listings.
    • Please publish narrative as appropriate to your publication; edit as necessary.
    • Contact us for a disc or email attachment of this information: anotherfarmer@hotmail.com

    Intensive Mini-school Series for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

    January 19, 2008, Kettunen Center, Tustin, Michigan
    February 23, 2008, Kalamazoo Public Library
    March 8, 2008, Ann Arbor, Leslie Science Center
    Cost: $50 per person. Another person from the same farm, half price. Lunch included.
    Contact:
    CSA-MI
    3480 Potter Rd
    Bear Lake, MI 49614
    231-889-3216 (toll free 877-526-1441)
    Email anotherfarmer@hotmail.com
    www.csafarms.org/csaresources.asp

    Summary
    Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) basics will be the topic of intensive day-long mini-schools, intended for the prospective or new CSA grower.

    Full Text
    Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is one of the most innovative developments in agriculture today. As local food is becoming more popular, many growers view CSA as a way to enter farming in an exciting way, or to keep their small farm alive and thriving in an era of failing family farms. But many growers go into CSA without adequate preparation, or underestimate the complexity of the CSA model.

    To help new or prospective CSA growers succeed, CSA-MI, with some support from a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant, is offering a series of day-long intensive mini-schools on Community Supported Agriculture. “The training will be geared to those who hope to start a CSA, or those with little CSA experience, perhaps a season or two,” according to Jo Meller, who will represent Five Springs Farm CSA on the panel of instructors. “We will cover topics that are specific to CSA,” added Jim Sluyter, who is helping to put the curriculum together. “The CSA grower is confronted with issues that other market growers do not have to consider, or with complexities beyond those of many other market farms.” Beginning growers are particularly vulnerable. One experienced grower has referred to CSA as “graduate school for growers,” with complicated cropping plans for a steady harvest, the need to know and understand dozens of different crops and the social aspects of growing for a pre-paid group of farm members. Distribution, pricing, integrating the CSA into the farm’s other marketing and much more will be covered in the training.

    The mini-schools will be patterned after the successful session offered at the CSA Conference in Michigan last fall. A panel of experienced CSA growers will give individual presentations and offer insights into the topic areas. “We will build on that success, incorporating what we learned from that process into these sessions,” said Meller. “Much of the content will be driven by the needs and interests of the participants,” she added.

    CSA farms tend to be very individual and can vary greatly. “Our goal is to offer the perspectives of a variety of farm models – different sizes, structures, distribution strategies and so on – in order that participants can learn the many options open to them in developing their own CSA project,” said Jim Sluyter, also of CSA-MI.

    Attendance will be limited. Please register early!

    CSA-MI, 3480 Potter Rd, Bear Lake, MI 49614
    anotherfarmer@hotmail.com, toll free phone 877-526-1441
    Or check http://csafarms.org/csaresources.asp

    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.