Marketing an Organic CSA

Project Overview

FNC07-696
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2007: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:

Annual Reports

Commodities

Not commodity specific

Practices

  • Farm Business Management: community-supported agriculture, marketing management
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems

    Summary:

    [Editor’s Note: Please see the attached files for the complete version of the final report with tables, charts, surveys, and other materials.]

    FARM DESCRIPTION AND PROJECT BACKGROUND
    Currently, my operation consists of 158 acres, with 32 acres in hay and 36 acres in CRP. This is a family operation which uses natural farming methods and low or no till.

    I have been using sustainable practices since 2004. No pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or GMO seed has been used in my farming operation.

    PEOPLE
    The following persons/organizations directly contributed to or assisted with this project:
    · Board of Directors Michiana Organic Growers Cooperative, Inc.
    · Gene Baughman PA’s Vegetable Patch
    · Charlotte Wolfe Prairie Winds Farm CSA
    · Theri Niemier Bertrand Farms CSA
    · Dale Hasenick White Yarrow Farm CSA
    · Lisa Glon Goshen Farmer’s Market CSA
    · Leann Landgrebe Crème de la Crop CSA
    · Greg Koehler Purple Porch Co-op Inc.
    · Mike Keen IU Center for a Sustainable Future
    · Philip Mason Leap TBL
    · Kris Parker South Shore Local Foods Connection
    · Susan Jones New Carlisle News
    · Liz Maynard Northwest Commercial Horticultural Program
    · Gene Matzat Purdue University Extension Educator

    OUTREACH
    · Several news articles and meeting agendas were sent via email along with my SARE Progress Report on March 16, 2009.
    · A two-hour SARE outreach event to discuss my project results is scheduled for Saturday, February 26, 2011 at the St. Joseph County Public Library.

    MARKETING AN ORGANIC CSA: Best Practices

    Introduction:
    As the farm manager of Sundance Acres LLC, I began my research with the goal of determining whether or not to launch an organic CSA within my rural community of New Carlisle, Indiana. Given this goal, I did substantial research into the CSA model and conducted an online Food Preference – CSA Survey within my community, in order to gauge their interest and support for the CSA model and determine which marketing strategies are most effective.

    Overview:
    The following ten key research options and best practices for marketing an organic CSA within a rural community suggest logical steps for a farm manager to consider:
    1. CSA Literature Review
    2. Regional CSA Field Research
    3. Personal Assessment
    4. Online Food Preference – CSA Survey
    5. Local Newspaper Article
    6. Email Survey Link to Local Civic and Community Food Groups
    7. Survey Study / Target Market Zip Code(s) Analysis
    8. Marketing Focus: Geographic / Mixed / Direct – CSA Business Plan
    9. Focus Group Presentations
    10. Internet Presence / Online Marketing Tools
    Select data and excerpts from key literature will be presented to illustrate the main points. My hope is that the information presented will assist farm managers to thoroughly evaluate their own needs and resources in order to make a well-informed decision about the CSA option.

    Best Practice 1: CSA Literature Review
    The first step is to thoroughly research whether the CSA model is actually suited to your farm, your skill sets and personality, as well as your personal circumstances. Consider the following key CSA research findings:
    •Median age of CSA farmers is 43.6 years.
    •84 percent of farms require off-farm income support.
    •74 percent of CSA farms are selling to outside markets.
    •Only 16 percent of farms are 100 percent CSA.
    •On organic CSA farms, production expenses range from 40-50 percent of gross sales.
    •Average hourly wages were as low as $3.32 on small farm and as high as $14.90 on a large farm, averaging $7.45 for all farms. (Hendrickson, 2005 study)
    •CSAs with less than 30 share members often fail or quit.
    •A CSA farm can typically produce 20 shares per acre and usually offers 15-20 or more items.
    •An economically sustainable CSA may require 60 members paying an average of $500 per full share, three acres in vegetable production and three experienced farmers – at least one of which has very strong organizational, communication, and internet skills.

    (Table from Grower-to-Grower: Creating a livelihood on a fresh market vegetable farm – Hendrickson, 2005)
    •Farm location is an important factor to consider. If the CSA distributes via farm pick-up, it should be located within a 30 minute drive of the target member population.
    •Hiring a marketing consultant is advisable if the farmer is not sure how to get started or lacks the time, internet skills, and/or willingness to go through the process on their own.
    •For a medium-sized direct marketing farm business, working with a marketing consultant will typically cost between $1,000 to $3,000.
    •An MBA student with a solid track record in online marketing surveys or a Webmaster from a CSA or farmer’s market within your region should be capable of conducting an online Food Preference – CSA Survey for you and may also be able to assist you to develop your marketing plan.

    Key CSA and Agricultural Marketing Literature:
    Editor’s Note: ATTRA is the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service; SARE is the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program; CIAS is the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems.]

    ATTRA: Community Supported Agriculture
    Katherine Adam (2006)
    http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/csa.html

    SARE: Marketing Strategies for Farmers and Ranchers
    Laura Sayre (2006)
    http://www.sare.org/publications/marketing/marketing.pdf

    CIAS: Grower to Grower: Creating a livelihood on a fresh market vegetable farm
    John Hendrickson (2005)
    http://www.cias.wisc.edu/crops-and-livestock/report-helps-fresh-market-vegetablegrowers-
    understand-and-share-finances/

    ATTRA: Market Gardening: A Start-Up Guide
    Janet Bachmann (2009)
    http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/marketgardening.html

    COMMUNITY SERVICE, INC: New Solutions 14: Food, Health and Survival | November 2007
    Pat Murphy (2007)
    http://www.communitysolution.org/pdfs/NS14.pdf

    SARE: Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture
    Elizabeth Henderson with Robyn Van En (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2007)
    Chelsea Green Publishing Company
    http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/sharingtheharvest2

    STOREY PUBLISHING COMPANY: Making Your Small Farm Profitable
    Ron Macher (1999)
    http://www.storey.com
    _ Chapter 7: Marketing
    _ Chapter 8: Selecting Your Enterprise

    Additional Recommended Reading:
    Transitioning to Organic Production
    Diana Friedman (2007)
    http://www.sare.org/publications/organic/organic.pdf

    Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food, and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture
    Dale Allen Pfeiffer (2006)
    New Society Publishers
    http://www.newsociety.com/bookid/3933

    The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil (DVD)
    Megan Quinn, Pat Murphy, and Faith Morgan (2006)
    Community Solutions Inc.
    http://www.powerofcommunity.org/cm/index.php

    Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty
    Mark Winne (2008)
    Beacon Press

    Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
    Michael Pollan (2006)
    Penguin Books

    Remaking the North American Food System: Strategies for Sustainability
    Editors C. Clare Hinrichs and Thomas A. Lyson (2007)
    University of Nebraska Press
    _ Paper #5

    Community Supported Agriculture as an Agent of Change: Is it working?
    Marcia Ruth Ostrom

    While this is only a partial list of the relevant literature available, I wanted to present those key resources which are available free of charge (in PDF format) and those which may be available at a public library or for a reasonable cost, so that an interested farm manager can study the CSA option with little or no initial research expense.

    Best Practice 2: Regional CSA Field Research
    Field research with the organic CSAs in your region is vital in understanding the CSA model – especially what is working (or not working) for the CSAs in your area. In my case, I picked five CSAs within a 60 mile radius of my farm to interview about their CSA operations and marketing best practices. To accomplish this goal, I developed the CSA Producer Questionnaire, which contains 20 key interview questions. From the results of these CSA producer interviews, I developed the summary table below:

    ORGANIC CSA FARM NAME /WEBSITE
    Number of CSA MEMBERS
    IS CSA PROFITABLE?
    MARKETING/ BEST PRACTICES

    Creme de la Crop Farm / www.cremedelacrop.com
    180
    Yes
    www.LocalHarvest.org Facebook, MailChimp

    Goshen Farmers Market CSA / www.goshenfarmersmarket.org
    70
    Break-even
    Hybrid Model; Mailing List; Spring CSA Invitation Letter

    White Yarrow Farm / www.LocalHarvest.org
    60
    Yes
    Word-of-mouth; www.LocalHarvest.org

    Bertrand Farm / www.bertrandfarm.org
    45
    No
    Word-of-mouth; Events; Website; Brochure

    Prairie Winds Farm  / www.prairiewindsnaturefarm.com
    20
    No
    Word-of-mouth; Events; Website; Facebook; Brochure

    Key Highlights:
    •All of these CSA’s are currently listed on www.LocalHarvest.org and most reported this website as a good referral source for their CSA.
    •All of these CSA’s have their own farm website as well, with the sole exception of White Yarrow Farm, which utilizes www.LocalHarvest.org for maintaining an internet presence.
    •The top three most successful CSA’s in my area have all been viable for at least eight or more years, and yet none of them rely completely on the CSA model but rather pursue a mix of direct marketing strategies (e.g. farmers’ market, restaurants, Facebook, local supermarket contract).
    •Creme de la Crop farm has a mailing list of 700 and a www.Facebook.com following of
    500 fans, which enables web-saavy farm manager Leann Landgrebe to harness the impressive marketing power of the internet via www.MailChimp.com.
    •Goshen Farmer’s Market CSA has a very successful hybrid model that operates year-round and is housed within the historic Mill Race Center, which is an attractive retail building. The CSA was established by the Community Sustainability Project with the goal of providing the CSA service for their participating farmers for a 5 percent management fee.

    Best Practice 3: Personal Assessment
    Both personal and farm risk assessments are key in determining if the CSA model will provide you with the income and/or lifestyle you desire. Below are excellent resources to assist you to reflect deeply upon your own needs, skills, financial resources, and risk tolerance.
    1. Worksheet 4: Basic Farming & Business Skills Assessment
    http://www.smallfarm.org/uploads/uploads/Files/worksheet4.pdf
    2. In-Depth Sustainable Farmer Skill Self-Assessment Tool
    http://www.smallfarm.org/uploads/uploads/Files/in%20debth%20self%20assessment.pdf

    Additionally, the following two excerpts from Sharing the Harvest offer some food for thought:
    • “CSAs of only fifteen or twenty or even 40 shares cannot offer the farmer enough money to compete with the benefits of a full-time job off the farm.” (p. 273)
    • “People who choose to live on farms but who want to do farm work only part-time invariably find that a CSA is too time consuming.” (p. 274)

    Once a farm manager has completed the essential self-assessment work, and has decided to proceed with additional market research, the next logical step is to conduct an online survey.

    Best Practice 4: Online Food Preference – CSA Survey
    The decision to conduct an online survey is largely a pragmatic one given the prohibitive cost associated with traditional market research. In short, telephone and/or manual survey approaches are labor-intensive and the fees that professional market research firms typically charge may be prohibitively expensive for the small-scale farmer.

    Elizabeth Henderson in her book, Sharing the Harvest, offers some commonsense advice:
    • “First find out if enough people are interested.” (p. 37)

    After considerable research and revision, I developed a 40 question Online Food Preference –
    CSA Survey Questionnaire, which was implemented via the Survey Gizmo online survey site. This survey was administered by Philip Mason during the fall of 2010. The survey results were then analyzed and a study entitled Northwest Indiana CSA Preference Study was completed by Mason and myself on January 15, 2011.

    • Survey Gizmo www.SurveyGizmo.com

    This website offers free access to conduct online surveys, though some of the statistical analysis features and reporting functions are limited.

    Other online survey sites to consider:
    •SurveyMonkey www.surveymonkey.com
    •eSurveysPro www.eSurveysPro.com
    •Zoomerang www.zoomerang.com
    •Kwik Surveys www.kwiksurveys.com

    Best Practice 5: Local Newspaper Article
    Once the online survey has been developed, perhaps the best method to distribute the survey link within your community is the local newspaper. In my rural community, the New Carlisle News is read by a significant majority of the townspeople. Below is the article advertising the Food Preference – CSA Survey link which appeared in the New Carlisle News on September 10, 2010:
    [Editor’s Note: Open the PDF version to see the article.]

    Other articles about this grant appeared in the following local and regional newspapers:
    •SARE Press Release
    •New Carlisle News
    •La Porte Herald Argus
    •The News Dispatch
    •AgriNews

    Typically, news reporters in rural communities seek out human interest stories such as the one presented above. This marketing strategy is an excellent, low cost way to publicize your survey.

    In order to ensure that the reporter or editor truly understands your viewpoint and eliminate any obvious errors, ask them to allow you to review your article before publication.

    Best Practice 6: Email Survey Link to Local Civic and Community Food Groups
    Networking among the local civic and food community groups is another low cost, effective marketing strategy. Perhaps the most obvious method is to ask the leaders within these organizations to distribute your survey link to the members within their organization. Such an approach relies upon your reputation and any good will that you have established within the key civic and community food organizations in your community. In my case, I approached the following organizations which agreed to distribute my survey link to their members:
    •Michiana Organic Growers Cooperative Inc.
    •Purple Porch Co-op Inc.
    •IU South Bend: Center For a Sustainable Future
    •South Shore Local Foods Connection
    •New Carlisle Library Website
    Given that this approach generated 77 survey responses, I strongly recommend this best practice.

    Best Practice 7: Survey Study / Target Market Zip Code(s) Analysis
    As described in the Northwest Indiana CSA Preference Study, one of the most important results to analyze is the actual number of responses within your target zip code. In my case, only ten persons completed the survey within the 46552 zip code. Below is an excerpt from the survey study related to the target zip code question and a brief analysis of the survey results:

    4. What is the zip code of your primary residence?
    [Editor’s Note: To see the charts, open the attached PDF version of the report.]
    46552    10     13 percent
    Key Observations:
    1. The target zip code of interest is 46552, because this zip code covers the geographical area within 5 miles of the prospective CSA farmer conducting this survey.
    2. Data results indicate 10 survey responses of the 77 total came from zip code
    46552, which equates to 13 percent of the target market consumers.

    Significance:
    1. Survey responses for the target zip code 46552 are most valuable to the prospective CSA farmer. A high number of positive responses within this zip code would be most valuable to the prospective CSA farmer.
    2. In this case, only 10 responses were received, which is a relatively low number in absolute terms and discouraging. For example: a positive response from 50 survey participants would be much more encouraging to the prospective CSA farmer who must consider the set-up, break-even, and opportunity costs of establishing the CSA farming model.

    Consider also that an online survey allows respondents to provide their email address for future contact. If a decision is reached to launch the CSA, then the survey administrator has a ready list of email addresses to contact prospective CSA members.

    Best Practice 8: Marketing Focus: Geographic / Mixed / Direct – CSA Business Plan
    Proximity is a critical factor for marketing a CSA in a rural community, even though it may not be emphasized much in traditional marketing literature. In essence, the distance people are willing to travel to your CSA pick-up point is a critical limiting factor — especially in a post-Peak Oil economy. When fuel prices rise to $4.00, $5.00, and $6.00 per gallon, people will naturally seek to minimize the distance they travel to purchase necessary supplies. Thus, the proximity of your farm to the local population you wish to serve is a very significant factor. Given this brief discussion, I strongly recommend that your marketing strategy focus squarely upon geographic considerations.

    To illustrate, I suggest that you consider a “radial marketing” approach:
    Primary market: 5 mile radius around your farm
    Secondary market: 15 mile radius around your farm

    This geographic marketing approach is outlined by Ron Macher in Chapter 7 of his book Making Your Small Farm Profitable. In terms of target zip code analysis, if you obtain a zip code map of your farm location, you can easily determine which zip code(s) pertain to your farm and focus on them when conducting your online survey. Additionally, Macher’s book provides a solid discussion of various direct marketing strategies to consider, such as niche and value-added marketing. Below is an excerpt from my study which describes the maximum distance survey respondents are willing to travel within my rural community:

    30. What is the maximum distance you are willing to travel on a regular basis to make your weekly food purchases?

    Value, Count, Percent
    0 – 4 miles, 11, 17.7
    5 – 9 miles, 16, 25.8
    10 – 14 miles, 20, 32.3
    15 – 19 miles, 4, 6.5
    20 – 24 miles, 6, 9.7
    25 – 29 miles, 4, 6.5
    30 or more miles, 1, 1.6

    Statistics
    Average 11.6
    Standard Deviation 6.68
    Maximum 30.0

    Key Observations:
    1. This result is an indicator of the maximum distance(s) that survey respondents are willing to travel in order to purchase food within the target market area.
    2. Data results indicate that a significant majority (76%) of survey respondents are not willing to travel more than 14 miles to purchase food.
    3. Specifically, 18% are not willing to travel more than 4 miles, 26 percent are not willing to travel more than 9 miles, and 32 percent are not willing to travel more than 14 miles.

    Significance:
    1. These results suggest that the maximum distance consumers are willing to travel is an important factor in their food purchasing decisions.
    2. Results also suggest that if a farm is not located within 14 miles of the local target market, then a local farmer wishing to establish a CSA or niche-market product should carefully consider this factor and any transportation costs which may affect future product pricing.
    3. A rise in the cost of gasoline may also affect pricing and production cost decisions, so being located closer to a local target market is desirable.

    From my own study, I surmised that most people are not willing to travel more than 14 miles on a weekly basis to purchase food.

    Given that all of the CSA producers in my region employ a mixture of direct marketing strategies (which seek to eliminate the middle-man in the wholesale market), I highly recommend this overall marketing strategy. An exception to this strategy may be to participate in a wholesale market for a niche or specialty product — provided a careful profitability analysis is completed in advance. Such a strategy may be better suited to high volume producers which have a higher tolerance for increased financial risk and lower financial margins.

    Once the online survey study has been completed, a key question must be answered:

    • Is there enough interest in my community to start a CSA?

    If the answer to this question is affirmative, then completing a formal CSA business plan is strongly recommended. An overview of the logical steps involved in forming a CSA is provided by Elizabeth Henderson in her book Sharing the Harvest:

    • Steps to Forming a CSA (p. 39)
    This is a one page outline of the key questions and considerations involved in making the decision to launch a CSA. Once this preliminary evaluation work has been completed, the next logical step is to complete a formal CSA business plan.

    At this point, I want to emphasize the importance of completing a formal business plan. Given that this business planning process may require 50 – 100 or more hours of your time, some enthusiastic farm managers might be tempted to skip this step and rush into launching the CSA without completing a formal business plan. I strongly advise against this hasty approach. Additionally, I suggest that you avoid borrowing money to finance a CSA, especially given the current recession and the additional burden that debt can impose upon any new business.

    Fortunately, an excellent guide to developing a comprehensive, sustainable business plan for your CSA is available free of charge. Below is an excerpt from the SARE – MISA: Building a
    Sustainable Business Plan document:

    http://www.sare.org/publications/business/business.pdf

    http://www.misa.umn.edu/Publications/BuildingaSustainableBusiness/index.htm

    Please note that a detailed marketing plan is included within every solid business plan.

    In some cases, the decision to hire a farmer to launch a CSA may be warranted. Again, in Sharing the Harvest, Elizabeth Henderson provides an excellent checklist to consider when thinking about hiring a farmer:
    _ Hiring a Farmer (p. 53)

    Best Practice 9: Focus Group Presentations
    Another excellent low cost marketing strategy is to present your survey and CSA proposal to local groups in your community which may have mutual interests with your initiative. In my case, I approached the following three groups:
    •New Carlisle Town Council
    •New Carlisle Library Board
    •T.O.P.S. – President Birdie Elder

    In the case of the T.O.P.S. (Taking Off Pounds Sensibly) group, I presented my survey proposal to this group of 19 women and had a productive discussion about the value and health benefits of local, organically grown produce.

    Given that all of these ladies are primary shoppers within their respective households, this informal focus group discussion was a natural fit with their desire to eat healthy food. From this
    30 minute discussion, I learned that these value shoppers are most interested in price and convenience (the latter as measured in product availability and distance to market).
    Additionally, New Carlisle, Indiana is a conventional farming community, and few of these ladies were familiar with the CSA concept — which provided me an excellent opportunity to explain it.

    Significantly, these shoppers made most of their food purchases at the major supermarkets in our area, which include Martin’s, Meijer, Kroeger, Al’s, and Super Walmart. Lastly, 8 of 19 (42 percent) of these ladies expressed interest in a local farmer’s market, based largely upon the desire to travel less to obtain fresh produce.

    Best Practice 10: Internet Presence / Online Marketing Tools
    As previously mentioned, every one of the CSAs within my region has an internet presence.
    All of these CSA’s are listed on the www.LocalHarvest.org site, which attests to the valuable service that this site provides.

    Additionally, four of the five CSA farms I interviewed in my region have their own website, which  suggests that this may be a worthwhile investment for profitable CSA’s seeking to enhance their internet presence.

    Further, the advantages of pursuing online marketing strategies have been presented in my short www.LocallyGrown.net white paper. One interesting site feature is the Farm Notebook
    http://www.farmnotebook.com, which is an on-line organizer designed for market and CSA farms, though it can also be used by market gardeners as well.

    Social Media Sites:
    For web-savvy farmers, social media sites can dramatically enhance their internet presence and create a significant following for a popular CSA. Thus, they should be seriously considered within any CSA marketing plan – especially if a profitable CSA farm wishes to expand its member base.

    The three top social media sites are listed below:
    1. www.Facebook.com
    2. www.Twitter.com
    3. www.MySpace.com

    http://www.ebizmba.com/articles/social-networking-websites

    Another interesting site is Mail Chimp, which connects directly with Facebook and facilitates email campaigns and newsletter publications:
    www.MailChimp.com

    This site also features: Geolocation, which lets the user target an audience by location – even if you haven’t collected any location data.

    http://www.mailchimp.com/features/geolocation/

    Although these social media sites require some set-up and maintenance, they can dramatically and affordably increase the internet presence and market reach of a profitable CSA – and/or greatly assist a CSA launch within a specific, targeted geographic location.

    CONCLUSION
    My main goal is pursuing this CSA research is to make a decision whether to launch a CSA or not. In my case, given that my survey resulted in only 10 actual responses within my target market zip code, I have made a management decision not to pursue the CSA option at this time. Having said that, I encourage other farm managers to utilize these resources in order to thoroughly research and carefully evaluate the CSA option in their own community. My belief is that the CSA model will become more prevalent within this decade as we journey into a global, post-Peak Oil economy. My hope is this research will assist farm managers to evaluate their marketing options with respect to the organic CSA model.

    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.