Seniors and CSA: Market research for innovation and participation

2006 Annual Report for FNE06-591

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2006: $4,012.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Benjamin Shute
Hearty Roots Community Farm

Seniors and CSA: Market research for innovation and participation


FNE06-591: “Seniors and CSA: Market research for innovation and participation”

Prepared by:
Benjamin Shute
Hearty Roots Community Farm
PO Box 277, Tivoli, NY 12583
Phone: 845-943-8699

Goals of project
The goals of this project are to conduct research to increase membership among senior citizens in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups, and to test the conclusions of the research. Research was to be conducted through focus groups with senior citizens to provide a forum for seniors to share innovative proposals as to how farms could better serve their needs; Hearty Roots was then to experiment with different alterations to the CSA model and assess how these might be useful for other farmers seeking to increase senior participation.

Update on Hearty Roots Community Farm
Hearty Roots Community Farm has grown since the beginning of the project; in 2007 we plan to grow vegetables for about 200 CSA members on about 8 acres of land. We will continue to grow a wide variety of annual vegetables. Benjamin Shute and Miriam Latzer run the farm, and several other people will work with the farm during the upcoming season.

Cooperating partners
Hearty Roots continues to cooperate with the Bard College Center for Environmental Policy on this project. Graduate student Lindsey Lusher designed and conducted the surveys and focus groups that were used to obtain input from senior citizens in our community. In the near future she will conduct a follow-up focus group with the seniors who participated in our fall 2006 senior CSA trial.

What we have done so far?
The research portion of the SARE project was completed in August 2006, at which point Farmers Benjamin and Miriam began to recruit members to run the trial share program (August 31st-October 26th). The following will provide a brief description of how the research plan was finally implemented.

Preliminary research was conducted through interviews with two farmers with active CSA programs, in addition to two senior centers with CSA distributions. The latter two senior centers are associated with the Hartford Food System’s senior programming and one of the farmers, Sam Hammer, currently manages the CSA that provides food for these programs, Holcomb Farm.

Initial interviews provided perspective for follow-up research and insight for the creation of the program. Cheryl and Sam have unique programs that operate quite differently. While the Rogowski Farm program evolved gradually as an outgrowth of the farmer’s own commitment to the local senior community and continues to be a very personal mission, the Holcomb Farm program acts more like a distribution program with little to no personal contact between members and the organization (Hartford Food System) or the farmer.

After the completion of these interviews, focus group participants were recruited through various senior-oriented classes and activities in the local area. The general pattern of contact was first through the two county Office of the Aging sites and related programs. The researcher was often recommended to a health or nutritional specialist who was able to recommend appropriate senior activities.

Red Hook members were recruited from two senior exercise classes sponsored by the Dutchess County Office of the Aging, in addition to the Friendship Center congregate meal program. The researcher attempted to also meet with the Red Hook Senior Citizen Club, but this group’s regular meeting was not scheduled until after the trial share was set to begin.

Kingston focus group members were recruited primarily at a Senior Picnic held annually at the Rotary Park in Kingston, but also at the senior exercise class run by Kingston Parks and Recreation. The senior picnic proved an especially good recruiting event because was a gathering of many local senior groups. The most useful contact for the Kingston groups was Pat Johnson, the instructor for a weekly senior exercise class and director of other senior activities for Parks and Recreation.

At each activity, potential focus group members were given a screening survey to determine whether each person would be a likely CSA member. A ‘likely member’ was a person who reported cooking at home and preparing vegetables more than 1-2 times per week. The screening survey was completely voluntary and each participant was given a form explaining the purpose of the survey in accordance with the Internal Review Board (IRB) guidelines (approved by the Bard College IRB). From survey results, each senior was given a ranking (1-5; most-least likely to be interested in CSA). From these rankings, the most-likely farm share members were contacted and invited to participate in the focus group.

Although focus group participation was lower than we had hoped, the groups yielded very useful information for the formation of our CSA program. The Red Hook Focus group was held at the nearest Dutchess County Office of the Aging Friendship Center in the early afternoon. Four members attended the group: one from the Friendship Center meal program and three from the exercise program. In the Kingston area, despite lots of interest by seniors, only 4 actually attended the group: 1 from the senior picnic and 3 from the exercise classes. A third focus group was held at Hearty Roots Farm during the regular CSA pick-up hours; senior citizens who are currently members of Hearty Roots were invited to participate.

After focus groups were completed, the researcher met with farmers to plan the implementation of the senior CSA program.

Beginning at the end of August, 2006, Hearty Roots began its 9 week trial CSA share for seniors in the area of Kingston, NY. The pick-up location, at the Ulster County Cooperative Extension office, was selected for several reasons: a staff person at the office was enthusiastic about the project; and the location was adjacent to a senior housing facility and to public transportation, and also had parking for cars.
The vegetable pick-up hours were scheduled on Wednesdays between 4pm-5pm; members who were unable to make it to pick up their vegetables had bags packed up for them and left in the refrigerator at the Cooperative Extension office, where they could be picked up during business hours.

Because the seniors in our group expressed strong preferences for certain vegetables, we offered more choice in our CSA share than we do at our standard CSA sites. We typically had 10 items to choose from; members were invited to choose 5 or 6 items. We kept track of preferences and will publish the results with our final report.

What remains to be done?
The farmers and the researcher are currently in the process of evaluating the 2006 trial. This will be done by analyzing surveys that were filled out by the participants in the trial share, and also comparing those surveys to surveys filled out by senior members of Hearty Roots’ traditional, on-farm CSA. The researcher will also be conducting a follow up focus group with the participants in the 2006 trial CSA.

Once this analysis is completed, the farmers will determine how to incorporate what has been learned into Hearty Roots’ 2007 CSA structure.

The results of the research, trial, and information gleaned from the 2007 season will be compiled in a final report that will be made available to interested farmers.

What have we learned so far?
The survey and focus group research gave us insight into seniors’ food and shopping preferences, as well as logistical issues that they might face in accessing a CSA. Our trial senior CSA attempted to address all of these issues: our overall share size was smaller and therefore priced lower than our traditional CSA; we offered smaller quantities of each vegetable than we do in our regular CSA share, while offering more choice between different vegetables; and the location of the pick-up site was near public transportation and a senior housing site.

Due to the small scale of the senior trial CSA (only 9 members) and small share size (each member paid only $9 per week), we did not expect it to break even or be profitable for the farm financially; however, we hoped that if scaled up, it would be financially feasible for the farm. However, what was unexpected was the large amount of time and resources that Hearty Roots had to spend on outreach to attract just 9 senior citizen members; we expended far more effort than we typically spend to attract CSA members.

The difficulty of recruiting senior members is the single biggest obstacle we have come up against in this project. Despite the fact that our trial members were quite satisfied with their share, the outreach that we needed to do to recruit these members will not be feasible for the farm in the future, given than the revenue for each senior share is less than that for our regular shares (because they are smaller in price and quanitity). This alone makes us pessimistic about the economic viability of the model that we tested– the large amount of time that we needed to spend in order to attract members would increase accordingly if we were to scale up this model.

Did this project generate new ideas about what is needed to solve the problem? What is the next step after this project?
We determined that model that we trialed in 2006 is not suitable for our farm in the future; it cannot be scaled up in a way that will allow the farm to break even.

This winter, Hearty Roots will determine how to proceed with our efforts to reach out to senior citizens. If we are to attempt another project that aims to exclusively serve seniors, we will do so in cooperation with an existing social services organization that can assist with outreach to seniors. We will continue to reach out to seniors as members of our traditional CSA.

Benjamin Shute, Hearty Roots Community Farm Ltd., 1/31/2007


Dr. Mara Ranville

Techincal Advisor
006 Hedgemann, Board Center Env. Policy
Bard College
Hudson, NY 12534