Photo by Rachael Brugger
Vegetable CSA shares can be enhanced by optional add-ons, including meat, dairy or flowers.
If you want to increase your farm income while decreasing your risk, you might have already tuned into the benefits of community-supported agriculture. Unlike traditional business formulas, which require increasing production, taking on debt or working crazy hours, CSAs have enabled small-scale, sustainable farmers to better manage income flow while supporting the local, healthy food movement.
A CSA, by definition, is a community of individuals who pledge their support to a farm, sharing both the risks and benefits of agriculture. In exchange for weekly deliveries of farm bounty throughout the growing season, the members, often called shareholders, typically pay in advance to help cover the costs of the season’s farm operations. By doing so, they take on farming risks, including poor harvests due to extreme weather.
What started as a fledgling grassroots movement in the 1980s has bloomed to more than 12,500 CSA operations nationally, according to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture, and is continuing to grow as increasing numbers of people want to go beyond buying seasonal, healthy produce to supporting and partnering with an area farmer.
While basic CSA packages typically consist of vegetables, farmers can consider supplying shareholders with other offerings to increase their profit.
"We have offered our CSA members a variety of add-on options over the years, including bread, eggs, cheese, flowers and meat,” explains Susan Jutz, of ZJ Farms, a CSA farm that delivers to more than 200 families in east-central Iowa.
ZJ Farms taps other local growers and food artisans for these additional products.
"Diversification of share options has been a real win-win for us, as we can both provide our members with easy access to some great products and support other small farmers in our area to connect with our established market, a big group of eaters who are already invested in eating healthy and local food,” Jutz says.
If you too are intrigued by the idea of CSA diversification, here are six add-on ideas to get you started.
"We’ve had great success with offering a separate weekly fruit share to our members, which includes three to five different kinds of seasonal fruit, such as strawberries, blueberries, peaches, plums and cherries,” says Peg Sheaffer, of Sandhill Family Farms, which services the Chicago area. "We listened to our members in making this decision, as our members wanted more fresh fruit and we are limited in what we can grow here in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. We partner with one farmer, an experienced fruit grower, and our members love that all of this diversified fresh bounty can come in one delivery.”
2. Cheese and Dairy
Showcasing the cheese and other dairy artisans in your area is a great way to draw in business. Vermont Valley Community Farm, a Wisconsin vegetable CSA, offers fresh goat cheese shares through their neighbor, Diana Kalscheur Murphy, of Dreamfarm. In this case, customers order directly from Dreamfarm’s website and the deliveries are made in conjunction with Vermont Valley’s drop-off sites.
Bread products, particularly a beautiful, artisan loaf of hand-crafted bread, can be very appealing to CSA members and can often be a side business that someone else in your farming family takes on.
"When my son, Micah, was a teen, he did the baking, and we offered a very popular bread share to our members,” says Dela Ends, of Scotch Hill Farm. She and her family have run this successful CSA operation in Brodhead, Wis., for nearly 20 years. "Having his own business to manage was both a terrific learning experience for him while also building our CSA member relationships.”
Before starting a prepared-food enterprise, research cottage food legislation in your state to find out if it’s legal for a CSA farm to prepare value-added food in a home kitchen for direct sale to CSA members. (Hobby Farms’ article "How to Navigate Cottage Food Laws” provides background on cottage-food legislation.) Remember, such regulations vary—sometimes tremendously—by state.
Meat is a natural add-on to produce deliveries and enables you to keep your meat-loving members happy while still accommodating vegetarians through the standard produce share. "One thing we’ve found with offering meat shares is it is important to continually educate folks about how to use the various items people may not be familiar with, such as beef bones for soup,” says Beth Osmund, of Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm in Ottawa, Ill., the first meat CSA serving Chicago.
Sandhill Family Farms also offers a fish share, delivering approximately 3 pounds of fresh rainbow trout to members each month. "Our members really like that we personally know and have visited the places that provide our additional shares, such as fish,” Sheaffer says. "In this case, our members feel confident we have a relationship with and have visited our trout source, Rushing Waters Fisheries, and can personally attest to their commitment to quality and to responsible environmental stewardship.
Think creatively "inside the produce box” and offer an additional add-on vegetable share of an item that some members might want more of regularly. Bloomin Wooley Acres in Nashua, Iowa, creatively supplies a "Spring Greens Share” for four weeks in May for their big-time salad-loving members, delivering a variety of nine leafy greens along with radishes and asparagus.
Some CSA farmers partner with other area farmers and food artisans to supply their add-on shares while others produce their own inventory. Remember, anything additional you take on to produce will require additional time during the already busy growing season, so approach such commitments wisely. Another tip: Be sure to check into any state regulations regarding your intended add-on offering, including proper delivery and storage for any refrigerated items.
About the Author: Lisa Kivirist writes from Inn Serendipity, her farm and bed-and-breakfast in Wisconsin, which is completely powered by renewable energy and specializes in local, seasonal, organic cuisine. She is co-author of the award-winning book ECOpreneuring (New Society Publishers, 2008), Rural Renaissance (New Society Publishers, 2009), and Farmstead Chef (New Society Publishers, 2011).