The subscription style marketing of the community-supported agricultre operation can be a great way to sell produce for the farmer, but if you’re finding it difficult to retain members or locate new customers, it might be time to troubleshoot your CSA.
Troubleshooting any business is simply considering the individual pieces of the operation and thoroughly examining whether and how each one affects sales. Sometimes it might be obvious—bad customer service can lead directly to fewer customers. But other times it might be less direct. Here are some things to investigate.
If I had trouble growing my CSA business, my first question would be, “Do potential customers know I exist?” When you troubleshoot, really think about how much marketing you’ve done in your area, how many flyers you’ve posted at coffee shops and how robust your social media presence is. If these areas do not compare to those of the competition, it might be time to put in some marketing work this winter and get your name out there. Start posting more on your social media accounts and engaging more with the community. Being active locally will help circulate your name. Also, consider putting up flyers or hiring someone to do so. Brand recognition—people regularly seeing your farm name—will help those who decide to join a CSA come to yours first.
It’s important to objectively look at your growing practices when you troubleshoot. Are you growing the best food possible? Are you cleaning it well enough? Are you giving customers what they enjoy? Are you giving too much eggplant and not enough tomatoes? Production can vary from year to year, but you absolutely need to make sure you produce the highest quality food possible. If people enjoy what they get, they will tell their friends. If not, they will tell their friends to stay away.
Cleanliness is also important. Customers might like to see a little dirt to know their food is coming from a real farm, but too much dirt might make their extra time spent cleaning not worth the effort and money.
How food arrives at your customers’ houses is more important than it might seem. Yes, it should be clean, but it should also not be overly packaged. Too many boxes and cartons and plastic bags can turn off some customers. Package what you have to (greens), but maybe avoid packaging the less sensitive crops such as potatoes and eggplants.
Young farmers nervous about customers who might not feel like they’re getting a “deal” often lean toward giving as much food as possible. Be careful, though. When you troubleshoot, know that one of the biggest mistakes young CSAs make is to give too much food. Customers hate to waste food just as much, if not more, than they hate not getting enough food. Try and find the right balance with your customers. Feel them out, talk to them regularly, see what they enjoy and don’t enjoy. You might learn that you’re giving too much food, or that you need to offer different size shares in the future to accommodate different family sizes and eating habits.
5. Customer Service
Do you respond to email messages? Do you make it up to people when there is a mixup or a mistake? Customers who feel valued will continue to support your business, but if a customer feels like nothing more than a money supply to you is almost guaranteed not stick around for long.
Customer service also means taking the time to reach out and check in with your customers from time to time to see how they are enjoying things and whether they have questions. If you are not engaging and accessible, it will definitely reflect in your customer base.