4 Components to Design a Successful CSA

If you aim to open a CSA this year, consider these areas so your community supported agriculture operation brings in what you need.

by Jesse Frost
PHOTO: dumbonyc/Flicker via CC BY-SA 2.0

When designing a successful community supported agriculture operation, one must consider a lot: How many weeks should be offered? How many share sizes? How will the customers get the products—delivery, farmers market or on-farm pickup? What about pricing? Because CSA sign-up season approaches, here is a checklist you can go through to design the CSA that best fits your farm and your budget for the year.

1. Budget

How much your farm needs to make in a year—your budget—is arguably the single most important factor in designing your CSA. Once you know how much it costs to run your farm—including labor, seed costs and all farm expenses—you can determine how much revenue you want your CSA to generate. For some farms, the CSA might pay for 100 percent of the budget, where on other farms it might cover only a small part of the farm budget. Whatever the case, once you have that number, you can determine the structure of your CSA.

2. Duration

Once you have your farm budget, you can decide for how many weeks you want your CSA to go. This should be based primarily on your growing season and your skill level. An experienced grower might feel comfortable providing a CSA for 25 or 30 weeks, or even year-round. A novice, on the other hand, should probably consider fewer weeks, or a smaller number of shares, while he or she gains experience. You can always add a fall and/or winter share. This number will hep you determine the overall cost of the CSA.

3. Price & Share Sizes

Pricing a CSA is tricky. Some farmers like to offer many size options, whereas some farms might offer only one or two. Honestly, I recommend offering one, and giving a discount to larger families who buy more than one share. This keeps it simple, and you can more easily determine the amount of shares you need to offer by dividing the overall price of the share into your budget. So if the operation needs to make a budget of $30,000, and each 20-week share costs $400, you would need to offer 75 shares. You might have to adjust the length of the CSA and the price of the share until it seems reasonable for you.

Also, before you proceed, check that the price per week makes sense after you do this math (simply divide the number of weeks by the total price of the share). If you do the math and your price per week is $75, you might want to adjust some things as described below. You can also start with the price per week, multiply it by the number of weeks and get you share price. You then need to divide that into your budget to see how many shares you need to sell. Again, you can tweak as necessary.

4. Editing

Sometimes you conclude that the number of shares you need to fufill is not possible for your farm. In this case, you will need to edit your CSA. Do you need to increase the price to decrease the number of shares? Do you need to extend the duration of the CSA so that a smaller number of shares can get you closer to your budget? Here you might decide to provide some “add-ons” to generate more money per share such as eggs, dairy or meat. Or, you might decide to decrease the amount of money the CSA needs to make and instead lean heavier on one of your other outlets such as the farmers market or restaurants.

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Ether way, let your budget guide your CSA, not vice versa. This is the only way to ensure you will bring in the money you need to make every year.

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