How To Manage Week-To-Week CSA Members

Although counter to the CSA model of marketing, allowing week-to-week members could attract new loyal customers.

by Jesse Frost
PHOTO: Frances/Flickr

Every year we tell ourselves that we’re not going to take on any week-to-week CSA members, people who can only pay for their CSA by the week. It’s a lot to manage, it can be inconsistent and risky, and the whole point of the CSA is that your members front the money early in the season so you can buy the supplies to grow their food. But every year we meet people we can only afford to pay by the week, and we just can’t bring ourselves to turn them down—we want to feed people who want good food. After five years of working to squeeze those members in, however, our farm has learned that if you’re gonna do it, you have to do it right.

So if, like us, you just can’t help yourself, I’ve put together a list of considerations when taking on CSA members who pay weekly.

The Case Against Week-To-Week Members

First, the main point of starting a CSA is to have money—for seed, for equipment and to live on—before the season starts. Members pay all or most of the fee at the start of the season, and then the farmer can budget accordingly. It is also, however, about sharing the risk of farming with the people who buy the food. When a traditional market farmer has a bad year, that’s all on them. Drought, floods—everything falls on the farmer. In the CSA model, the farmer shares that risk with the customer. And if it rains heavy on market day, the farmer has his or her veggies already sold and doesn’t have to worry about poor sales at a soggy market.

The week-to-weeker throws this around a little. Without the financial commitment, what incentive do they have to keep sharing the risk in a less than stellar season or to show up in the torrential downpours for their veggies? You can see how this gets tricky fast.

How To Set Up A Week-To-Week CSA

If you do want to make it possible to take on people who can only pay by the week, I’m with you. We didn’t get into farming to only provide good food to the wealthy. However, it’s important to protect your business from the very beginning.

The first thing we do is try to ask if the customer requesting week-to-week shares is familiar with the CSA, how it works and why it’s important. We are then blunt about why we hesitate with the week-to-week option: that our history with week-to-week customers has often been that they’re the ones who don’t show up and don’t let us know they can’t make it. We tell any potential week-to-weekers that if that happens, we lose the money twice: once because we expected the patron to be there (and harvested accordingly), and then twice because the food sits unsold all day before we take it back home. If we had known, we could have at least sold the food and made up the loss. This may all sound harsh, but the transparency is important, and the customer may realize it’s better to just buy from the market table than join the CSA. Mostly, though, we’ve found they are entirely game.

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Next, we charge a deposit, or more accurately “first and last.” We charge for two weeks upfront, then the customer’s first and last shares are paid for. If they miss a week without telling us, they lose their first deposit and have to pay a new deposit again to get back in. If they tell us and we can sell the food, we try to be lenient depending on the situation.

Lastly, we don’t let anyone go week-to-week for more than a year. The next year, we ask that they pay in larger chunks. The goal is to encourage them to budget us into their lives.

Why Bother?

As I said, at our farm, we want to feed people who want good food. The CSA is a big financial commitment, and we get that. Offering some lenience helps to bring people into the farm and the family who runs it. That said, we are constantly working on this system to protect ourselves, as we have been let down many times over the years by people who no longer come to the market. I can only assume this is a matter of embarrassment or shame, and if there is one thing we do not want the week-to-week model to do, it’s to apply guilt to the market experience. So If you’re going to take on week-to-week members be cautious, be honest and you may just meet some of the amazing members we have by having this flexible buying option.

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