If you are looking for a spot to share your vegetables and produce, but don’t want to spend every weekend at the farmer’s market, consider starting a CSA. A CSA, or community-supported agriculture organization, allows farmers to sell “shares” of their produce to people looking for a ready supply of fresh vegetables throughout the season. CSAs can be profitable for the farmer, and beneficial for the member, but getting them off the ground takes work. Here’s how you can start a CSA and shape it into something profitable.  

What Is a CSA?

A CSA, or community-supported agriculture, allows members to buy in at the beginning of the season (either with a lump sum or installment payments) and in turn receive produce throughout the season.

Why Use a CSA for Produce?

A CSA provides seed money for farmers to use to plant their crop. Farmers know how much to plant based on the demand for their produce and can plant a variety of crops that will bloom all season. Farmers can focus on producing high-quality fruits and vegetables and worry less about finding avenues to sell to make a profit.

In turn, consumers can expect a steady supply of locally grown fresh vegetables and fruits. In an age where people are becoming more connected to the food they eat, CSAs provide an opportunity for members to get to know the farmers and understand their growing practices. Often CSAs provide organic produce without the steep price tag you find in the grocery store, and you know that all the food is locally grown.

Tips for Starting a CSA

Find Your Network

The majority of CSAs are producer-initiated (where a farmer assembles a group of consumers) or member-initiated (where interested consumers assemble and look for a farmer or group of farmers to grow their produce).

Meet Potential Members

When you are beginning, meet with potential members to discuss the types of food they will be interested in. Use this as a chance to set expectations — some crops may require a different climate than your local growing season will allow. Help your members understand the growing season and the growing process.

Develop a Business Plan and Budget

As a farmer, develop a realistic cost breakdown of expenses that includes operating expenses (seeds, water, fuel), land, equipment, labor and any other expenses you might incur. You can use this budget to determine your membership share prices and potential CSA profitability.  

Consider Working Memberships

If you have a subset of people that is willing to get their hands dirty and work with your produce, consider offering a discounted membership in exchange for hours worked weeding, harvesting, distributing, etc.

Set Expectations Early

If you’ve been a farmer for any length of time, you know that you can determine a lot of things, but weather and growing conditions are not one of them. CSAs are an opportunity for farmers to share the risk with consumers. Just because you had a bumper crop last year, it doesn’t guarantee a strong growing season again. Make sure members are aware of the risks and potential for leaner years.

Develop a Crop Plan

Plant with the harvest in mind. Every fruit and vegetable has its own growing season length. Work out a plan so that you can harvest different produce week to week. Your members will appreciate the ongoing variety of seasonal produce. You will be the most successful with a continuous harvest.

Cultivate Memberships

Keep your members interested by integrating seasonal favorites with new and different veggies. Challenge your members to find new ways to use them, and share recipes with one another. You could set up a newsletter with fun Iron Chef types of challenges with unique ingredients. Throwing in a few unexpected surprises each week is part of the CSA fun!

Establish a Delivery System

Do you want to deliver produce week in and week out, or are you more comfortable driving to a shared location where everyone is responsible for picking up their own supply? Look for ways to develop a community where people can share produce with one another based on their usage and weekly needs, and cut down on waste overall. 

Develop a Plan for Surplus

Some weeks, you will simply have more produce ready to harvest at once. If your members have as much as they can handle, consider how you will allocate the surplus. Food banks love fresh, in-season produce, and donating will ensure that your hard work won’t go to waste.

A CSA can be a great way to sell your products and connect with your local community. It’s an innovative way to build demand for your harvest. You’ll be the most successful if you organize and make plans before the first seeds are ever planted, so start in the off-season. While you’re at it, consider insuring your CSA, no matter the size. Your local Farm Bureau agent can talk to you about all of your unique coverage options and develop a plan right for you.