Thinking of Starting a CSA? Start Planning Now

Aug 11, 2023 4 min read

If you are looking for a spot to share your vegetables and produce, but don’t want to spend every weekend at a farmers 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 local produce 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 becoming profitable.  

What Is Community Supported Agriculture?

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 program, which is also known as farm sharing, provides upfront 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 produce without the steep price tag you find in the grocery store.

Tips for Starting a CSA

Farm sharing in the form of a CSA is ideal for seasoned farmers with experience in both growing and selling their produce to the public. Subscribers purchase shares with the expectation of receiving fresh produce all season long, which means having the experience to deliver is a plus. Set yourself up for success with these tips:

Check Local Zoning Laws and License Requirements

If your garden or homestead is in a residential neighborhood (or subject to any HOA rules), on-site distribution might be prohibited, and you may need to arrange for an alternate pickup location. A local farm-to-table restaurant may allow CSA members to collect their shares there. Directly delivering produce is another option. You’ll also want to check with the city or county to determine whether you need a business license to sell fruits and vegetables.

Find Your Network

Establishing a network to sell your produce can establish your business more. Many CSAs are producer-initiated (where a farmer assembles a core 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 CSA 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 and harvest seasons.

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.  

Protect Your Yield

Selling produce to the public increases the potential for liability. If someone gets sick from eating something in your CSA share or happens to sustain an injury while picking up their box from your farm, you’ll want to make sure you’re protected. Make sure you have the right insurance in place to safeguard your livelihood. 

Consider Working Memberships

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

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 not the weather or growing  conditions. CSAs are an opportunity for farmers to share the risk with consumers. Just because you had a bumper crop last year doesn’t guarantee a strong growing season again. Make sure members are aware of the risks and potential for leaner years.

Create Contracts

To avoid any miscommunications, put your farm sharing plan in writing for your customers, explaining the market price of the share, the length of the season, what is included with each share and pickup times and locations.

Plant Accordingly

Generally, each share should contain about 10 to 20 pounds of fruit and vegetables. To provide a wide array of produce, aim to harvest between five and 12 different types of produce each week. Use these numbers to plan the number of available shares your garden can accommodate. Consider planting multiple varieties of the same type of vegetable and consider including herbs in the mix as a nice addition to the larger items.

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 unique ingredients. Throwing in a few unexpected surprises each week is part of the CSA fun.

Spread the Word

Once you’ve built an initial member base and feel ready to expand, get the word out. Offer existing members a discount for referrals, share the CSA details on your social media pages or pass out flyers at your local markets. Don’t forget to include the relevant information, like share price, length of the season and what types of produce will be available.

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? Determine what works best for you and your business. 

Develop a Plan for Surplus

Some weeks, you will 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.

Protect Your Investment

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. While you’re at it, consider insuring your CSA, no matter the size. Your local Farm Bureau agent can talk to you about the unique coverage options and develop a plan that’s right for you.

Want to learn more?

Contact a local FBFS agent or advisor for answers personalized to you.