Thanks to the Internet research into complex topics has been made much easier and as I look into CSA programs I can even get an almost "first hand" account. I'm planning for 20 plus members in our Mid Michigan CSA program for 2012 and I've learned a ton from successful CSA program acrosss the state. But I've learned more from the ones that tanked.
Why Do Some CSA's Fail?
After finding 6 CSA programs that were at one time doing well and now have all but ceased to exist I've found a few common themes. Why did I go about finding CSA farms and programs that failed in order to learn how avoid common pitfalls and get it right? Well when you look back you'll see your own failures are where you learned the most, at least that is how it works for me. Besides I've learned to appreciate the value of planning and having a plan for when the "plan" doesn't work out, because it usually doesn't.
Here are some of the common threads to CSA failures that I've come across, if you have more please leave a comment and let us know. Here are the top three reasons CSA's fail based on my research:
- Lack of and/or poor communication.
- Bad attititude and poor customers service.
- Unclear expectations.
Those are the top three reasons that each of the CSA's that bombed had in common. One farmer repeated insulted members, meaning more than one not over and over, which is really just rude. So if you're starting a CSA or doing anything as a service to the public plan on not insulting them, you'll do better.
I get the unclear expectations thing. We all want to market the program in a way that people will see the value, but let's face it people who value fresh locally grown food right from the farm don't need promises and a pitch.
Tip: Keep it simple and be honest. I've changed some of my language to reflect the realities of farming. Instead of saying the program will last 24 weeks. I say my goal is for a 24 week program and share reasons why I think that is a realistic expectation.
Be a Good CSA Farmer
The idea that we can plant some food and then see what happens probably isn't going to maintain a successful CSA program in Michigan. Be a good CSA farmer and grow to appreciate the idea that folks are counting on you for their familiy's food. There are lot's of things a farmer can do to further ensure the success of the crops they plant. I couldn't imagine offering a CSA program without a fail proof irrigation plan in place for instance. Another simple low cost precaution is to grow with mulch and low pressure drip lines to reduce or prevent fungal blights. These two practices alone would save most CSA farmers a lot of problems.
Another obvious strategy is to maintain an accurate and honest perspective of the value that one member brings to your farm. Think about it, from a farmers perspective there is no more cost effective way to offer what you grow, period. Looking at it from a "lifetime value" perspective puts things in a more logical and service oriented order and it just smart. Even if you don't make a dime through your CSA program that has 10 members if you have ten happy members at the end of the season you have a successful CSA.
The next year you live to fight again and improve the program but if you can't keep your current members satisfied you're essentially starting from scratch, right? I'd rather have ten happy members telling their friends and family about my farm and not have any profit than having a few thousand dollars and ticked of customers. You can always raise the cost of the share price, change where or when you plant, use different methods, and so on. All of which likely cost less than acquiring new members.
We Represent Community Supported Agriculture
CSA farmers have the unique responsibililty and opportuntiy to further the cause of the CSA model. Each of the members who isn't happy has a voice and that voice can and does hurt CSA farming as a whole, so let's keep that in mind when we offer a CSA program. If you have members that you struggle to serve keep in mind you can always not offer them a membership the following year which is better for the Industry than telling them off when your upset one afternoon, right?
Simple CSA Insurance
Growing all of your members food on one farm in one area is probably not optimal. Are there other small farms near buy that would allow you to use their land? Developing a way to sell extra produce lets me grow way more food than my members could use and I feel that is another form of insuring a happy member base. What are some other simple ways you could insure the success of a Mid Michigan CSA?