F.A. Farm

  (Ferndale, Washington)
Postmodern Agriculture - Food With Full Attention

A Few Thoughts on Marketing CSA Programs

Raj Patel, in his book Stuffed and Starved (2007:308), compares a multiplier rate of 1.4 for supermarkets in Britain and a CSA multiplier rate of 2.59. For those who haven't run into this term before, a multiplier rate (or effect) is simply a rate of increase for dollars or pounds or euros recycled in the community. If a farmer gets $500 for a CSA share and the rate is 2.59, the $500 gets recycled into the community and those dollars are spent 2 1/2 times before the money dribbles out into the larger economy and spreads beyond the community. The supermarket, on the other hand, sends most of its profits to corporate headquarters. To my mind, even the supermarket rate of 1.4 is simply a function of paychecks cashed in the local economy. [As a sidebear, what made slavery so financially rewarding in the "bad old days" was that there were no paychecks. Spanish conquistadors landed in big ships, lived off the Indians' food and labor and sailed back to Spain with boatloads of concentrated wealth with which to enrich themselves and the king. We could even postulate that supermarkets are on the same continuum of extraction as the old conquistadors - simply on a smaller scale. And for those who have ever worked in a supermarket, the correlation between supermarkets and slavery is apt.]

However, back to my main point. Patel only mentions Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs as a vehicle for getting the community involved. As with many writers, his focus is to get the community to be virtuous. In other words, he trumpets the same call to arms which so many CSA farms use in their marketing. The usual advertising I see is an appeal to support the farmer, to share the risk and feel all "warm and fuzzy inside." I feel this is a mistake because it is dependent on disposable income, rather than efficiences in householder economics. Other marketers emphasize the weekly farm visit as a learning experience and this is somewhat better, until the CSA farm gets big enough to warrant multiple dropoff points. I suggest that a better marketing strategy is to emphasize enlightened self-interest. For example, I use a multi-tiered pricing system and people can easily see that paying $400 in January for $500 of food starting in June is a good deal. The problem then becomes one of cashflow for the shareholder and the cashflow "burden" is shifted from the farmer to the shareholder. For most mainstream farmers the cashflow burden is shifted onto the banks, but the farmer pays for this shift. In my program, giving the shareholder a 25% increase in their food for a 4-month loan is not onerous AT THIS TIME because I simply cannot sell all the food I can grow. Plus, I cannot get bank loans for production. In the future, if I can sell all I can grow, I might have to rethink this marketing tactic.

Another aspect to enlightened self-interest is the nutrient density and taste of sustainably-grown food. My salad mix regularly receives rave reviews, even compared to other organic farmers' salad mix, and I feel this is because of the quality of my soil. I put a lot of effort into building up my soil and this seems to be paying dividends after only four years on this farm. If a pound of my potatoes at $1.50 has twice the nutrient density (not just vitamins and minerals but other unmeasurable "intangibles") of a pound of supermarket potatoes at $.79 a pound, then they are a good deal for the shareholder. If they also taste better, it is a no-brainer. There is a concentrated effort by agribusiness to select nutrition studies that show no difference between food grown by sustainable/organic producers and that grown by mainstream/chemical agriculture. Yet people can taste the difference and even feel the difference in their own bodies. To my mind, agribusiness is just shooting themselves in the foot (to mangle my metaphor) when they try to select the studies that support their position.

So, the bottom line is to emphasize enlightened self-interest rather than trying to convince your shareholders to be virtuous.

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