Community Supported Agriculture: Part II: Members and Their Role

Members and their role in CSAs.
Community Supported Agriculture: Part II: Members and Their Role - Articles


This is the second of a two-part series that discusses several Community Supported Agriculture concepts: how to recruit potential CSA members, answers to questions members commonly ask, and what information should be included in the member contract. For more information on the principle behind Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), examples of CSA models, and member expectations, consult the factsheet entitled: Community Supported Agriculture Part I: Getting Started.

One of the biggest struggles of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) effort is to convince potential members that "It's not just about the vegetables." This quote has been reprinted in countless articles and promotional materials that are used to inform consumers about what CSAs have to offer those who join. Certainly, the offer of fresh, local produce is the component of this venture that first attracts consumer attention. However, the potential to help support a local farmer who cares about their community is another aspect that appeals to loyal CSA members. This serves as an added benefit for shareholders who desire to become more involved with this opportunity, and actually "share" in creating a better environment for their families and their community.

Who might be a "likely" member?

A CSA, like any organization or association, will appeal to some consumers, but not others. Though not necessarily the rule, potential members may already be involved in the community, have an interest in sustainable food production, farmland preservation, or other environmental cause. Potential members may also be concerned about how food is grown, may be active at the local level in food production or other activities that affect their community, may be vegetarians, and may have chemical sensitivities.

Who might be an "unlikely" member?

Though this consumer may have the same involvement in local causes as the "likely" member, this person may not eat large amounts of produce, may be a picky eater, and may not be receptive to new or unfamiliar greens and vegetables.

Other possible differences exist between the two categories. A "likely" member has been described as being the type of person who is creative with produce and is able to "fling open the refrigerator" and plan a meal using what is already at hand. An "unlikely" member would need to look through cookbooks or search the web to find recipes that incorporate various food products. This person may not be able to use all the produce in the share, due to lack of knowledge, and may leave the CSA if they feel they are wasting food by not eating all of the share's contents.

How to recruit and retain CSA members

Though several methods can be used to attract "likely" members, a common way of promoting a CSA is to post fliers in Co-ops, at farmers' markets, churches, environmental clubs or organizations, or at members' worksites. Fliers could announce upcoming informational sessions and include contact information for the CSA farm. If the farmer, or other CSA spokesperson, speaks at venues where consumers are audience members, an announcement can be made that describes the CSA, where it is located, the website address and contact information, and that the CSA is accepting applications for membership.

More traditional means of promotion can also be used to target potential members. A press release or a short article about the CSA could be submitted to the local or community paper. A CSA representative could also request that a local television reporter interview them about the benefits of buying local produce and, that by joining a CSA, consumers can be assured that they will receive a consistent supply of produce throughout the growing season.

As an incentive to join, potential members could be offered trial shares or discounts based on the number of friends they convince to join the CSA. Another inexpensive way to promote the CSA is to create a logo for the farm and to screen print t-shirts and tote bags. These can then be distributed to members. When they wear these items in public, it serves as another way to promote the CSA.

As with any organization or association, it is not only necessary to initially recruit members, but also to make an effort to retain them each year. In an effort to retain members, farmers could take certain actions to make them feel like they are a part of the farm by organizing festivals; berry picking; canning demonstrations; and farm visits for children, so that they can learn how an active farm operates. If members show an interest in helping with administrative tasks they could be asked to join the core group, or CSA advisory group, or asked to chair one of the festivals or events held at the CSA farm.

Requesting member feedback during the season, or at the very least at the end of the season, is crucial for a CSA's continued success. By surveying members, and asking whether their experience met their expectations, the farmer and core group members can better understand what areas of the operation need improvement and what problems members encountered during the season. If surveys are distributed monthly or bi-monthly, necessary changes can be made during the current season. If a survey is not administered until the season's end the farmer would not be able to implement any changes until the following year. As a result, the CSA risks losing members if their needs are not being met.

If members do not renew their membership for the following year they should be contacted so that the CSA has a record of why they chose not to renew. Again, this information is valuable. If the reason they did not renew their membership was in response to an unfavorable experience, the farmer can investigate the situation and make an effort to improve the deficiency.

Member's expectations and actual conditions

It would only be logical for members to expect good, healthy, and quite possibly, organically-grown food in each share. Farmers must realize that even though they have received payment up-front the product they distribute must be of reasonable quality. Though the product may not look as "pretty" as produce found in a grocery store, most compare favorably in taste and quality. Members and growers must realize that the product may have a visual flaw, but that the product is and should be of good "eating" quality.

Steps can be taken to prevent or at least help solve more common problems that can occur between farmers and shareholders.

Potential problem.

Shareholders complain that vegetables are dirty, have insect damage, or they see insects on the produce.

Potential solution.

Farmers should explain that a reduction in chemicals used on the farm would result in insects, both pests and predators, to be more visible on their produce. Dirty vegetables are easy to clean and the CSA may not be able to afford to employ laborers to clean all the produce before it is distributed.

Potential problem.

Members are required to work at the farm. They don't express an interest in tasks assigned, rather, they just want to purchase produce from the CSA.

Potential solution.

Expectations of members should be stated prior to signing the contract. Members should understand that a work requirement may be used to keep costs low and also to help foster community. Members may take more pride in their work and think differently about vegetables if they are involved in the growing and harvesting process.

Potential problem.

Members are given vegetables and other products they are not familiar with and don't know how to prepare.

Potential solution.

Farmers should give members a schedule of what is going to be available and how to use items in food preparation. In addition, recipes for the item can be included in a newsletter and farmers can also create cookbooks for purchase.

Potential problem.

Members feel that they are receiving too many vegetables in their share and worry about waste.

Potential solution.

Farmers can stress that extra vegetables should be left in a common area for other members to take, or they can donate the unused vegetables to local food banks.

Potential problem.

Members feel disconnected with the farm and have no sense of community.

Potential solution.

Farmers should include information packets about the farm, have core members plan festivals, or request that members work on the farm for a certain number of hours each month, to build community.

Potential problem.

Members in northern climates expect tomatoes to be included in their May and June share.

Potential solution.

Farmers should create a chart that depicts when the products will be available and distributed to members.

Certain CSA farmers may have a goal of serving a diverse demographic group of members. Upon first inspection, it may seem that CSAs are only suitable for wealthy consumers; due to the price of a share, which may cost an average of $500 for a summer share. There is a movement among some CSAs, however, to provide lower-income consumers with the opportunity of joining a CSA. This can be facilitated in several ways: 1) Higher income members can choose to support lower income shares by paying more; 2) scholarships can be supported by higher income members or church groups; 3) share prices can be reduced for members who work on the farm (be aware that potential low-income members may not have the ability to take time off from work or may have transportation issues); 4) food stamps can be accepted for partial payment of shares (note that food stamp payment can only be made two weeks prior to delivery of food); 5) shares can be donated to a food bank and other emergency food systems; and 6) farmers can accept payment on a monthly basis from low income members.

What should be included in the CSA member contract?

A member's contract should include: 1) name and contact information for the CSA; 2) request for the member's name and contact information; 3) signature line with a declaration that states by signing, the member understands that they have read and agree with the contents of the contract. Information should be included such as the cost and type of share offered (summer and/or winter). In addition, members should be given options as to when themoney for the share is due, if a payment plan is available and in what form the member will make the payment. If volunteer hours are required a list of possible tasks should be included, as well as the number of hours members need to commit to the CSA each week, so that members can choose and schedule their tasks when they submit the contract and payment.

Aside from the pick-up site at the CSA farm, how else can shareholders obtain their weekly share?

Other than a pick-up site at the farm, some CSAs deliver shares to a centralized site that is more convenient for members living a distance from the farm, such as a farmers' market, church, community park, or even home delivery. Indian Line Farm, South Egremont, MA., suggests that a CSA can also have an agreement with a local co-op, which would serve as an alternative pick-up location. Not only is this more convenient for the shareholder, but the co-op may also benefit from foot traffic.

Whatever option is chosen, the farmer should include the cost of delivery and labor for providing this service in the price of the share, as well as be very specific about the day and time that the delivery will be made and how long a CSA employee will remain at the site. If the farmer realizes that members are not arriving during the predetermined delivery time, and instead are inconveniencing the CSA employee by having them wait for the members to pick up their share, the farmer will need to determine whether they can adjust the delivery time or if this service is actually feasible, knowing the number of employees at the farm and the workload.

A CSA operator gives a farm tour to some of his members.

Other than shareholders, who else can benefit from the existence of a local CSA?

Aside from individual members benefiting from their interaction with CSAs, there are advantages for other groups as well. With homeschooling serving as an option for many families throughout the U.S., CSAs can serve as a destination or outdoor classroom for these children. By coordinating with a local chapter of a homeschooling association, farmers and core group members alike can introduce students to how a CSA farm operates, the role of the farm in the community, and volunteer opportunities at the farm.

Though members may be vastly aware of what their CSA offers, CSAs strive to inform the public about the true cost of food production, processing, packaging, transportation, and waste disposal/recycling. Some CSA growers believe that if the community is involved with planning, planting, harvesting, and packaging the crops that they will be more likely to support such an effort. When they put time and energy into a project that they feel benefits the environment, it may encourage them to become an active member.

CSAs provide consumers with a valuable opportunity: obtain fresh, local produce from a farmer who enjoys growing food for people in their community. Understanding who is a "likely" CSA member, from both the farmer's and consumer's perspective is invaluable to both parties and ensures a positive relationship. Certainly, if potential CSA members are aware of what is required of them, in addition to the fee they will pay for the share, they can accurately determine whether this venture truly meets their needs. An informative contract, developed by the farmer or core group, should outline these expectations, as well as opportunities and the rewards they receive each week in their share.

Suggested Further Reading

  • Ackert, D. 1992. Guaranteed sale from subscription farming. In Business 14(4):52-53.
  • Anonymous. 2005. What is community supported agriculture (CSA)? UCSC Farm & Garden CSA. Accessed July 1, 2005.
  • Anonymous. 2005b. What is community supported agriculture and how does it work? UMass Extension. Accessed July1, 2005.
  • Epp, R. 1999. Fertile ground: CSA farms in America and Japan grow by sharing. The Community Farm: A Voice for Community Supported Agriculture 6:1, 3.
  • Van En, R. 1988. Basic formula to create community supported agriculture. Indian Line Farm, South Egremont, Mass.

Prepared by Kathleen M. Kelley, Assistant Professor of Consumer Horticulture