One of the attractions of having a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm is it allows you to focus more on farming and spend less time on trying to figure out where you are going to market your harvest. While there may be some truth in that, one still needs to find the "community" portion of the CSA that will support your farming venture so let's look at some ways to find shareholders or members and explore some methods you can use to keep them.
According to a survey of shareholders of CSA's in the Mid-Atlantic Region that was compiled by Lydia Oberholtzer for the Small Farm Success Project, on average, CSA's have to replace 55% of their shareholders every year. This can be a lot of work and worry every winter when you'd probably rather spend your time planning and ordering seeds for your upcoming season.
Who are your shareholders?
Spend some time learning about the members of the community you want to grow food for. What are their staple foods? What does the demographics look like?
Knowing who is in your community might influence the products you will offer, drop off points, what kind of shares you are offering, events you may have, and how you communicate with your shareholders.
No matter what form of agriculture you do, you will have to be involved in some form of marketing and CSA's are no exception. The dictionary definition of marketing is: The total of activities involved in the transfer of goods from the producer or seller to the consumer or buyer, including advertising, shipping, storing, and selling.
Marketing requires three things: time, tools, and a bit of knowledge. Time for marketing is not the first thing we think about as farmers but may be it should be. Think of it this way, the harvest isn't fully complete until the food is in the customers hands.
There are many marketing tools available to us today that can make reaching out to your customers or shareholders so much easier. The trick is selecting the tools that are right for you.
There are the obvious ones, logo, business cards, and invoices. These are very important. They give your business a "look" or "feel" and something that your customers will recognize immediately. Once you have those basics, how are you going to use them?
How do your potential shareholders get their information? Do they search websites? Do they use Facebook? Do they have a newspaper subscription? Knowing the demographic you are trying to reach will help you select what marketing tools will work the best for you.
Nationally, the demographics of CSA shareholders are suburban or urban, they are educated, mostly female ages between 30 and 49 and are already consumers of organic foods. They want high-quality food and they want to support local farms.
If this is the demographic of your community, then such internet tools like websites and social media might be one of your options. Ah, but not all social media is created equal. There are demographics for different networks. For instance, if a majority of your shareholders are women, the social network site Pinterest may be one you will want to look into since a majority of its users are women. Social media can be a good tool for instant and brief communication with your shareholders.
Whatever you decide to use, all your tools should direct people to your website. Think of your website as the hub and your other tools such as Facebook, Pinterest, blogs, E-newsletter, etc., as spokes. The website is where all the important information should be.
A website should include three main things and they are what farmer Lisa Kerschner of North Star Orchards calls background info, basic info, and bummer issues.
Background information would include letting folks know why they should invest in you. Are you an experienced farmer or are you just starting out? Why should they become shareholders of your farm? Be sure to include any testimonials from existing customers if you have them.
Basic information would cover things like how much is a share? Where do I pick up my share? What does a share include? What are my responsibilities as a shareholder? Also let folks know if you are partnering with any other farms to provide products for the shareholders.
Bummer issues would discuss; what if I can't pick up my share this week? What happens if there is a crop loose?
Just as you need methods to communicate with your shareholders, you should provide ways for the shareholders to communicate with you. You need to know why they join, stay, and leave. How do they use the produce you provide? Is it enough? Is it the quality they expected?
Some tools you can use:
- Create a 'core group' of shareholders for advice, feedback and planning.
- Create opportunities for feedback (during season, end of season)
- Talk to members at pick-up
- Have a 'Comment Tree' (paper, web, email)
- Have an Email listserv for the shareholders
- Conduct surveys (email, web, paper) at the end of the season
- Learn why members don't renew
The biggest reward for taking the time to use these tools effectively is having clear and better communication with your shareholders. This will result in better retention rates and spending less time in the winter trying to find new shareholders and more time doing other things.