Many people begin homesteading as a way to escape the rat race only to discover you still need some type of income. One of the best, most reliable ways to add a consistent income source is by starting a CSA. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and it is where a farmer sells “shares” of the expected harvest to members of the community for a flat fee paid upfront. The farmer receives a guaranteed stream of income as well as start-up capital, and the subscribers receive fresh produce and/or farm products for the entire growing season.
Before you start a CSA, there are a few tips and tricks that can help make your operation a success, as well as some potential legal issues you may need to navigate. Legally speaking, you need to understand and follow all of your state and federal guidelines for safe food handling and storage. You may also want to think about whether or not you need insurance to protect your assets if a subscriber gets sick from eating something in their share, or if they injure themselves while picking up their produce. This is especially important if you are having customers pick up their produce from your farm instead of at a public pickup site. Finally, it is a good idea to establish agreements with your subscribers in the form of a CSA Contract.
There are many ways to set up a CSA Contract, and you can find hundreds of examples online. The important things to include in the contract are the price of the share, when it should be paid, length of season, what is included in the share, pickup times and location, and any risks the subscriber is agreeing to. The basic risk to the subscriber is the possibility that some crops may fail and other crops may exceed expectations. The subscriber should date and sign the contract and return it with their first payment.
Once you are covered legally, it is time to start planning your CSA. Understand your subscribers expect to get approximately the same amount of produce, 10-20 pounds, each week of the season. They also expect to receive a variety of produce. Of course, there is the possibility that some crops will fail, but don’t start off with a plan to provide your subscribers only zucchini, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Plan to offer at least 6-12 different types of produce.
When you are deciding what to grow, think about what you know grows well in your area. Operating a CSA is a good amount of work and you don’t want to waste effort on trying to force something to grow that doesn’t want to grow. Also, grow the types of produce you and your family enjoy. You can offer one or two unusual varieties, but subscribers are happiest when they recognize and know how to use the produce they receive. When you include a non-traditional fruit or vegetable, include a recipe or two, as well as storage information. Another way to ease customers into trying different varieties is to include the unusual variety alongside the variety they are already familiar with. For example, if you have garden cucumbers in your package, add some Mexican Sour Gherkins.
Finally, create a garden calendar to keep yourself on track. In order to consistently provide the amount of produce you have committed to, you need to stick to a planting schedule. Plant early, mid, and late varieties of your most popular produce. Schedule succession plantings, as well as your pre- and post-main-season crops. Intercrop to make the most of the space you have and schedule when you will start using your season extenders.
Once you know what you are going to grow, you must decide how much you are going to grow. It can be difficult to understand how many people a garden can feed, but the general guideline is that one and a half acres can feed up to 65 people. The other size consideration is labor: the larger the garden, the more help you will need with planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, packaging, and delivering. Some of your CSA customers will be willing to work in the garden for a free CSA share.
Produce is the best-known food share package, but you can still enjoy the benefits of operating a CSA without a large vegetable garden. If you are a baker, for example, a weekly subscription of baked goods is right up your alley. Flowers, bath and body products, pickles, and preserves all have a great CSA potential.
If you decide to offer produce, you can set your CSA apart by offering other farm foods as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. Eggs, cheese, meat or poultry, and value-added items make great additions to a farm share package, and they help round out the package toward the end of the season. Include fresh-cut flowers and specialty herbs, or edible foraged items to add interest and variety. If you know a beekeeper, add some of their honey to your packages.
Before you decide how many subscribers you want to include in your CSA, consider how much money you need to make from your operation. The price should be fair to your subscribers and allow you to make enough to not only cover your costs but to make a profit. The most common way to price your shares is to estimate the market price of the produce you will be including in your shares and multiply by the number of weeks in a share. Most CSAs operate for 20 weeks, with a half-season (10-week) option. You can offer weekly or bi-weekly shares. You can also offer different share sizes, from small (an individual) to large (a family of four). If you are unsure whether a CSA operation is right for you, consider offering a holiday CSA for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter. A holiday CSA will give you an idea of the amount of work a full-season CSA would require. A successful CSA will start small, meeting their minimum income requirements, and grow with each season. It won’t look good if you have to scale back, and it will feel terrible to start so big that you are unable to meet the commitments you made to your subscribers.
Before you plant your first seed, think about how you can best recruit members. The easiest way to do this is by word of mouth. Start with family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Create an attractive and informative flyer and post in local businesses. Promote it on your personal social media sites, as well as on your farm or homestead’s website. The Land Connection (www.landconnection.org) will send you a social media kit if you are just learning how to promote your homestead on social media. Get listed on localharvest.org and update that profile each year. Finally, contact your local newspaper and radio station. They are always looking for human-interest and local-business stories to talk about. Make sure potential customers know how to contact you.
The most important thing you can do to ensure the ongoing success of your CSA is to take care of your current customers. There are several ways to do this. First, be transparent and make it easy for your customers to get the information they need. This includes being prompt when asked a question or in returning phone calls. When people feel like they are in the dark, they stop supporting you.
Second, contact last season’s subscribers before CSA sign-ups roll around. The best time to sign current customers up for next season’s CSA is at the last pickup of the current season.
Third, find a way to thank your subscribers. You can offer farm workshops, gardening or cooking classes, or give your CSA subscribers a discount. Consider holding a dinner on your farm at the end of the season. Encourage your subscribers to post pictures of the food they make with your produce on your Facebook or Instagram page, and give a social media shout-out at the end of the year.
The last thing to consider when deciding how you will run your CSA is whether or not you want to support your community. Keep in mind, a small homestead business depends on the community to support it, so a little love can go a long way. You can structure your payments in such a way to give each subscriber an option to pay an additional $5.00 and use that money to offset a free CSA share to a family in need. CSA operations can also be set up to accept food stamps. Host a Free Food Day once or twice a season, where you hand out bags of free produce.
Operating a CSA can enrich your homesteading life while still allowing you to stay out of the rat race. With proper planning and promoting you can create a consistent income stream, grow your homestead operation, and provide an outreach service to members of your community who may need a little help. A CSA is truly a win-win for everyone involved.