You may already be familiar with community-supported agriculture (CSA), and might even subscribe to one for the veggies, herbs, and fruits you don’t grow yourself.
Homesteaders and farmers who raise fiber animals can also benefit immensely from these programs, as can the fiber-loving crafters and homemakers who subscribe to them.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the best tips for starting a fiber CSA, either as an independent farmer or as part of a collective.
What is a Fiber CSA?
Just like vegetable and meat CSAs, a fiber CSA program allows people to buy shares in farm products, but this time it’s fiber rather than edibles.
They pay a fee once a year to support the care and well-being of the fiber animals on a particular farm, and in exchange, they receive a certain amount of those animals’ fiber—either raw or processed.
This is an ideal way for those who raise sheep, alpacas, goats, and other fiber animals to ensure that their caregiving costs are covered while providing top-tier products to their customer base.
Those who subscribe to the program know that they’re getting high-quality fibers from animals who were ethically raised rather than buying from questionable producers and potentially corrupt middlemen.
How to Start Your Fiber CSA
Starting your fiber CSA may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. There are many moving parts to juggle, but following the tips below can help the process move much more smoothly for you.
1. Get to Know What Your Community Wants
Every community is different, and what one aches for another might have no interest in.
For example, an area that has a thriving spinning and weaving guild will prefer a fiber CSA program that offers plenty of roving. In contrast, in areas where people are mostly knitting and crocheting, you’ll have greater demand for yarn skeins.
If you’re already connected to your community on social media, then post polls and questionnaires to find out what types of fiber products people are interested in.
Those who mostly keep to themselves might not make it known that they’re avid weavers or knitters, but leap at the opportunity to have great local products available to them at fair prices, especially if they have a say regarding what’s on offer.
Ask around to see who’s interested in what, how much time they devote to their fiber crafts, and what prices they can afford. All of these details will help to inform you when it comes to curating and pricing your fiber CSA boxes.
2. Do Your Research to See What Others Are Offering
Whenever you’re starting any kind of business, it’s a good idea to check out the competition. As such, check out what other fiber CSA programs are offering so you can get an idea of how many items to offer over what period of time, as well as how to price your CSA box competitively.
While researching, see which CSA boxes you’re drawn to and which you think are a bit “meh.” This can include the products themselves, as well as how they’re packaged and what comes with each delivery.
If you ooh and aah about complimentary treats like herbal tea or artisanal soap with each box, then you also have an idea of what to tuck into your own boxes.
If you’re keeping your program local, you won’t have to worry so much about competing with international providers.
Similarly, your shipping costs will be low, since people will either be picking their boxes up at specified locations (like your farm, or a weekly farmer’s market), or having it shipped within a certain radius.
For a standard CSA box program, it’s a good idea to aim to work with people who live within 50 miles of your location.
3. Determine What You Can Provide
If you have 100 acres and are happy tending to mixed flocks, then you should be able to provide several options on your own. That said, some farmers and homesteaders prefer to only raise one species at a time.
Similarly, some farmers are great at raising animals but may not be terribly adept at processing and dyeing fibers.
Be honest and realistic about the space and time you have available to you, as well as your own skill sets as far as washing, carding, spinning, and dyeing goes. Are you able to spin different weights consistently? How about blending or plying fibers?
Determine how much you can offer in your fiber CSA program on your own and what type of outside help you may need.
You might raise the most amazing cashmere goats, but don’t have the time or skill to prepare and dye their hair.
In a case like this, you can join up with a skilled spinner and dyer to process the harvested fibers for you. In turn, they can receive a percentage from every CSA box sold, as well as promotion on your website.
4. Diversify the Available Options
I’m an avid knitter, and as such my yarn stash is overflowing with all kinds of different fibers. This is because various projects require different fibers of various weights.
I might knit a delicate shawl with laceweight alpaca/silk yarn and a warm cowl with an Aran weight Merino wool. I’d get quite bored and frustrated if the fiber CSA I subscribed to only offered one type of fiber, in one weight, ever.
Most crafters like to work with a variety of different options, so this is where it’s a good idea to determine whether you have the ability to offer diverse fibers on your own, or if it’s a better idea to team up with other fiber farmers in the area for a collective fiber CSA program.
For instance, if you only raise sheep for wool, and your neighbor down the road only raises alpacas, you can consider teaming up so you both have confirmed buyers for the year.
You two can even inquire around to see if anyone offers angora, qiviut, flax, or other fibers. Variety is the spice of life, and those who order from you will undoubtedly be happy to have different options available to them.
5. Have a Couple of Different Fiber CSA Boxes Available
If you’ve ever bought farm produce CSA shares before, you’ve probably noticed that you had a few options to choose from. Maybe there were two different box sizes on offer—like a “couples” box vs. a “family” box—or one for omnivores and one for vegetarians and vegans.
Similarly, it’s a good idea to have a couple of different fiber CSA subscription offers as well. If you’ve done your research about your purchasing demographic and found that you’ll be catering to several different fiber artisans, you can offer two or three distinct boxers:
- A spinner’s box that comes with cleaned and processed roving
- A knitting/crocheting box with fully processed and dyed yarn that’s ready for any project they might like to dive into
- A weaver’s box with cones of weaving-weight yarn suitable for large looms
You can also have a form on your website for feedback and special requests to see if there’s anything in particular that your clients would like to see.
For example, if you have a large group that’s really into knitting sweaters, you can create an additional option for a couple of seasonal sweater kit boxes in which you team up with an indie pattern designer for an exclusive Lopapeysa or similar, in two different colorway options.
6. Get Organized
With any type of business, having the right tools for the job is absolutely essential. As such, it’s important to sort out the type of software and other accouterments you’ll need to get your fiber CSA up and rolling.
Sort out your personal branding by creating a visual identity that encompasses everything that matters to you. If your farm or homestead already has a name, play on that for your CSA program and determine how you’d like to package your offerings.
Most people prefer plastic-free options these days, so look into recycled papers and boxes. In addition, aim to work with a graphic designer so your branding looks as professional as possible.
Look for a software program that allows you to keep a detailed database as well as process various payments. Since most customers will be buying online, you’ll need to learn how to process payments via PayPal, Venmo, GooglePay, and so on.
Your ideal option is a full-business solution like Barn2Door or similar, which can allow you to take all the variables into consideration, plus process payments and offer credits, etc.
Going this route will spare you a lot of heartache compared to keeping everything organized on scraps of paper or notebooks, especially if you have kids or house pets.
7. Spread the Word
Now that you have a solid idea as to what your fiber CSA can offer, it’s time to get the word out.
Using your branding/visual identity guide, create some flyers and postcards with info about your CSA program, as well as business cards, and take them with you wherever you go. Ask local yarn shops if you can leave some of these on their notice boards, post them at your local library, etc.
Start some social media accounts for your fiber farm and use them to promote your services, and also create a newsletter to keep folks updated about what’s going on.
If there are fiber events that you can attend, ensure that you have a representative at a small stall so people can get an idea of what you have on offer, and can even sign up onsite if your CSA program appeals to them.
Additionally, you can team up with other businesses to help promote your items. If there are food CSA box programs based near you, see if they’d be willing to tuck your promo materials in with their weekly produce boxes.
In exchange, you can advertise their items on your website and social media accounts for cross-promotion purposes.
8. Offer Freebies and Giveaways
You’ve probably already realized this, especially if you’ve ever been involved in a farmer’s market, but people love free stuff. Furthermore, you’re likely to get more interest and loyalty from people who adore the free swag you’ve given away than those who have never sampled your wares, so to speak.
As such, consider what you can give away with little cost or detriment to yourself, while also building brand interest and loyalty.
Are you mostly supplying your fibers to knitters and crocheters?
Then, offer free patterns on your website and announce these via your newsletter. If you have a sizeable amount of lower-quality wool or hair that isn’t ideal for spinning, offer to donate it to people who’d like to use it for felting or stuffing.
Do you have small amounts of fiber left over after creating standard skeins? Offer free mini skeins along with free amigurumi pattern printouts.
Another way of garnering interest as well as serving the community is to hold a trade raffle. For example, let’s say your goal is to collect warm knit or crocheted items like hats, scarves, mittens, and blankets to help those in need during the winter months.
Set up a donation area at your farm or homestead, and for every item donated, the donor will receive X number of raffle tickets. They might get one ticket for a hat, two for mittens, ten for a blanket, and so on.
Once the collection is done, you can hold a raffle to give away a year’s free fiber CSA membership, plus early access to limited collections, events, and so on.
9. Have Extra Tools and Accessories Available
There are few things as frustrating to aspiring fiber crafters and artisans as the desire to get started on a project, but not having all the tools readily available. As such, we’re often stuck waiting to dive into a project until needles, hooks, or notions arrive.
If you’re competing with other fiber CSA programs, being the one that has tools available as add-ons will be a massive benefit to you.
Once you’ve determined what your target demographic is (i.e. spinners and weavers vs. knitters and crocheters, etc.), you’ll know what kinds of tools to keep in stock. Consider keeping items such as:
- Hand carders and combs
- Swifts and niddy noddies
- A variety of knitting needles and crochet hooks in different sizes
- Stitch markers and holders
- Cable needles
- Tapestry needles
These don’t need to be included with any of the CSA boxes you provide but can be made available for add-on purchases or bought separately as needed.
10. Sort Out Fair Share Pricing
Now that you’ve sorted out everything that you’ll be offering, it’s time to look at pricing.
When people subscribe to a fiber CSA program, they’re essentially helping to provide for the care and feeding of the fiber animals over the course of a year.
In turn, they’ll receive the fibers of their choice, whether this is in quarterly deposits, monthly box deliveries, or one large delivery every autumn.
As such, you can determine a fair share price by sorting out how much it costs for your animals’ food, supplements, veterinary care, and shearing and use that to figure out what to charge for every CSA box.
Remember that you’ll need to take shipping costs into account for those who don’t pick up their boxes, as well as labor (your own, as well as those who contribute to your CSA program), supplies (dyes and mordants, if used), and accessories (the “optional extras” mentioned above).
Generally, shares are purchased in late winter or early spring, because animals are sheared in springtime to remove their winter coats. Then, the fibers have to be cleaned and processed. The amount of time required for processing will depend on what you’re offering.
For example, if spinners would like to dye their own roving, then all you need to provide is fiber that’s been cleaned and carded.
This doesn’t take nearly as long as spinning, plying, dyeing, and skeining yarn, and thus the share pricing should be less expensive than if you’re offering finished skeins.
11. Encourage Community Involvement
One of the best aspects of community-supported programs is the relationships that can be cultivated between suppliers and community clients. Have open house visits to meet and cuddle baby animals, and feature specific animals in your newsletter.
Letting your subscribers get to know how sweet Albert the alpaca is, or that Herb the goat ran off with your socks again, makes them feel like they’re a real partner in the farm by supporting it with their share purchases.
If you have the space, consider offering regular workshops for various fiber crafts, especially those that aren’t already popular in your area. Additionally, aim to have a small shop onsite where visitors can purchase items when they stop by.
Remember how we mentioned having those tools and other add-ons available? This is where you can sell these notions and tools, fiber washes/detergents, as well as items created by local artisans.
When people pick up their fiber CSA boxes or attend one of the special events you host, they can see what’s available and purchase items on a whim.
Get to know local artisans to see what they may be interested in selling on consignment. For example, wood carvers may have unique wooden crochet hooks, buttons, or yarn bowls to sell, while other artisans may create project bags and baskets.
You can even talk to your local herbalists about creating branded dye kits for you with indigenous plant ingredients.
As you can see, a fiber CSA program can be immensely rewarding, and can guarantee income as well as animal care funds! If you feel that you have the time, energy, and enthusiasm to get one going, then there’s no time like the present to get started.