Many people, like myself, start a homestead because they want to have control over the different aspects of their life. For some, they have an abundance of goodies from their garden and are considering starting a community supported agriculture (CSA) as either a way to supplement their steady income or a way to completely break free of the j-o-b.
A CSA gives a farmer the opportunity to share their produce by allowing a person or family to purchase the share beforehand. Some do it on a week-to-week basis and others chose to have the person pay for a season up front, understanding that paying means incurring the risks alongside the caretaker.
No matter your reasoning, starting a CSA is a big task. Here are some tips and advice on how to get started.
How to Start a CSA
1. Decide on your size
How many people are you wanting to feed? For one CSA family, an acre and a half would feed approximately sixty-five people with enough leftover for the farmer to have enough to can for the winter and eat during the season as well. If you want to double the number of people, you will need to cultivate three acres.
Another thing to keep in mind is the larger the garden is, the more hands you will need to take care of the crops. If it is just you and one other person, smaller might be better. How are you going to pay the others that are helping? By lowering the price of their CSA or giving them free food? These are all things to keep in mind when you are deciding how many individuals you are wanting to feed.
2. Figure Out How You Are Going to Attract Members
Does your garden already have a fan base? Are there people at work who beg you to bring in your latest heirloom tomatoes? Word of mouth is one of the best ways to get customers for your new CSA program.
A different couple of ways include creating a flyer and posting them at areas where this is allowed and creating a website or Facebook page to inform others of your new venture.
Understand that with starting a CSA there might be customers who want to know more about your garden- they want to see where their produce is coming from. This is a great opportunity to turn your customers into friends and, quite possibly, life-long customers and friends.
Different ways to show off your garden is to have dinners at the farm, farm workshops, work days, and gardening or cooking classes. For many of these, you can charge an additional fee but give your CSA members a discount.
I mentioned letting your members come for a discount. It is beneficial to most farms to let others know what you are doing- contact a local newspaper or television studio and tell them what you have planned. Letting the community know means you make more from both the event and also from getting new people interested in your CSA shares.
When the event is over, ask everyone to leave you a review on Google. The more reviews you get, the more the word about your CSA gets out.
3. Decide What You Are Going to Sell
Find out what your customers are wanting and see if your farm can produce it. A lot of times your customers’ request will be something similar to what you want anyway. If there is something unique that you think your customers will like or you will like, then communicate with them. Maybe share a recipe in their CSA box. Add it to the dinner menu for your farm night.
This is what truly sets CSAs apart from just having customers go to farmers markets and one that must be considered when starting this program. When creating a CSA you are required to have a wide variety each week; whereas, being a farmer who goes to the farmer’s market means you can bring in only one crop and no one would think otherwise.
Another thing to consider is adding extras to the CSA basket for those who would like it. Extras could include fresh eggs from your chickens and honey from the bees.
Get creative and have a variety.
4. Plan the Garden
Planning is even more important when you are taking care of a multitude of people. A few steps I recommend include: Planning the garden on a sheet of paper. You need to really know how well some vegetables go or do not go with others.
Get out a sheet of paper and draw how you would like your gardens to flow. Make sure you have room between the beds to walk and kneel to pull out weeds.
You also need to plan when you are going to plant the seeds and the things that are associated with that- are you going to start them indoors or outdoors? When are you going to transplant?
The more you plan, the easier the CSA will go and that is extremely important your first year. A typical CSA plan in north Texas will look like this:
- January: Map out the garden. Plant any new fruit trees or pecan trees early in the month. Later in the month, plant asparagus and English peas.
- February: Begin promoting this year’s CSA. Plant grapevines and any cold-hardy vegetables such as onions, root vegetables, and green leafy vegetables. Fertilize asparagus with high nitrogen fertilizer.
- March: CSA contracts begin to go out and deposits are due by the end of the month. Finish planting cool season vegetables.
- April: Warm season vegetables and fruits are to be planted now. Early in the month plant tomatoes and peppers, later in the month include okra and sweet potatoes.
- May: CSA dues should be fully paid (if going this route) by the beginning of the month as boxes will begin being available for pickup. Plant hibiscus. Major planting event held.
- June: Water lightly if needed as the rain starts to wind down in the summer months. Lookout for webworms in pecan trees. CSAs go out weekly.
- July: Plant fall tomatoes. Water produce daily as needed. CSAs go out weekly.
- August: Fall vegetables including beans and broccoli. CSAs go out weekly. End of summer potluck held for weekly CSA members. The last of summer CSAs go out, start with the Fall CSA.
- September- first frost: continue picking for weekly CSA.
A weekly schedule could look similar to this:
- Sunday- Off.
- Monday- Check the plants for pests, water if needed, pick ripe vegetables or fruits.
- Tuesday- Check the plants for pests, water if needed, pick enough produce for weekly shares today and take to the prep area.
- Wednesday- Check for pests, water if needed, for picked produces- rinse well today to remove most dirt and any bugs.
- Thursday- Prepare boxes
- Friday- Pick up/ delivery day
Another thing I recommend is keeping a gardening journal or notebook and write down what is working and not working.
5. Think About Pricing
For many people this is not a fun part of sharing their art form but, let’s be honest, money makes the world go round and we need it in order to survive.
Here is how to figure out the financial aspect of the CSA: first, look at what the going price is at the grocery stores for the produce you are going to be selling. I would go to two or three stores and write them down.
Find out what the families are spending on produce from these stores. I would ask several families.
After that, consider what you want to get paid and how much money went into different aspects of the farm. Examples include the cost of seeds, water, etc…
Then add how much you would like to make and add the cost of production for the season. Divide it by the amount people are paying for produce at the local grocery store. This tells you how many shares you need to sell in order to reach your goal.
For example, you want to make $20,000 and you will have $4,000 invested that equals to $24,000. The average family spends $600 for nine months of produce. This means you would need to sell forty shares.
In order to gain a little more, you could do this: $600 paid up front for the year, $75/month, or $25/week for an individual share.
There are two CSAs in my area. One charges $300 every four months for a total of $1200 a year. The other divide it up and their customers can order an individual share for twenty-one dollars, a small share for twenty-seven fifty, a medium share for thirty-five dollars, or a large share for forty-one dollars. The customers in farm two also have the option of weekly or bi-weekly produce and both farms have contracts signed between farmer and customer.
6. Have an Area for Storage
Having a shed that holds all of your extra things you need for the garden is beneficial for a multitude of reasons. For one, it helps you separate your life and your business. When you work from home, it is easy to blend the two and never feel you have any time off. Keeping the extras separated from sight when you are not working allows you to separate the two which causes less stress.
Another thing it does is allows your home to remain less cluttered with plans on paper, tools, boxes, and seeds. Again, the less clutter the less stress.
7. CSA Prep Area
Another area you are going to need when starting a CSA is an area to put your boxes together each week. I recommend getting reusable containers that the members bring back each week. If you will be doing forty shares a week, purchase eighty up front. The first week, they take the box home and use their produce. The second week, you use the second box and they bring back their first box they used. This is repeated week in and week out. When they no longer receive their CSA, they bring the last container back.
Choose whatever container you’d like to make your pick box when you get the produce and set them in their groups off to the side. The more hands you have on deck here, the better.
Create an assembly line- one person puts in eggplants, the next person puts in a small bag of okra, the next person puts in peaches, etc…
And do this in a sensible order. For example, do the individual crates first, then take a small break and do the small bags. This avoids confusion (the last one was a small CSA- I put in one bag of okra while this is a large one I put in four bags of okra, oh wait- did I put four bags in the one before?).
So essentially you are separating out every aspect of the basket making- from who puts in what to how much is put in.
8. Want to Start a CSA but Don’t Have Land? Get Creative!
I read an article recently about a woman who wanted to start her own CSA but she didn’t have land. So she posted a flyer and posted information about her vision online. She asked people who had land they were willing to let her borrow and created a garden.
In exchange, she gave the land owner a share for free and a beautiful piece of land to look at on a daily basis. Her CSA is smaller because she has to drive from location to location but she does enough that she was able to begin working her job part time and spend the rest of the time gardening.
If You are Looking…
If you are looking for a way to create a little bit of an extra income or want to completely stay on your farm full-time a Community Supported Agriculture is an option to consider. This article is the tip of the iceberg, get out and talk to other CSA farmers and see what they like and don’t like about what they do. Most importantly, get your feet wet.
Are you someone who already owns a CSA? What do you recommend to someone looking to start a CSA program?