How to Start a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Group

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is becoming a booming business in the farming world, and farmers and green-thumbed gardeners everywhere are reaping the benefits. Whether you’re working with multiple acres or a dedicated urban farmer, starting your own CSA could prove to be a growing opportunity.

A CSA can be fun, rewarding and profitable if you’re willing to put in some hard work and time. How do you go about starting a successful CSA? We’ve highlighted some details that will give you a solid foundation for your entrepreneurial endeavor.

How Does a CSA Work?

Here’s the gist — a consumer buys a share of your farm’s harvest in advance, which in turn helps you buy the supplies needed for your growing season. When someone buys a share from you, they become a member of your CSA and will receive a variety of freshly picked vegetables, fruits, flowers, eggs, meats or other products, depending on what your CSA has to offer. You’ll arrange a regular distribution schedule and your members can pick up and enjoy their healthy, local and sustainable harvest!

How to Get Your CSA Started

A lot goes into starting a CSA. Before diving in, take time to research and talk with other farmers with successful farm-to-table businesses. For starters, here’s an overview of what you should know.

Recruit members. Start with the people you know best. Get the ball rolling by talking with your family, friends, neighbors and colleagues about becoming members. Then, get in touch with organizations in your community to spread the word and recruit more members. Businesses, churches, fitness centers, schools, and environmental groups are just a few popular places to start.

Tips for recruiting members:

  • Get listed in a database of CSAs for your region.
  • Take advantage of social media.
  • Post flyers around your community.
  • See what other CSAs are doing.
  • Have a community meeting where you present educational information about the benefits of a CSA.
  • Have a brochure or info sheet that you can hand out. Include your CSAs goals, vision and an explanation of what a CSA is and the benefits of being part of one. Have information about joining, volunteering and how to contact you. If you already know your share price, include that info as well.

Create a core group. Now that you have a number of committed customers, find your core group of members who’ll volunteer to work with you for the season and help fine-tune the details of your CSA.

Your core group could be responsible for helping you do a number of things, including:

  • Deciding on the crop selection
  • Determining share prices and payment schedules
  • Organizing distribution
  • Organizing volunteer workers
  • Fundraising
  • Creating newsletters
  • Web design
  • Planting and harvesting
  • Anything you need to keep you from burning out!

Develop a plan. The key to any successful business is to have a plan in place. You have a solid idea of how many members you’ll be distributing to for the season, so now you can work out some important financial details.

  • What will your operating expenses be? Consider the cost for seeds, plants, supplies, soil, water, taxes — any costs associated with production.
  • What will your capital expenses be? This includes land, tools, equipment, structures, etc.
  • How about labor expenses? How much will you pay yourself and your workers? Don’t forget to consider costs for FICA and workman’s comp.
  • Do you have proper insurance protection? You might already have farm insurance, but you might want to consider commercial umbrella liability insurance — it’s an added layer of protection. Your American Family Insurance agent can help ensure you have the proper amount of coverage you need.

Working memberships. Many CSAs offer an exchange of “sweat equity” for the product. Decide if you want a work-share membership where a member will work a few hours a week in order to cover some or all of the cost of their share. This can be a great way to get the help you need without having to add to the payroll.

Setting the Share Price for a CSA

Determining the share price for your CSA can be done in a number of ways. Here are a few examples.

Sell at market price. This is the most commonly used method among farmers. Members are charged a set price per week and given a share for an amount comparable to what they’d pay if they bought it somewhere else, like a farmer’s market. Selling at market price is common since farmers can choose how many shares they want to sell, and then plan their budget for the season around that number.

Sell at approximate market value. This way of setting the share price is a little more detailed. You’ll estimate how much a member usually spends on vegetables during a season. Then, decide how much you want to earn. To determine your gross income, take into account how much your farm can produce as well as the costs of supply and labor. Take the total of your income (including labor and production costs) and divide that by the number of shares you can offer.

For example, if you want to earn $30,000 in a season, and members, on average, spend about $500 for 9 months of vegetables, you’ll need to sell 60 shares.

Calculate costs. Again, this method is more meticulous, but it provides a detailed account for farmers and the members. First, decide how many shares you can actually produce on your farm. Then, calculate your income and work labor, how much it will cost to harvest and distribute, and all the production costs. You’ll divide the entire farm budget by the number of shares you plan on selling and the result is your share price.

How Much Should You Distribute?

Typically, you’ll be distributing your yield every week for the course of the season. Many CSAs offer a variety of membership options for people to choose from based on their wants and needs. For instance, you might have it set up where members can purchase full shares or just half a share. And you can even have an option where members can choose their products each week. Do some research and see what other CSAs are offering. Depending on how your options are set up, you’ll typically aim for 5-12 products a week.

You’ll also need to decide where you’ll be distributing the products. Will people come to the farm to pick up? Will there be a central-distribution site every week? It’s what you decide is most convenient for you and your members.

Know the Risks of Starting a CSA

As with any business, starting a CSA comes with risks. Be sure your members understand they share some of the risk by signing up and therefore expected to contribute their share amount no matter what the season brings. In your brochure or info sheet, include a statement that explains how you’ll provide a box of produce each week to the best of your ability under the conditions of the season.

H2: Tips for Retaining Members

You’ve put in the time and effort to recruit your members — now do the work to keep them! Follow these tips so your members can get the most out of their CSA experience:

  • Provide a harvest schedule with an idea of what might be included with each delivery.
  • Make your farm the place to be! Have communal workdays so your members can get their hands dirty. Hosting social events is also a great way for members to feel part of a community.
  • Add a special touch to each box with a nice note or recipe.
  • Keep your newsletter going throughout the off season so members can stay connected.

Are You Ready to Start Your CSA?

Starting a CSA can be a rewarding experience — you’ll be connected to a likeminded community group, you’re providing an opportunity for people to eat locally and sustainable, and your members can connect with nature in a way they might not be able to otherwise. Now that you’ve got a good grasp on how to start a CSA what are you waiting for? A successful season starts now!


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Related Topics: Farm Insurance