Farms are businesses and need repeat customers to keep them going. Farmers with profitable Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) know that building relationships with CSA customers increases renewals. Customers love knowing their farmers.
Bruce Gresczyk of Gresczyk Farms in New Hartford, CT said he makes a point of meeting customers on CSA pickup days. He urged shy or introverted farmers to hire extroverts to work with customers at customer-pickups or farmers markets.
Six successful farmers and four farm advisors shared their CSA experiences at UConn’s CSA School in Haddam, CT.
Keep Customers Happy
Customer satisfaction is critical. “Don’t over-promise and under-deliver” was recurring advise from every speaker at CSA School.
Set prices appropriately when you start. Customers will not tolerate big price increases. Costs keep rising and many farms need to raise their weekly share price from year to year. Stacia Monahan of Stone Gardens Farm in Shelton, CT said to beware customer sticker shock. She suggested an alternative: keep renewal prices steady and offer a shorter season by one or two weeks.
Steve Munno of Massaro Farm CSA in Woodbridge, CT always picks an extra bin of everything so his final customer of the days sees a plentiful supply of beautiful produce just like the early customers. No one wants to see a nearly empty bin or picked-over produce. After that final pick-up, the bins spend the night in Munno’s cooler. The next day the produce goes to a farmers market or a local food bank as a donation.
The Monahans recommend offering a Swap Box. CSA customers can put in some item they are unlikely to eat and select another item they will enjoy.
Michelle Collins of Fair Weather Acres in Rocky Hill, CT offers afternoon office delivery. Many insurance companies offer a discount for healthy lifestyle choices as part of corporate wellness programs. General Electric’s Human Resource staff arranged an afternoon, in-office CSA delivery option for their staff.
Paul Bucciaglia of Fort Hill Farm in New Milford, CT offers shareholders Pick Your Own (PYO) crops as part of their share. “Customers love the PYO experience and we don’t have to pick labor-intensive crops like strawberries, peas, beans and flowers,” Bucciaglia said. When asked how he handled trampled crops, he replied, “We plant ten percent extra to allow for wobbly toddlers.”
One farmer advised others to offer a full and two-thirds share, not a half share priced proportionally. To make the half shares feel bountiful and offer variety, many farmers often give too much, reducing their profits or even losing money on the smaller shares. One farmer said many of her renewal forms came back requesting half shares. Customers perceived the smaller shares as including enough food, for better value.
Good communications goes a long way to building happy customers. Set realistic expectations with a pre-season contract and shareholder guide.
Describe the likely produce (and amounts) to be included in your shares each month of your CSA season. (See contract suggestions and sample share descriptions in “Tools for CSA Members.”) Remind members that you all share the risks of storm damage or crop failure. Bucciaglia suggested posting the terms of your contract in a Shareholder Guide.
Rick Hermonot of Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm in Sterling, CT suggested all farmers with CSAs include a link on their website to Local Harvest’s CSA explanation here.
Every speaker HIGHLY recommended a regular written newsletter. They can be emailed, posted on social media sites anad/or printed and included with shares. Online communication tools include MailChimp, Salsa, Constant Contact and many more. Online tools make it easy to include:
- Photos of farmers in action, bountiful fields, harvesting, processing, packing, individual produce and prepared/cooked foods
- Handling tips like how to wash leeks and how to perk up wilted veggies or greens
- Recipes for common and unusual produce like Brussels sprout leaves
- Nutritionist column featuring different vegetables with their health benefits and recipes
- Preserving tips on blanching, freezing and canning
- Farm and farmer stories
- On-farm and partner events
- Other resources
- An end-of-season survey
Gresczyk said he starts sending e-newsletters well before the first pickup each season. He loves to cook so writes about his kitchen adventures and shares favorite recipes. Gresczyk tells humorous farms stories. His team will create a website this winter. The farm already has a Facebook page with photos and product offerings.
Monahan and Collins send newsletters with recipes early in the week. They highlight ingredients available at the farm stand that will not be included in that week’s share. Many customers pre-order their add-ons from those recipes.
A printed copy of “Tools for CSA Members,” a reference book on how to start and manage a CSA was distributed at UConn’s CSA School. This guide offers contract recommendations, sample seasonal share descriptions, insurance options, steps for SNAP benefit acceptance, CSA case studies, CT NOFA’s Farmers’ Pledge, a list of Connecticut CSAs and other resources. Download the full guide here.
80 participants from across southern New England attended CSA School at the Middlesex County Cooperative Extension Annex in Haddam, CT. The program was sponsored by the University of Connecticut and the USDA Risk Management Agency as part of the Targeted States Crop Insurance and Information program for Connecticut Agriculture.
A similar story ran in the January, 2013 New England edition of Country Folks Grower on page 47.