As consumer demand for fresh, local fruits and vegetables grows, more Washington State farms are looking into the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model for increasing farm sales. There are multiple considerations when developing a CSA system, as it may require new ways of thinking about crop planning and labor needs, as well as an understanding of the market, development of shareholder relationships, and additional recordkeeping.
Crop Planning and Labor Needs
CSAs offer several advantages to both consumers and farmers. CSAs ask consumers to pay one fee before the growing season to receive a weekly share of the produce grown over the course of the growing season, saving time at the grocery store while giving them quality fruits and vegetables and direct knowledge of the farm and growing practices.
The advantages to the farmer are equally beneficial. Consumers pay in advance, allowing farmers to plan for how much food must be produced and what types are needed. Because money is received up-front, risk is reduced because funds are available to cover initial costs.
Scott and Dixie Edwards are expanding their farm, Watershed Garden Works, in Longview, Washington, to include a CSA. Scott and Dixie have been selling native plants for fifteen years from their farm, and just started their second season as a CSA in 2016. They have found that the seasonal income from selling native plants is complemented well by the CSA income received earlier in the year, providing necessary monthly cash flow for overall farm operations.
Another advantage to a CSA is that most produce will be sold. Extra plantings can accommodate unforeseen losses in crops, and if not needed in the CSA, extra produce can be sold at a farmers market or offered to CSA clientele for an additional cost. “Prior to the CSA, there were times when a large share of produce didn’t sell at the farmers market, so we donated it to the local food bank or fed it to the chickens. Having a CSA greatly reduced produce waste, since we planned in advance how much of each crop was needed every month to meet customer needs,” explains Scott.
As farmers consider a CSA, the first step is to look at their own land and facilities. Considerations in production for a CSA are land base, tools needed, labor requirements, and licensing.
The amount of land needed for a CSA will vary with the soil quality and type of crops planted. Soil quality often determines the amount of produce that can be grown. It’s advisable to get a soil test well ahead of the growing season and make necessary amendments to help ensure a highly productive growing season. The local county Extension office is a good resource for information on soil testing, including interpreting results from the test and making recommendations on amendments. A good resource for more information on soil nutrients and amendments is WSU Extension Publication EM050E, Soil Testing: A Guide for Farms with Diverse Vegetable Crops.
Shares come in a wide variety of quantities and price points. Knowing what to charge for each share depends greatly on what products are being offered for the season, how long the season will last, and how much is in each box (Chase 2007). While CSA shares are most heavily comprised of vegetables, they can also include flowers, fruit, honey and proteins, such as eggs or meat. Value-added products can be added, such as jams or pies, when produce is lacking. Some CSAs also offer produce from other local farmers. “Adding produce not raised on the farm, such as honey, helped meet customer needs, but we strive to keep it to only two or three items throughout the season,” explains Dixie.
Some farms offer half shares at a reduced price for smaller households. The Edwards appreciated the flexibility that came with offering customers half shares and allowing them to stop delivery of food during vacations.
Some crops that grow particularly well in western Washington and are well suited for CSA operations are:
- Lettuce and other salad greens
- Kale, chard, and other leafy greens
- Bok choy and other Asian greens