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Community Supported Agriculture
CSA is the acronym for Community Supported Agriculture, a model connecting farmers and food with eaters. It started in Japan, where the translation to English is something like "food with the farmer's face on it," perhaps too literal a translation for American dietary tastes, thus the conversion to "CSA," and landed in New England in the late 1970s. One of its first proponents was Robyn Van En at Indian Line Farm in MA, still a functioning CSA farm. The movement has continued to spread across the country, particularly gaining ground as a result of the Local Food movement ("Buy Fresh, Buy Local"). There are currently estimated to be between 1500 and 2000 farm CSAs in the US. While there is a "traditional" model -- the one usually described by folks that don't realize how far it has morphed in the last 10-15 years -- there are now many different types or models of CSA.
In its purest form, CSA involves the farmer and members drawing up a budget for the year's production, decided upon by the membership -- and including a living wage for the farmer and mortgage and machinery payments, if necessary -- and the members of the CSA dividing that bottom line by their number. There are such arrangements around, but they require a level of dedication beyond most of the mainstream. (And it sounds pretty damned socialist to a lot of folks!)
At the other extreme have emerged, recently, companies with no relationship to farming or agriculture -- but perhaps genuinely interested in promoting the "Good Food Movement" -- that are emulating certain aspects of CSA as a marketing method. They may source or "aggregate" food from farmers, assemble a weekly box, provide interesting farm or food news, and distribute boxes, some directly to your home. This they have time to do as they are not actually farming themselves. Some are doing a very nice and thoughtful job and enhancing local agriculture by sourcing local produce from farmers that don't feel like jumping into CSA themselves. Locally, Washington's Green Grocer comes to mind -- we've known them for years and they've visited the farm.
[Photo] An early CSA newsletter from our second season doing CSA back in '97.
Our experience with CSA
More and more CSAs today are somewhere between these two poles. We first heard about CSA at a sustainable ag conference in 1993 or '94. We were a new farm and looking to find good market outlets and liked the idea of the connection with a community. But we live in a very rural part of PA where that wasn't likely. Some friends, however, were renting a farm just outside of our county seat and started a CSA there. When they moved back to their home area to farm, they offered their CSA to us. We took over in 1996, following the most common model -- where the farm sets a fee and gets payment in advance for a box a week for a specific length of season -- and were off!
We would harvest and pack boxes here on the farm, I'd type up a newsletter (see above), Chris and the young kids would load up the car, stop to have the newsletters photocopied, then proceed to the garage where boxes were handed out. We got to know those folks, they got to know us, and it worked well enough. But we were a struggling new farm, still learning production and dedicating lots of time to marketing. We also sold produce to a local co-op (Tuscarora Organic Growers) and Randy was doing 2 or 3 farmers' markets a week, running himself ragged. By that winter we were all pretty wiped out, hadn't made enough money to pay the bills, and Randy needed to find off-farm employment.
Amazingly, a small college an hour away from us (Wilson College in Chambersburg) had just started a CSA farm on their campus and gotten a USDA grant to spread the word about CSA. I was hired to be the project coordinator. I got to research all about CSA, assemble lists of CSA farms, interview many about their methods, create materials and distribute them, give workshops, and organize a large conference dedicated to CSA. So I got to know CSA pretty well. While working there, we did another year of our own CSA, cranking our membership up to nearly 30 families, and driving over the mountain to do an additional drop-off in State College. Alas, that was not enough for us to make it on, so we changed everything around: dropped the CSA, all of our markets, Chris went to work as the bookkeeper at our Co-op, Randy did a small amount of production for the co-op and became Mr. Mom for our homeschooled children.
As often happens, things got better. In 2001 our neighbor, friend and mentor Jim Crawford of New Morning Farm offered up his farmer's market slot in the Adams Morgan Farmers' Market in Washington, DC to us, as they were moving on to a new market down the road -- the just-created Dupont Circle Farmers' Market, now the premier farmers' market in DC. We jumped at the chance. By the end of that year our sales at that one market exceeded the combination of annual sales at our previous 3 markets, the CSA and wholesale sales combined. Finally! Then another twist appeared; we were invited to be the farmers for a new CSA community at a church nearby that market. We hesitated at first, but then went for it.
We ran that CSA approximately as we had the one back home, spanning the 2002 and 2003 seasons. We were able to combine deliveries of the CSA with Saturday markets, meaning Randy only needed to spend one day marketing per week, leaving much more time for farming! Still, that CSA ran for two years but couldn't seem to break 50 members, and made our Saturday schedules crazy busy. We decided to close that CSA down at the end of Fall in 2003, and by Thanksgiving again found we did not have enough savings to make it through the winter. Either Randy would have to work off-farm again or we'd have to come up with something else.
[Photo] Some of the fliers I put together while at Wilson College.
We brainstormed up the idea of continuing our market in DC through the winter, but not outdoors. We had already experienced what outdoor winter weather could do to produce vendors the year before (see picture below). We had just gotten dial-up internet connection at the farm and concocted the idea of taking orders from our 50 or so best customers who had mostly just recently gotten email accounts themselves. (I recall lots of Yahoo! and AOL accounts.) We emailed those folks and asked if any of them knew anyone with the skills to design a vegetable ordering program so that we could take orders online, but not just by email, as I imagined that would become extremely time-consuming. A young IT person was among that group (yeah Eric!), and after two pretty frantic months of planning, Eric had us set up with our own online store. (Note: Since that time a number of businesses have stepped in to help farmers set up websites to sell online CSA shares. Some I know are highly reputable and I have a lot of respect for -- Small Farm Central and Local Harvest are two that jump to mind. A number of others are out there which I am not familiar with.)
We averaged 30-50 orders per week that winter, and smugly handed them out of our truck, even as the weather was below freezing outside. Our original plan was that we would put our online market on "hold" once we resumed the outdoor market season; the whole idea of the online market was to get us through the winter. But a number of the folks who had signed up with us said they'd like us to keep it open during summer as well. (People were begining to get the hang of ordering things online.) We did, and found it growing steadily, still all sales done COD. We got burned once or twice, but not enough to stop us, and we went on for several years in that manner, our numbers of orders slowly but steadily climbing.
[Photo] December market of 2003, one of the reasons we knew we didn't want to do outdoor markets all winter. Duh!
Then a funny thing happened one spring Saturday morning at market. A person I didn't know asked me if our farm had a CSA, as she'd been hearing about them and wanted to join one. I smiled, said that no, actually, we used to but we had something better now... online ordering with no prepayment, no commitments, free choice, year round produce! No, she said, she wanted an actual CSA. I thought she was nuts, but it got me thinking. CSA was becoming more and more known and popularized. We had no plans of going back to CSA as we knew it, but it dawned on me driving home that Saturday that it wouldn't take much to turn our online farmer's market into a CSA, or at least offer a CSA option.
Our return to CSA, but this time online
Within a week or two we offered a "CSA option" in our online farmers market: shop online, select an item we just created called the CSA Harvest Box -- a traditional-type box in two sizes, large and small -- to which one could add items such as eggs, fruit or whatever, as many CSAs have options for additional items. And when they came to pick up the order they could pay our CSA "membership fee" of $300 and become a member! Anything they ordered would come out of the initial $300 account. We chose $300 simply as an amount that seemed less than many CSA memberships, which we'd heard people complain were getting too expensive for average folk, yet was enough that we wouldn't have to mess around with refilling too often.
Demand peaked for us in 2008 -- the perfect storm of demand -- generated in part by the release and popularity of several mainstream books by known authors (Michael Pollan -- The Omnivore's Dilemma, and Barbara Kingsolver -- Animal, Mineral, Vegetable). It seemed everyone wanted fresh, local produce. Sales at market were amazing, interest in our CSA was growing by leaps and bounds, and we were again running ourselves ragged. Starting in 2009 we decided to slowly start reining things in.
At some point in 2008 or 2009 we began converting our Online Farmer's Market into Star Hollow Farm's Online CSA. We seemed to have a never-ending waiting list to get into the CSA in Adams Morgan, so we slowly dropped the other drop-off locations (more efficient to concentrate business where we were already doing business, and that way we actually got to meet and get to know our CSA members) and phased out the COD option. Our online business was finally 100% prepaid CSA members.
Numbers grew from one or two hundred to three and four hundred, and now currently (2016) we're at about 500 people. Along the way we have constantly tried to find ways to streamline the business or offer people additional options to make our CSA attractive. In 2014 longtime CSA member Phil helped us do a complete makeover of our website, bringing it up to approximately what you see now.