Designing a CSA with Our Clients in Mind

We were recently visited by a small farm from Nassau County who was contemplating whether or not to develop a CSA. They asked us to share our CSA experience and to also share how we went about designing our CSA structure. As a marketer and a local consumer, I conducted my research and developed an initial strategy for our CSA. Yet, when asked to articulate that process, it forced me to truly reflect on our initial CSA strategy, how we adjusted our strategy and how we designed our current CSA structure.

I shared the following information with a fellow farm on how to think about and design a new CSA:

Assess the Competitive Landscape of Local CSAs

The first step is to do a high level competitive analysis of your local and regional CSA landscape. It is very difficult to compare one CSA to another until you actually write it down and compare apples to apples or kale to kale. Some CSAs are 26 weeks at a certain rate while other CSAs may be 15 weeks. I created an excel spreadsheet to review each farm, what the CSA offers, the duration of their CSA, CSA pricing, pickup and delivery options, distribution styles, add-ons, farm location, volunteer requirements, and more.

Traditional CSAs as we defined when diving into the origins of CSA were structured with some type of fee and required labor or volunteering at the farm. In many cases, the CSA customer of today, may have the desire to volunteer but not the time.

What CSAs Stood Out and Why

After completing the analysis, we examined what stood out? When comparing the duration periods, we looked at who had the highest weekly CSA rate vs the lowest? And did those high rate farms do anything unique that demanded a higher fee? Are they doing much more or less than the other farms? Are they certified organic? My spreadsheet revealed a few unique CSAs styles – some were using a market style CSA approach. Pricing varied mainly based on the area and demographic of that CSA – prices in the Hamptons and Nassau County were higher than the other areas. And there was definitely certain areas of Long Island that were missing any type of CSA option. Very few required volunteer hours at the farm.

Always Start with Your Target Market

The next step was to identify our target market. Who did we want to buy our CSA? Many east end farms target people from Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn for their CSAs. Ann and I had no interest in leaving our immediate area. Our focus was to provide a local, organic CSA option to local community members – something that did not really exist in our immediate area. The local demographic has varied income levels. We knew that our pricing needed to be competitive and realistic.

CSA Differentiators

One other thing that I conveyed to this other farm – identify a differentiator from other CSAs? It didn’t need to be anything significant. However, can you identify a need or something very desirable in your target market that you can deliver through your CSA package?

For the HeartBeet Farms target market, I knew that many of our clients are working full time and many commute to and from their jobs. So, what could we add to our CSA that could save them time and make life convenient for them. By design, a CSA requires kitchen and cooking time. It is targeted to people who want to have fun with vegetables in the kitchen. But these people need a break also. So we decided to include a quart of farm to table soup in our weekly CSA shares. This was an instant, local, healthy, farm meal to help support the busy lives of our customers.

In addition to the farm to table soup, we also recognized that our demographic has families and many kids. What we grow at our farm needs to be recognizable. We can add unique vegetables and unique varieties of common vegetables but we needed to ensure that the basics were included in all of our weekly shares.

The visiting Nassau County farm had an indoor kitchen facility and had farm stand customers who loved to share recipes. I recommended that maybe they include some cooking demonstrations or classes in their CSA share cost – definitely a differentiating factor and added value that appealed to their target market.

Reasonable CSA Pricing

Another critical factor was to take a detailed look at all of your CSA costs in order to define your pricing. Besides labor, seeds, and typical farming expenses, you need to assess expenses such as the boxes or bags you are using to pack the weekly CSA share. If you are doing a weekly newsletter, there are paper, copying and labeling expenses. These expenses add up and need to be integrated into the initial costs.

After defining the expenses and coming up with a reasonable CSA pricing structure, you need to do a ‘reasonableness’ check. During the development of our CSA, one of the last questions I asked myself was: “Was I personally willing to pay this amount and did I see value in the CSA package we designed?” I live locally and represent a blend of the local demographic. I have kids. We are working, busy parents. And the answer was yes!

What is a Market CSA?

Another component that I conveyed to the Nassau farm was to consider a market CSA style vs. pre-boxed produce. A market CSA allows the client to select the items they want in their box each week. If you are already doing a farm stand you can create a membership section that includes certain vegetables. The only challenge to a market CSA is when someone gets there at 7PM vs. 4PM and misses out on all the ‘best’ produce.  As long as you can replenish the produce, a market CSA saves on some traditional CSA expenses. It saves you from the labor of boxing things and the cost of purchasing boxes or bags.

Gain Feedback and Re-assess Every Season

After each year of our CSA, we constantly re-assess and work to improve our design, our pricing, and our distribution model. We noticed one major theme with our local demographic – when the kids return to school after Labor Day, the excitement about the vegetables diminished. It was almost like the end of summer came and people were back to school and work…and, in their minds, the vegetable season was over. So we decided to redesign our HeartBeet Farms CSA packages around this dynamic. We created a 5-week Spring Greens CSA for the die hard clients who love their greens and want them as soon as they can get them. We developed a 10-week Summer CSA which literally runs from the end of school to right before the beginning of school. And a 5-week fall CSA which is again for those die-hard clients who want their local veggies for as long as they can get them. The fall returns to many greens, sweet potatoes, winter squash and the end of tomato and eggplant season! We will see how this structure works and will report back.

Regardless of whether you prefer a traditional CSA, a market CSA or just want to shop a farm stand, we encourage you to buy your seasonal vegetables as local as possible. As we convey all the time, buying your vegetables from a local farm, helps support our Earth, your local economy and farmer, and the health and well-being of you and your family!