Farmer Feature: Steel Pony Farm

By Stefanie Jaeger

Mike at Steel Pony Farm, located in Red Deer, Alberta Canada came into farming in a unique way considering he grew up in the city, never thinking about farming. I asked Mike if he had a clear “ah-ha” moment that directed him to the path he is on and he said “Absolutely, I have an ah-ha moment. Let me tell you about it.”

It started with a trip to a small village in Kenya and ended with a deeper philosophical question about where food comes from and the lack of connection we have to our food in much of North America. Mike recalls a conversation in the village around a campfire where he was asked to tell them about his farm. “When I told them I grew up in the city and never had been to a farm, they were really shocked. They could not understand a life without farming. So then they asked me where I got my food from, of course my response was a grocery store. They proceeded to ask me where the grocery store farm was….”

This was the moment the “stars changed” for Mike. He made a commitment upon returning to Canada that he would at least spend some time on a farm to understand about where food comes from and spent the next year interning on a farm in Quebec. The next decision was easy, as he tells me “When I came back to Red Deer, I knew I needed to come back and feed my community.”

When asked “Why is farming important to you?” the first and most obvious answer is always about food. But Mike takes it a step further and sees it as a mirror to himself. He explains “For example, my lack of management skills on the farm is a direct reflection of my lack of organization in my head.” He explains that while it’ll always be about food, it has to be about more than just being really good at growing broccoli. Mike elaborates that “It would be boring in 20 years to think that I’m just good at producing broccoli. Like, so what? If I’m not a good person or I’m stressed and don’t spend enough time with my family, does the broccoli really matter? I aim to be a well rounded person.”

Mike says this year has seen a huge shift from last year. He explains “The feedback I’m getting right now is that it’s a lot more valuable for people to be able to choose and customize what they want. It’s been awesome to go to my first CSA delivery and see these familiar faces of past members who have come back because they found out they could customize their boxes and are happy to join again. It showed me that I wasn’t necessary doing anything wrong before, we just didn’t have the flexibility built into the program to give them what they want.” He goes onto explain that he now has time to put the community back into the farm and do farm potlucks for the first time and work to have more meaningful connections with his members.

In closing Mike feels optimistic about the season and says “This year, I don’t feel it’s hard or stressful. It’s been a shift in my mindset and it’s now fun and rewarding and it feels like it is about more than the vegetables.”

Mike Kozlowski, along with is wife MacKenzie and son Adler, operate Steel Pony Farm in Red Deer, Alberta Canada, an 8 acre CSA farm. He plants 12,000 heads of garlic, loves rubbed kale salads and his favorite vegetable is whatever is in season at the time. He encourages simple eating with all his CSA members.

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Mike, Adler and MacKenzie

Join Our Team: Support Specialist

Harvie (http://harvie.farm) connects local consumers with local farmers who deliver shares of farm fresh products customized to their personal preferences.

The company behind Harvie is called Small Farm Central and was started in 2006 to meet the technology and marketing needs of local farmers across the US, Canada, and internationally and has served 1000s of farms in the last 12 years. Harvie was introduced in late 2016 to address the changing landscape of food buying and to help farmers grow sales and profit by making local food more accessible through a customer friendly CSA / farm share model. The concept has grown rapidly. In 2018, Harvie will help 35 farmers deliver over 100,000 shares with much more growth in 2019 and beyond.

To keep up with growth, the Harvie Team is hiring two Harvie Support Specialists.

The Harvie Support Specialists work as the front line of customer support for both assisting our partner farms as well as their customers.  Support requests come in through several channels, primarily email, but also phone and online chat. Support for our partner farms includes everything from setting up new accounts to training farm employees on software features to everyday problem solving.  Supporting our farmers’ end users often involves more mundane tasks such as helping them get signed up, scheduling vacations, billing questions and other account management issues.

As with any small company, this position will be multidisciplinary and will occasionally include work involving other aspects of the company including marketing, product development and testing.  

This is an exciting opportunity for independent, self-starting individuals who are ready to grow with Harvie.

Important details:

Full-time position with some flexibility (32-40 hours/week)

Competitive salary adjusted upward with experience

Health benefits, retirement plan, and paid vacation

Harvie farm share paid for by the company and delivered to the office by Rivendale Farms!

Office on North Shore of Pittsburgh, 10 minute walk from downtown, free parking

Relaxed dress code and office environment

Regular weekday schedule with some regular weekend coverage required

Equal Opportunity Employer

Requirements:

Highly organized to manage multiple goals simultaneously

Puzzle-solving — deductive ability to get to root causes of problems

Comfort with friendly phone support — support is unscripted and requests are often unique

Ability to explain technical concepts in a non-technical manner

Comfortable running demos and speaking on the phone

Ability to write courteous, friendly, and clear support emails

Ability to learn or have experience with web-based utilities such as Google Suite (Gmail, Google Docs, Hangouts, Google Sheets), Zendesk, Atlassian Suite, Slack, and Skype

Apply

Send resume and cover letter in PDF format to qroth@harvie.farm with subject line “Work at Harvie”.

Join Our Team: Harvie Graphic Designer Position

Harvie (http://harvie.farm) connects local consumers with local farmers who deliver shares of farm fresh products customized to their personal preferences.

The company behind Harvie is called Small Farm Central and was started in 2006 to meet the technology and marketing needs of local farmers across the US, Canada, and internationally and has served 1000s of farms in the last 12 years. Harvie was introduced in late 2016 to address the changing landscape of food buying and to help farmers grow sales and profit by making local food more accessible through a customer friendly CSA / farm share model. The concept has grown rapidly. In 2018, Harvie will help 35 farmers deliver over 100,000 shares with much more growth in 2019 and beyond.

Harvie is seeking a part time graphic designer to work closely with the community manager to create:

Harvie brand guidelines

Harvie brand identity

Marketing materials for all Harvie farms to include social campaign images, brochures, posters, postcards, etc.

Marketing materials for Harvie to include social campaign images, email campaign images, blog images, farmer resource, videos, member resources, etc.

Other design tasks as projects come up

Required

Experience with creating brand identities

Experience working with food and/or farm type businesses

Other Details

This position will be a contracted, part time position with hours ranging from 10-25 per week with seasonal fluctuation.

This position has the chance to grow into a full time staff position as the needs of our business grows and evolves.

Office on North Shore of Pittsburgh, 10 minute walk from downtown, free parking

Relaxed dress code and office environment.

Open to remote working location.

Ability to collaborate with other team members in real time on projects.

Strong interest in local farming, agriculture and/or cooking.

Ability to learn or have experience with web-based utilities such as Google Suite (Gmail, Hangouts, Google Docs, Google Sheets), and Slack.

To apply, send a PDF resume, hourly rate requirements and portfolio to stefanie@harvie.farm with subject title “Harvie Design Position”.

One Dollar, One Vote

By Simon Huntley

Local farms are an essential part of healthy local economies.

They protect farmland from development, they take care of the environment by responsibly growing on their land, they build a rural lifestyle for farm families and their employees, they preserve local food production, and often build a community around their farm.

However, it’s not a glamorous lifestyle. It’s hard being a local farmer.

There are crops to grow, irrigation to run, hail storms to worry about, bills to pay, payroll, equipment to fix, and on and on. It’s a complex small business.

Local farming is demanding work that has benefits we can all agree on. How can we as consumers support farmers in this work?

Buy directly from your local farmer.

Do you know your farmer’s name? Then you are buying from your local farmer.

Have you visited your farmer and have you seen where the crops you are eating are grown? Then you are buying from your local farmer.

There is certainly a government policy aspect to supporting local farms and I respect the political work that many organizations do on behalf of farms. However, what I see lacking for many of the farms I work with are the sales to justify the investments that need to be made on the farm to compete in the competitive local food marketplace. The tractors that need to be bought, the post-harvest handling facility that needs to be built, the multitude of systems that need to developed on the farm, let alone the marketing expertise that is needed; all of this is expensive!

In a democracy, you get to vote once or twice a year, however with your food choices, you are voting three times a day. One dollar, one vote.

Vote for local farms. Buy farm direct.

It’s up to us in the local farm community to develop better ways for you to access quality local food. We need to make sure that this food is convenient, cost-effective, and high quality. That’s why Harvie exists.

However, at a certain point, we all need to pull out our wallets and vote for local food production if we want these farms to thrive.

Thank you for supporting local farms!

CSA: We Have a Path Forward

By Simon Huntley

Last August of 2016, I wrote an article entitled CSA: We Have a Problem detailing my research into the struggles of CSA farmers to retain existing members and attract new ones. If you have not read that article yet, I suggest you go back and read that first. It still feels very relevant over a year later.

A lot has happened since:

Elizabeth Henderson spearheaded the development of the CSA Charter laying out our common values.

The 4th annual CSA Day brought together 1500 CSA farmers.

Amazon bought Whole Foods to form what I am calling Whole Amazon.

I called for 5 million CSA shares by 2030.

Blue Apron went public and is in a lot of trouble.

For our fledgling industry, the signs are not positive. CSA still serves just 0.4% of U.S. households. Blue Apron and the 100 other copy-cat meal delivery services have taken the food-in-a-box model and reduced it the absurd level of shipping to your door a tablespoon of butter or a single egg in a carton. Growth of CSA farms within our data set has leveled off. Whole Amazon is in a price war with the grocery industry. Wal-mart is advertising local food.

So why am I optimistic about the survival and growth of CSA?

For one thing, look at all of the competition in this market! The fact that big business wants in tells us that we really have something here.

Listen to the Blue Apron ads. What is the first thing out of their mouths? They claim to support local farms, which is an obviously false claim (at least exaggerated) since they put together the meal kits in centralized factories and ship them throughout the country. So by definition, they are not supporting farms local to their consumers. However, with their millions spent on advertising agencies and analytics, they still feel like “local farm sourced” is their strongest lede.

The difference is, in CSA, we actually are farm direct. 

CSA will not be exactly the same model as the one that thrived from the 1990s to the early 2010s. Almost every industry has changed radically since 1990 and ours has too. I believe that the “classic CSA share” is becoming a relic of the past.

I believe we need to understand our members better. Even more importantly, we need to understand our non-members better. What is it going to take to get the next 5% of the population to consider joining a CSA? It likely needs to be a different “CSA product” package and different marketing message.

As I look towards the future, I am aware that the CSA model has been remarkably successful since it was introduced in the United States in 1986 and we must not lose the essence of CSA as we innovate. If we try to compete with grocery stores, aggregators, or Whole Amazon, we will lose. We cannot compete on price, variety, or convenience, though we do need to consider those factors. We can compete on relationship, taste, quality, and freshness. Blue Apron can’t compete with that. Wal-mart can’t compete with that. Whole Amazon is no longer interested in competing on anything other than price and convenience.

What is a CSA?

If we are going to innovate, we need to know what a CSA actually is. The CSA Charter released in February of this year goes a long way to describing that. In my article “CSA: We Have a Problem” I listed the following characteristics that are essential for me:

Direct connection between one farmer and the member.

The majority (> 75%?) of the share is grown on the farm. Any off-farm produce is clearly labeled as such.

The customer commits for the season and pays some amount ahead of time.

The customer is flexible about what is in the box each week based on what is harvested from the farm.

This framework allows us innovate to make CSA more customer friendly without forgetting what has made this model successful.

Based on my research here are some innovations on the “classic CSA model” that make CSA more customer friendly and will help us reach the next 5% of households:

Box choice: the standard box just doesn’t work for people, and in the era of choice and convenience, a standard box is no longer good enough. This is the big one based on my research.

Flexible weeks: every-other-week options, switch delivery days and locations based on vacation or other factors.

Flexible share sizes: smaller shares for single person households

Keep the farm front-and-center: how do you get people to know you? Members form the relationship with the farmer and that is what keeps them long term.

Payment plans: reduce up-front cost, take payments throughout the season to decrease sticker shock and open CSA up to more people. Emphasize the weekly cost over the seasonal cost.

Online payment: if you are not taking credit cards, you are losing customers, especially young people.

Cooking education: connect the dots between the box and dinner table. If the member does not get food on the table, nothing else matters.

Delivery convenience: work into people’s lives. That could mean home delivery (though I’ve found that members are often not willing to pay the extra price for this), workplace drop off, grocery store drop-off, or simply more drop-off locations.

Communication: make sure the member knows everything they need to know to be successful with their share. Give a weekly farm update, consider video. 

CSA is not expensive: the average CSA shares costs $25/wk or $100/month. That’s less than most people’s cell phone bill or cable bill. It’s less than buying a latte at Starbucks every day. One month of CSA is less than cost of one single meal for the whole family at a quality restaurant. We need to find a way to change the conversation around price of CSA and put it into the proper context.

In addition, there is a general problem that CSA by-and-large serves a very thin slice of the population: 30-50 year old, educated, white women (see Ryan Galt’s data). How do we grow beyond this demographic? How do we pull millennials into this? How do we serve less well-educated, less affluent populations? How do we make non-whites feel welcome in CSA programs? I think it is a huge gap that we need to overcome. In fact, in terms of health outcomes of CSA membership, the biggest gains are to be found among people with negative health indicators, who least likely to join a CSA currently (source Tim Walls from University of Kentucky).

Marketing and customer acquisition

Blue Apron is willing to spend $144 to acquire a single customer. I’m not suggesting that you should do this, but most CSA farms are spending $0 on customer acquisition and relying on word of mouth to bring in customers. With so much competition for these food dollars, that’s not going to be enough. Right now is the time to start working on a marketing plan for 2018. You are almost certainly not investing enough time and money on marketing.

Over the past year, we have been working on a new platform to address these issues and help our farms thrive over the next 10 years. We piloted this platform with 8 farms and 500 end consumers, delivering over 10,000 boxes this season. Look out for an email soon with further details.

Whether you decide to join us or tackle these issues on their own, this off-season is the time to get to work. These problems will not fix themselves. CSA is a genuine connection between a farmer and consumer and is more than the sum of its parts for both farmers and consumers. I want to see more consumers be able to take advantage of the health and well-being advantages of being a CSA member. I want your farm to be economically successful with the high-margin sales of CSA memberships so you can take care of your land, your family, and increase your quality of life. I want you to farm for the long term and not burn out. I want your kids to be excited to join your farm some day.

I know many farmers shy away from the intricacies of marketing and business. You likely did not expect that your work as a farmer would be as deeply tied to spreadsheets and advertising campaigns as it is to soil health. To serve your land, your customers, and your family well you need a solid business. That’s no easy task.

-Simon Huntley

Founder, Small Farm Central

CSA: We Have a Problem

By Simon Huntley

Since CSA migrated to the United States in 1986, this model has been remarkably successful. It has now grown to over 6,000 farms (estimated) in the United States and many more in Canada and the rest of the globe. All of this growth occurred despite the very grassroots nature of CSA, asking customers to pay up front, and the non-consumer friendly nature of the program. The current state of CSA would look like a huge success from the viewpoint of the CSA pioneers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1986, however there are problems mounting in our community.

CSA still only serves a small minority of families. In my local market of Pittsburgh, I estimate that  5,000 CSA shares are sold per season in a metro area of 988,000 households. That means only 0.5% of households in this region buy a CSA each year. What a huge opportunity for growth! Of course, we won’t convince everyone to buy a CSA share. That’s fine, but even if CSAs grow membership by 10x, that’s still only 5% of households. I believe that we can get there, but it will not be easy.

As I have discussed in the past, big business has noticed the success of CSA. CSA is beset with competition from alternatives for access to local, fresh food like farmers markets, grocery stores, grocery delivery concepts, and more. I covered this in more detail in my article WILL BLUE APRON (AND OTHER MEAL KIT DELIVERY) REPLACE CSA FARMS?

Exactly 30 years from the founding season of CSA in the United States, I think we are at an inflection point. Anecdotally, many farms are reporting declining CSA sales, though I should note that this decline has not yet shown up in our data.

Will CSA exist in its current form in 5 or 10 years? I honestly don’t know. I think it could easily go either way: CSA could grow substantially or membership may continue to shrivel.

I want to make sure that CSA does thrive because I love what CSA does for farmers and for eaters — and CSA is a big part of what we do at Small Farm Central and Member Assembler! With this goal, I’ve spent the last six months digging into the research and doing 1-on-1 interviews with eaters to understand how we can reinvigorate the CSA model.

Retention is Key

Over the past couple of years, here at Small Farm Central, we have compiled the CSA Farming Annual Report and one of the most interesting findings of this report is the average retention rate of CSA members from one season to the next. In 2014 it was 45.2% and in 2015 it was 46.1%.

It took a while for me to recognize this as a huge issue, but I now see that it points to a profound disconnect between what a CSA customer thought they were going to get and what they got. Certainly, you will never retain 100% of your customers. People move, money gets tight, they try another CSA, but if your CSA is churning through half of your customers each year, you have a huge problem. Your business is on fire.

With a low retention rate, a CSA will have trouble maintaining membership, let alone growing membership to the desired scale. To me, it is about profitability. A high retention rate makes the life of the CSA farmer easier in marketing, it points to a happy customer base who will recommend the farm, and it creates conditions where farm profitability may exist.

Think of this: a new member has a huge hurdle to jump to join a CSA. They need to hear about the CSA model, then they research different CSA farms in their area, then they look to see which ones deliver near them, then they need to understand the model and which share type makes the most sense for their family, and finally then they need to reach for their credit card and make a commitment. So, clearly most potential customers never get to that last step. The ones that do are fully sold and fully committed to the idea.

Now they go through a full season and it doesn’t work for them for one reason or another (I’ll talk about this later in this article) and they cancel. What a tragedy for the farm and for CSA in general! We’ve lost another customer who likely will not come back to CSA.

Even on a macro scale, this is a huge problem. If a household tries a CSA and they are not satisfied, they decide they will go back to the grocery store, farmers markets, try a delivery service, or buy at Whole Foods. They likely will not seek out CSA again. We’ve lost that customer. Ouch.

As I’ve spent more time over the last year talking to folks about CSA, I have come to realize that in some circles, among certain eaters, CSA is known as the place where the farm dumps the produce seconds or where you’ll get a whole box of kale that you don’t know what to do with. This is not fair for most CSAs, but I’m afraid that the “brand” of CSA is starting to become tarnished. If this accelerates, we are really in trouble.

However, one study from California gives me hope for these lost members: former members were asked if they would join a CSA again and 74% said “Yes”, 23% were “Unsure” and only 3% said “No”.

Joining a CSA is about the Customer

If we want to see CSA continue to grow, we need to get a lot more customer-centric. I know a lot of CSAs are already trying to figure this out. First off, I suggest that you must talk to your customers more about why they join, why they quit, and spend the time to really understand that — don’t assume you know anything!

I’ve spent a lot of time knee-deep in the university research on CSA and doing one-on-one interviews with current and former CSA members so I’ll tell you what I have learned, but there is no substitute to actually talking to your customers. You must listen to their concerns with an open mind.

It can be really easy to get stuck in the way we are doing things now or having a producer-oriented approach — thinking, “I worked so hard to grow this food and build this farm! Why won’t people join?” But it is important to remember that everyone works hard for their money and they are buying something for themselves, not for you. A CSA farm is not a charity.

What makes a CSA a CSA?

Before you think about innovating on the CSA model to become more customer-centric, you need to determine what is non-negotiable in your CSA. What makes CSA special? Because key to this process is figuring out how we retain what is compelling about CSA while making it more customer centric. If we try to compete with grocery stores, I believe we always lose.

I did this exercise last year after the Midwest CSA Conference as I began thinking about what it would take to grow CSA memberships by 10x. You may agree or disagree with these attributes (and I’d love to hear your feedback on this part of it), but this is my concept about what makes a CSA a CSA:

1. Direct connection between one farmer and the member. 

2. The majority (> 75%?) of the share is grown on the farm. Any off-farm produce is clearly labeled as such.

3. The customer commits for the season and pays some amount ahead of time.

Everything else about a CSA feels negotiable to me. Within this framework there is a lot of room for innovation and we’ve seen a lot of innovation here at Small Farm Central through Member Assembler as we work with hundreds of CSAs across the country. Lots of farms are trying to figure out ways to attract and retain customers.

One concept that I have left out of my definition on purpose is “shared risk” that comes up in a lot of other definitions of CSAs. I leave it out because I think it is misunderstood: there is almost never true shared risk in a CSA. It is not shared risk in terms that the member may get nothing in their box during the season. In a diversified vegetable operation of an experienced farmer, the shared risk is that the member is being flexible about what they get in the box. For example, it may be a bad year for tomatoes due to blight, but there will likely be another crop that thrives in that same season and the customer will get more of that crop. To speak to this, I’ll add a fourth tenet of CSA:

4. The customer is flexible about what is in the box each week based on what is harvested from the farm.

For other viewpoints on this, check out California’s legislated definition of a CSA and the USDA definition.

Why do members leave?

I have been focusing my research on the CSA members that leave because these are the people that have expressed their dissatisfaction with the CSA model by not joining again. My thinking is that if CSAs are churning off 50% of their customer base each year, over time there are many more ex-CSA members out there than current members. These are people who “get it”, but were put off for one reason or another.

In Confessions of a CSA Failure published in the Chicago Tribune in 2015, Barbara Brotman writes eloquently about her first season in a CSA,

“..you can’t just throw [the vegetables] out — or at least I couldn’t. This wasn’t store-bought produce grown by some faceless, far-off corporation. These were vegetables grown by my CSA, lovely people who packed the boxes themselves and sent emails with pictures of their farm.

I felt guilty about all the spoiled produce we were throwing out. I felt a constant pressure to cook or eat our vegetables. I chafed at the loss of control over what foods we would get, and perplexed that you can have that much food in your house but nothing for dinner.

My summer in a CSA was a learning experience. I learned that kohlrabi doesn’t taste as scary as it looks. I learned that I really like beet, goat cheese and honey tarts. And I learned that my CSA also sells its produce at farmer’s markets.”

In this specific case, it sounds like the CSA just gave her too much produce and this definitely does happen. The worst experience for a member is to get their CSA box, feel guilty about not eating it, let the food rot, and then throw it out three weeks later.

Be careful not to think of this in too simplistic of terms: it may not have been too much food overall. Rather, it was too much of the wrong kind of food. One high retention CSA farmer told me that he looks at what sells quickly at the farmers market to know what to put in the box: if it doesn’t sell at the market, members don’t want it in their box.

So why do members leave a CSA? What can we do to improve retention rates?

As I started my deep dive on this issue, I had theories. It’s about paying ahead. Or it’s about convenience, they want home delivery. Or it’s about wanting more choice. Or CSA is too expensive.

However, I left my theories at the door and started talking to folks. In one of my 1-on-1 interviews with ex-CSA members, I talked with an 87-year-old woman who lives alone. Her main problem was that the pickup location was on a back porch with stairs and it was too hard for her to go get the share or to arrange for someone to pick it up. In addition, since she lives alone, she just didn’t eat enough produce to go through the entire box, so a lot of it went to waste. In this case, a CSA is probably not the best option for her! That’s OK! Remember, we’re not going to be able to serve everyone and we don’t need to.

Or there is Kathy who lives with her husband and two kids. Her main problem with CSA is that her husband is out of town every other month for work. She loved the CSA, but when her husband was out of town, most of the box would go to waste and it did not make sense for her. Perhaps if she could pick the specific weeks throughout the summer when she would get a box, CSA would work for her.

So as you can see, the problems are specific to each person’s circumstance so while there is a lot you can learn from these 1-on-1 discussions, we also need to zoom out to see the bigger trends.

There is a wonderful study out of the University of California by Ryan Galt that surveyed 1,149 current and 409 former members in 2015. I think the answers are in this study!

There is a lot of great data there including who buys CSA shares (gender, economic levels, and race), reasons for joining and more, so I encourage you to take a dive through the data yourself if you are interested. One really interesting point is willingness to pay: on average members said they would be willing to pay 19% more for their share. I would like to write more about value and price in a future article.

However for now, my focus is on ex-CSA members because this is where I see the greatest room for growth, so I focused on the slide titled “Reasons for discontinuing”.

The top four reasons in the study were:

Lack of choice about products included (41%)

The product mix did not meet my needs (47%)

Too little diversity in products in the share (33%) 

Lack of choice about quantity and/or frequency (23%)

So the top four reasons in this study for members who leave were all related to choice.

This is what came up in my 1-on-1 interviews as well. People wanted the ability to choose what they liked and what they didn’t like. I looked back at my CSA philosophy and I don’t see anything in there that means that everyone needs to get the same one-size-fits-all box. Some people like cabbage and other people don’t.

Choice is not part of the traditional CSA, of course. I see the standard box as a matter of convenience for the farmer rather than something that is key to the CSA model. Why does everyone need to love cabbage? That doesn’t mean that person does not support the farm any less. We just don’t have any mechanism to keep cabbage out of that member’s box and give it to someone else who loves it.

In addition, the feedback that you get at the farmers market is blunted in a traditional CSA. If a product is not favored by your customers at a farmers market, it’s obvious because it is what you pack back on your truck at the end of the day. In a CSA, you will likely end up hearing about it on an end-of-season survey, but the damage is already done by then and it may be easy to ignore that feedback. The product that was not favored rotted in the refrigerator and the member already has decided to shop at the grocery store or farmers market next season. So building better feedback in the CSA model is vital to improving year after year.

This comes up often in my conversations with farmers when they talk about survey data: the farmer reports that one member loves green beans and another hates green beans. What do you do with that information? You can’t do much in the case of a prescribed boxed share. You need to get more flexible if you want to serve both of these customers. Alternatively, you can focus on the more adventurous customers who are happy with the box as it is. If you are able to find and retain these members, then maybe choice is not an issue for your members.

A cross current to this “give them what they want approach” that came up in my interviews with CSA members is the CSA members value the adventurousness of being in a CSA program. Each week the box is a little surprise gift. It’s exciting to find out what is new and different, but there is a balance here. Too much adventure is overwhelming and the food ends up spoiling and ends with “veggie guilt” as one CSA farmer described it to me. To make it more complicated, each member’s “adventurous quotient” is going to be different. Some members will want just the basics while other members will cook everything you throw at them.

All of the other reasons that members leave CSA pale in comparison to the choice issue based on my research. This is encouraging because I think we can do something about choice without fundamentally changing the nature of CSA or the growing practices of CSA farms.

Always Be Educating

The issue of choice is complex because we don’t just want to give people what they know they already like — there is some chance that you can educate your members into liking beets for example. Maybe they just didn’t know how to cook them yet!

We need to remember that a huge hurdle to being successful in a CSA program is cooking. We are delivering a box of uncooked produce to a public that is not used to cooking with raw products. It’s a huge leap to take. One farmer described this to me saying, “people pay me to make their lives more difficult.”

Clearly, anything the CSA can do to educate members on what to do with the products in the box will go a long way. Videos, recipes, newsletters, cooking demonstrations and whatever else you can come up with! The cooking education can even turn picky eaters into adventurous ones over time.

It may not sound like your job as a farmer to do this kind of education with your customers, but if you want to retain the member you must focus on their success. Especially that first season is going to be a big adjustment for members, so provide as much support as you can to your first season members.

I think we can do a lot more in the cooking education end of CSA. It’s absolutely essential. There are companies out there assisting farmers with this including Local Thyme or Cook with What You Have.

CSA 2.0

In technology terms, “2.0” describes the next iteration, the next generation of a technology product. I believe we need “CSA 2.0” for CSA to thrive over the next 10 years. There likely will continue to be room for traditional CSAs in the marketplace, but to grow the number of families that participate in CSA, we need to become more customer focused. We need to serve eaters better because that is what makes happy members, keeps them coming back, and recommending CSA to their social circles. I know change is hard, but I hope to be a part of modernizing CSA and helping you be profitable with your CSA.

My research leads me to believe that it is fundamentally about providing more choice to members about what is in their box. There are many models out there already that provide that already.

A really simple and effective method is what I term the “market style CSA” where vegetables are put out in bulk and members are to box their own share (for example, Appleton Farms describes how their CSA works). Most often the share is prescribed to make sure the farm has enough of each product but some farms just tell members to take a certain number of items or fill their bag. A trading bin can be put at the end of the line to let members trade an item they don’t like for one they will eat. Though this is more labor intensive because each site needs to be staffed, this tends to lead to high retention rates. A few years ago when I studied three of the highest retention farms that use Member Assembler, all three were employing some kind of market style model.

I have ideas on how we can improve on the market style model, using customized boxed shares that retain what is strong about CSA while increasing retention.

I want some feedback from farmers before I am ready to release my ideas publicly, so if you are curious about where CSA goes from here or you are looking to make changes to your CSA, email me back and let’s talk!

P.S. As I look towards the future of CSA, I want to make sure I honor the past: one of the founders of CSA in the United States, Trauger Groh, died in July.

Seasonal Food Ideas: Risotto with Farm Share Veggies

By Mike Cuccaro

I was struggling one Saturday to get some free time so I didn’t get to customize my Harvie share from Rivendale Farms. They always offer a big variety of stuff (curse them!) and the Harvie algorithm strives to create a variety of produce (curse us!) so I wound up with a large assortment of things to cook which would be great if every day of the week I could cook a different vegetable as a side dish. But, as it happens in life right now, it’s really only the weekends that I get to do any cooking. So here it was Saturday and we’d barely touched Tuesday’s box. What to do?

The one thing I had managed to do was make sure I had at least some savories (onions, garlic, leeks, etc.), solid veggies (carrots, beets, squash, etc), leafy veggies (chard, cabbage, kale, etc.), and optionally, fresh herbs (basil, oregano, parsley, etc.) because if you pick one from each of these groups, you always have a good backbone for lots of recipes. As it happened, I had a lot to choose from, so I decided to cook two big batches of risotto, mixing and matching from my share.

For one risotto, I planned to cook the pearl onions (savory), yellow squash (solid), baby broccoli (leafy), and basil (herb). For the other, I chose baby leeks and chard stems (savory), baby beets (solid), chard leaves (leafy), and basil (herb). The first step was a whole bunch of prep work. I tend to prefer to have everything cut up ahead of cooking. It feels like an accomplishment and takes away the stress of doing too much later.

Risotto is kind of a “fancy” but not really dish. I’m not going to look it up but I always imagine it was invented by an Italian peasant with a very very small water bucket and a well that was far away from the house. So the standard method of cooking until all the water is gone, constantly stirring so it does’t burn, and then only adding a small bit more of water each time came about by necessity.

I probably don’t need to go into detail about this recipe. Basically, fill the bottom of a big pot with olive oil and cook the savories until they soften up and the house smells like heaven. (ht Isabel Allende)Then drop in your solid veggies and cook them a bit – maybe 10 minutes? Then put in your leafy veggies and cook them down.

It doesn’t all have to be cooked at this point because you’re going to be cooking that rice with all this stuff for another half hour. It’s hard to keep good track of time on this because risotto is a good cooking-with-wine dish. You won’t need all of it so you can be calmly finishing the rest of the wine while waiting for the veggies. We had a subscription to Winc which was like a wine-of-the-month club. It’s almost all blends from California and the one I used here was called Funk Zone. It was tasty.

So when you’re ready, you’ll also have to have a big old pot of some kind of liquid going — chicken broth, veggie broth, or just water. As I was already using up my two biggest pots and two pots of two cups of arborio rice needed a total of sixteen cups of liquid (4:1 ratio). So I just kept refilling my electric kettle and just using water with a little of this Better Than Bouillon goo that looks like Marmite. Mostly I figured all those veggies would flavor it enough.

First thing is to dump the rice in dry and let it toast up in the oil for a minute or two. Then comes the wine (2:1 ratio rice:wine) and let that sadly cook itself away. Then drop in the first of the water or broth. You can go with the same amount of water as rice at first, stir that up and let the water cook away and then add 1 cup at a time whenever the mixture becomes hard to stir and makes little dry canyons when you drag the spoon through so you can see the bottom of the pot. The risotto will get creamier and creamier as you go. You know you are doing it right if you start to feel like Hans und Franz.

The last thing you’ll add, basically when you’ve turned the heat off and used up all the water is a hefty amount of grated Italian cheese (2:1 rice:cheese) and the chopped basil. You shouldn’t need salt. The cheese will do just fine and if you’ve forgotten that you ran out of cheese, you’ll also need an awesome spouse to run to the store and the chillest baby in the world to hang out with you while you cook!

Seasonal Food Ideas: Cucumber Boats

By Harvie Staffer Julie Inman

Talk about a crowd pleaser that brings the WOW factor!  I took these to a 4th of July party and quickly saw my ‘Merica platter being passed around the room cocktail party style, serving up these fresh little bites to the curious guests.  What I love about them is their simplicity, crunchy freshness and versatility – they can be topped with any ingredients you like, especially for themed parties! Almost anything goes with cucumbers!   

The ingredients are simple!  All you need is:

Cucumbers – any size will work

Hummus – your favorite recipe or our suggested recipe below*

Your favorite toppings

For this recipe, we used the following ingredients to create two different styles of Cucumber Boats, the Mediterranean and the Home Garden (see below!)

Carrots, shredded

Black Olives, sliced

Cherry Tomatoes, sliced

Red Onion, thinly sliced

Feta Cheese, crumbled

Sunflower Seeds, toasted

Basil, chopped

The Mediterranean Cucumber Boat

Home Garden Cucumber Boat

Lets get started!

Gather your ingredients.  I always find this helpful as it makes your prep go so much faster when you have everything in front of you ready to go!

Slice the cucumber in half and scoop out the seeds.  This creates the “boat” affect. Cut the slices up into bite-size pieces in any size you desire.  

Fill the boats with hummus.  To make it easier and cleaner, I suggest using a piping bag with a plastic nozzle.  If you don’t have one, you can fasten your own with parchment paper and a nozzle or by filling a plastic freezer bag with hummus and cutting a hole in the corner of the bag to act as the nozzle.  

You will want to fill the boats enough so they “grab” your toppings well.  

Add your toppings with the amount of ingredients based on the size of your cucumber.

Enjoy!  Get ready to receive compliments on your creativity!

*Here is a classic hummus recipe we suggest!  https://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/classic-chickpea-hummus