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What are some of the disadvantages of a CSA?

Posts: 44
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I am a beginner farmer. I'm also a prospective CSA member and potential CSA market gardener. I was doing some initial research about CSA's and how they work. I watched a video on YouTube where somebody explained a couple of the biggest advantages of a CSA, but he did not go over any disadvantages at all. I was wondering what are some of the disadvantages to a CSA are?
Also in the video he mentioned a market garden, what exactly is a market garden anyway?

Just for reference here is the videoYouTube CSA video I speak of.
Thank you
Posts: 5285
Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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I was an early adopter of the CSA model. It was very stressful to me so I stopped doing it.

To me, the disadvantages of CSA are:

#1 and most troubling. I hated being in debt. I really hated being in debt. I really really really hated being in debt. Owing my families a basket of vegetables every week for 20 weeks really sucked. Didn't matter how sick I was, or what the weather was doing, or what the crops were doing, or what familial obligations I had, or whether the help showed up. I was in debt for one basket of vegetables per week. That sucked. I much prefer the freedom of a farmer's market. I can pick as much or as little as I like.

I didn't like all the food that got wasted. It's not like I was growing exotic foods with funky tastes. I was growing standard foods for my area. I wasn't overwhelming people with too much food. The widow lady ate everything in the basket every week and wanted more while some families with lots of big kids couldn't be bothered. Often when I took a basket of food to someone, I'd see last week's basket sitting there spoiling. It makes a farmer feel bad. I much prefer the freedom of a farmer's market or a farm stand. People can buy the foods they like in quantities that they are likely to eat.

Taking a basket to someone? Tsk. Tsk. The contract stated that they needed to pick up their baskets on Wednesday evening in town. Right like that's going to happen reliably!!! So I ended up delivering baskets, after dark, and the day of the week that I worked harder than any other day. And I still had to tend to the irrigation. Call me grumpy if you like. That eventually helped pushed me over the edge. People being unreliable about keeping their end of the bargain, and me not being callus enough to say "sorry about your luck" that you didn't pick up your basket.

I hated the crop failures... I know that is also part of the contract, but two years in a row every brassica crop of every species failed. That was too much to bear. I couldn't feel good about offering to grow food for people if I couldn't reliably grow food for people. That put my reputation at stake. It called into question my integrity. I prefer the farmer's market. If the cabbage fails one year I just don't take cabbage to market.

Supposedly, the up-front payment model helps the farmer buy seed in the spring. These days, I avoid the need to buy seed by growing my own seeds. I get better quality seed by growing my own, and it gets localized to my growing conditions and habits.
Posts: 3204
Location: Central Oklahoma (zone 7a)
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I'm not a farmer, I'm a relatively new and not very skilled gardener. I've never produced enough surplus to consider selling; indeed, my surpluses to date have been so modest that a bit of pickle-making or dehydrating has been sufficient to preserve them for my own off-season consumption. So what follows is pretty much just my hot-air notions, true for me but possibly not for anybody else.

I see the CSA model as being a fairly advanced form of farm marketing. From my perspective as a not-very-good gardener, there's a natural progression of things. You plant stuff, you grow stuff, you see what works and you iterate, you see what fails and you avoid doing that or you figure out a better way, and eventually you start producing surpluses. Once you start getting confident with your methods for producing routine surpluses from your farm, you expand your area under cultivation if you want to grow more. In my imagination it sort of goes like this:

1) production for immediate home consumption
2) production for immediate home consumption plus preservation and storage for off-season consumption plus family/neighborhood gift economy
3) production for small-scale marketing (produce stand, word-of-mouth with the neighbors, small farmers markets, kitchen-scale value-added products)
4) production for larger-scale marketing (large farmers markets, small/neighborhood/seasonal CSAs, value-added as light industry at barn/garage scale)
5) production for large-scale marketing (wholesaling to distributors, larger and multi-season CSAs)
6) production for industrial-scale marketing (for delivery by truck and train direct to silos, processing plants, and large-scale end users)

For all the reasons Joseph lists -- but especially because of the potential for crop failure -- I wouldn't be interested in the CSA model until I had a history of at least three or four years at least of consistent and reliable production-in-surplus of all the CSA vegetables I was considering marketing that way. Farming at that large a scale isn't something I personally hope or want to do, but that's what I would see as being the bare minimum to support confidence in my ability to fill those boxes every week. And without that confidence, it's not an undertaking I'd be comfortable with.
Posts: 49
Location: Louisville, KY
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Dan's advice to wait a few years is good, and commonly given by CSA farmers. We didn't take that advice our first year, and I think it did stretch our customers' patience, and our stress levels a bit.

The biggest advantage I see is the up front money. And it isn't just to buy seed. It is to even out the cash flow in your entire calendar year. If you're growing in a temperate climate, and haven't gotten too big into season extension yet, you're going to have 5-8 months of income that aren't even at all, and then 4-7 with almost none. Those checks in February are hard to turn down.

The being said, the indebtedness is the worst. I agree with Joseph. If we sell 20 shares at $500 each, I start out in may with a $10000 debt that I have to make payments on almost every week for six months. Here are a few other negatives:

The variety you will feel like you have to grow is hard to do efficiently. If you grew 12 profitable things well instead of 40 things with some at a loss (factoring in time), and you focussed hard on finding buyers for those 12 things, you could become way more profitable.

Customers can be flaky, non-understanding and disappointed -even if you told them a full range of expectations on both sides up front. This is a model that is decidedly un-consumeristic in a consumeristic society full of consumeristic consumers. You will get people who will ask for exceptions, payment plans, exchanges, etc. One year after sending out multiple email reminders to return boxes, I once had a customer ask me 20 weeks into the season if he should keep recycling the wax produce boxes, or if I would like to have them back... 20 weeks x $3 box=$60. He didn't read his email, and he cost me a real chunk of change.

It all takes time: in addition to growing food and picking it there is communication, packing (really re-packing already packed boxes of produce), managing records, keeping up with payments, delivery -if you take that on, member relationship building, recipe sharing, customer farm visits, etc. But other marketing methods take time too. Some, like farmers markets take arguably more time.

Crop failures are even less fun when you feel like you're letting your 20 most loyal customers down. You've told them that they are taking on risk, but you don't want them to be disappointed.

All that said, we have done it for 5 years, and years 2-5 I think all worked out pretty good for us. We are considering moving to a garden box model, but are going to poll our existing customers to see if they would prefer that. That idea is basically like a market stand declining balance account, paid up front, but with a more you buy, more you save type of hook. $100 gets you a 10% bonus in your account. $500 gets you 20%. Something like that. We think it may work better for us, and our customers, and some potential customers who don't like the CSA model.
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Sometimes customers don't have realistic expectations about CSA's.
Sometimes farmers don't.

Potential Customer Problems
Visit link above for potential solutions.

#1 Shareholders complain that vegetables are dirty and have insect damage, or they see insects on the produce.
#2 Members are required to work at the farm (certain CSAs require this). They don't express an interest in tasks assigned and would prefer to just purchase produce from the CSA.
#3 Members are given vegetables and other products they are not familiar with and don't know how to prepare.
#4 Members feel that they are receiving too many vegetables in their share and worry about waste.
#5 Members feel disconnected with the farm and have no sense of community.
#6 Members in northern climates expect certain vegetables (for example, tomatoes and sweet corn) to be included in their early season shares.

Pros and Cons list from Tucson CSA.
Providing this list helps sets clear expectations for customers and weeds out people not suited to a CSA.
Visit link above for "pros" list.

#1. Heirloom variation: Unlike commercial hybrids which have a consistent appearance, size and reliable yield, heirloom vegetables are grown for flavor rather than looks, high yield, long shelf-life, or ease of packaging. While CSA vegetables and fruit generally look beautiful, they vary in size and appearance and do not follow the rules of systematic grocery store perfection.
#2. Quality variation: Unfavorable weather and field conditions may occasionally cause crop shortages and imperfections, resulting in less-than-perfect quality of one or more types of vegetable for a while, or even their complete absence. CSA farming is not unlike growing your own vegetable garden.
#3. Bugs: Your organic produce may very occasionally contain some bugs, such as corn borers, little caterpillars, ladybugs or aphid. This is the nature of organic farming.
#4. Repetition: The same vegetable or fruit may show up in your shares for several weeks in a row, to the delight of some members and the dismay of others.
#5. No choice: You receive what the farmer gives you and you cannot pick and choose your produce. You have to eat what you get. However, it can be fun to adjust your cooking habits to be ingredient-driven rather than recipe-driven.
#6. Seasonal: Other than items that can be stored, such as onions, potatoes or dried beans, you receive produce that is in season. No cucumbers during winter and lots of them during summer. No greens during summer and lots of them during winter and spring.
#7. Dislikes: You are challenged to be a creative cook and to overcome blocks or dislikes you may have toward certain vegetables or fruits.
#8. Inconvenience: You have to pick up your share every week on a specific day during a specific time period. However, many members say that it is very rewarding to come to pick up their veggies: they enjoy the sense of community created by being surrounded by like-minded people.
#9. Missing pickups: Your share is there for you every week on your pickup day. If you don’t pick it up, it is donated to charity. But if you know ahead of time that you will miss a pick up, you can place your subscription on hold (must do so by midnight Friday of the week before).
#10. Upfront payment: You must commit to and pay upfront for a six- or twelve-week block.

Also check out their FAQ section and Subscribing Terms of Agreement pages for how they deal with these negatives and offer solutions.

Potential Farmer Problems:
(in addition to those posted by others)
Some farmers may not realize CSA's are a form of direct marketing
which require additional skill sets, resources and time.

Some of these include:
Customer Service/ Satisfaction
(before, during and after "the sale")
Marketing/ Advertising
Media Relations
Professional Photos
CSA boxes
Merchandising booth display
Farm events
Time to do it all themselves
Money to get others to do it
Taking it personally when people don't eat all their food
(something all sales people experience)

Creating a business and marketing plan will help identify strengths and weakness, personal goals,
what community members want/need (and who the right ones are), and the steps necessary
to make it - or a compromise - a reality.
Native Bee Guide by Crown Bees
will be released to subscribers in: soon!
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