CSAs: We Have a Problem

A thoughtful post about CSAs from Small Farm Central’s Simon Huntley is excerpted and linked below. His questions mirror some of the same that are being asked in the farmers market field about sales levels and how to build a regular, return shopper out of an occasional user or even some (of the majority) non-users. I am interested in his CSA research as the relationship between CSAs and farmers markets has yet to be studied in order to more fully understand farmers markets. The market box programs that he mentions are one great example of the shared characteristics that CSAs and farmers markets have that need to be better understood. I remember seeing this for the first time a few years back at the Lakewood Ohio LEAF market that used a CSA vendor as the anchor market vendor. That vendor had signs for their CSA members (how much of an item to take per share) but also a price for walk up non-CSA shoppers with a barter table at the end for CSA members to trade in items they didn’t want. The other vendors benefited greatly from this farmer being on site at this tiny weekday evening market. The last time I was there, the CSA/market vendor was only doing CSA shares (still managed by the volunteer market leadership) as the demand was high enough and other producers had been added to take care of market sales of produce. The whole thing was extremely well-managed, with a lot of opportunities for interactions for shoppers and vendors.
That is an example of a local organization using strategic thinking to build a market appropriately sized and structured for its growers and its shoppers. That thinking led to the organizers using the right type of place, products, people and procedures for their intention.
If only we had a list of the characteristics and projects for each type, we could shorten the learning curve and assist more partners interested in using markets as part of their program goals, and help producers by giving them better information on the outlets they can choose from, able to position themselves better to create the right business plan for those outlets.
As those who read here know, I am devoting my time to assisting FMC in building the Farmers Market Metrics program in order to gather data from the markets themselves that can help all of us find those answers. Certainly, the same framework can be used for CSAs and other direct marketing outlets to allow us to share the impacts on producers, shoppers and the larger community.

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 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.


Source: CSA: We Have a Problem



  1. Hi Darlene–with any luck, USDA/AMS will be publishing a new report on the evolving business models of CSAs within the next month or so, based on focus group and survey research carried out by Dr. Tim Woods at the University of Kentucky. (The content’s already been approved by the Department’s Office of Communications; we’re just waiting right now for the photo credit and layout approval.) Our conclusions are slightly more positive than those in Small Farm Central’s article, but similar, and we discuss the variety of ways that CSA managers have attempted to remain competitive through partnerships, marketing innovation and expanded product mix.


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