Historically CSAs (community supported agriculture) lose nearly 50% of their customers every year. For farmers, that means that every year they need to find new members to buy half of the shares that provide them income regardless of what the season may bring. While the hustle to gain new members has been a bigger challenge in years past, this year’s pandemic has revealed how fragile our national food supply chain is, thereby causing a surge in CSA sales with some farmers even doubling membership. On it’s face, this sounds good, but it definitely has folks wondering, “how will we keep these new members coming back next year?”
Since the CSA model relies heavily on building relationships, it’s important to be very intentional in how you cultivate relationships with customers. This is more difficult this year with CSA pickups requiring physical distancing measures and the general desire for a quick, convenient process. But, just because there is less face-to-face interaction, you can still get to know your members and let them get to know you and your farm. Keep in mind that developing relationships will require an investment of your time, but it will pay off in keeping your members invested in your business.
First, it’s helpful to think about what customer’s expectations were when they signed up. In “regular” years, some of the major reasons folks cited for joining CSAs were to,
- Obtain high quality, fresh food
- Support alternative/organic agriculture
- Improve my health or my family’s health
One of the easiest ways to lose customers is not delivering on their expectations. It’s best to have a strategy in place when marketing your CSA in the spring to help set customer expectations and begin building the relationship. But, seeing as it’s the middle of June, your CSA has probably already started. No worries, you can continue to help set customer expectations and build the relationship throughout the season. Below are a few ideas for setting expectations and building relationships with your CSA members.
Ask them what they expect.
Many CSAs survey their members at the end of the season to evaluate member’s experience and look for ways to improve next season. Everyone that operates a CSA should do this! But it can also be helpful to survey members at the beginning so that you know why they signed up and what they expect from participating. Having a general idea of folks’ expectations and reasons for joining can help you identify ways to add value throughout the season and may give you some thoughts for what aspects of your CSA farm to highlight in your communication with members.
For example, if members say that they joined for health reasons, you can highlight the health benefits of particular foods or share recipes for immune-boosting meals. If they joined because they were afraid of the food supply because of COVID-19, you can reassure them that your practices are safe, that very few hands touch their food, and that the CSA model from farmer to family is among the shortest and safest supply chains. Or, if folks joined to support their local farmers and environment, show the practices that you use on your farm to support the health of the land, highlight some of your farm employee’s stories, or explain the ways you work to support your local community.
There are a lot of free online options for surveys, just try typing “free surveys” into the google machine. Looking for some survey question ideas? Generate some thoughts about WHY you think folks joined your CSA and check your assumptions by asking a multiple-choice question. Maybe ask about their comfort level with unfamiliar produce to see how much explanation some of your more interesting items will need. And ask what benefits and barriers they see to being a member so that you can enhance the benefits and reduce the barriers. Keep your questions short and try not to make many open-ended. To encourage members to complete the survey, offer the chance to win a prize like a jar of local honey.
Start a weekly newsletter.
I don’t want to get too far into this, because you should already be doing it. Folks want to know what to expect in their share, so at the very least, they will appreciate a note in advance of the pickup letting them know what to expect. But don’t stop there! Use your newsletter to let your members get to know you. Show pictures of the farm and farmhands. Tell stories of what’s happening on the farm. Share recipes and ask for input. This is an excellent practice that can help to keep your members engaged. Of course, it is a bit one-sided. To build more community among your members, consider also starting a CSA Facebook page to give members a space to share ideas, recipes, and just to get to know each other.
Assess your usual community-building and engagement strategies.
Many farms offer CSA members an end-of-season farm gathering or other on-farm events. With things the way they are, think to yourself now, “should we still plan for a farm party?” There is no right answer to this question, but it may be helpful to start thinking about what you could do to build community among your CSA members and keep them invested in your farm if this was part of the plan when they signed up. If a big shindig doesn’t sound like a good idea, could you do a series of small farm tours (high time investment), or an online AMA (ask me anything) with the farmers to give your members a chance to find out what they want to know about you and the farm. Since AMAs are relatively low time investment, these could happen multiple times throughout your season and also give you more information about what your members are interested in. Regardless of your choice, it’s important to think about how you will continue to deliver value and build community among your members so that they want to join you again next year.
These are only a few tips to get you thinking about how to engage your new CSA members and keep them coming back for more. If you are looking for more ideas, check out the resources below. And if you are a farmer or CSA member, please feel welcome to share your ideas for making the most of your CSA and we will continue to update these tips. Send a note to Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CSA Innovation Network has a wealth of information and resources for CSA farms.
My Digital Farmer podcast – A weekly show hosted by farmer and marketing consultant, Corinna Bench, designed to help farmers learn the fundamentals of marketing to grow their brand and increase their sales.
How to Cultivate Customers and Grow Value: A Guide to CSA Retention – This guide, available from Local Food Marketplace, explains common challenges and how real CSA farms have approached them. (Note: To get the guide, you must provide your contact information.)