90 miles northwest of Madison and about 30 miles
south of La Crosse
Total acres: 75
(approx. one acre per crop)
Over 60 berries and vegetables, from wild leeks
and celery root to raspberries and pumpkins.
harvesting in April, finish in early November.
CSA deliveries start the first Saturday in May,
and extend into December.
• Extensive cover cropping
• Annual applications of
compost, permanent hedgerows as habitats for insect
• No-till vegetable production
to reduce erosion and improve soil structure
• Detailed record-keeping
CSAs, farmers markets, wholesale distribution,
restaurants, farm stand, local retail stories
I met Rich de Wilde and Linda Halley at the Eco-farm
conference in Monterey, CA in late January. Linda
was part of a panel called “Married to a
CSA,” and she spoke clearly and engagingly
about the practical challenges of running a large
CSA. One thing Linda said which I’ve repeated
a dozen times, especially after hearing story
after story of struggling CSAs: “CSAs are
for graduate level farmers.” Diverse crops,
complicated timing, hard and fast obligations—it’s
a tough operation to manage, and she has no sympathy
for those who do it poorly and fail to meet their
Later in the conference, Linda and Rich received
a “SUSTIE” award (Stewards of Sustainable
Agriculture), which have been given out for 16
years. (Winners include such luminaries as Wes
Jackson, Bob Rodale and Alice Waters.)
In their acceptance speech, the couple outlined
their operation (see Farm-at-a-glance), then identified
seven key factors in their success:
They always made soil building a first priority.
It has paid off over the years, they say, allowing
them to grow crops that are healthy and disease
free. They incorporate cover crops into their
rotations, and add plenty of compost.
They’ve been consistent
and reliable in their marketplace. This is absolutely
critical, they feel. “We do what we say
we’re going to do, and we do it every time.”
3. They decided to focus
on producing premium quality products, and asking
a premium price. When they started farming in
1973, there wasn’t much of an organic market,
but they felt price was everything. So they dedicated
themselves to growing and marketing clean, good
looking and good tasting produce that would fetch
a living price. They do not apologize about their
4. They managed their time
and their business relationships effectively.
From the start, they told distributors and other
buyers that they didn’t have time to make
calls. They asked buyers to send, call or fax
orders by a certain time … and it worked.
They’ve tried to
be good employers. “Farmers don’t
set out to be employers,” they say, “but
soon realize that it’s important to value
and treat employees well.” Linda and Rich
have tailored their business to have as many full-time
employees as possible, and have gotten better
over the years at identifying and meeting the
needs of their employees. Training is critical,
they say. Every minute spent is worth it.
It may sound small, but
handling things on the farm mechanically, on palettes,
has saved lots of backs, and has allowed them
to be more productive, and to enjoy the work more.
They make small improvements
every year. Richard, says Linda, is a voracious
experimenter, and they both try to do things a
little better every year.
Rich and Linda, by the way, were also given the
MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year Award in late
February. (MOSES, Midwest Organic and Sustainable
Education Services, hosts the annual Upper Midwest
Organic Farming Conference.)
Thinking about starting
a CSA? Check out our 16 recommended resources
for insight and straight talk on cultivating,
managing and marketing with a community approach.
Dewilde: Digging for sunchokes.
Posted April 2, 2003: In April you’ll
find us planting in the greenhouse, planning at the kitchen
table or, when the sun shines, digging our over-wintered roots.
Who are we? We’re a team, husband and wife, Richard
de Wilde and Linda Halley. We grow organic produce on 75 acres
in western Wisconsin that we call Harmony Valley Farm.
Though we tap into nearly every imaginable market; wholesale,
retail, restaurants and a farmers’ market, fifty percent
of our produce goes to our 500 plus CSA families. This will
be our 11th season marketing through Community Supported Agriculture.
In the realm of CSA farms in this country, that puts us somewhere
in the “veteran” category. Though our combined
farming experience adds up to 45 years, we certainly don’t
have all the answers – especially in April! In spite
of having a clear strategy for retaining, renewing and recruiting
CSA members, we suffer from the annual “springtime membership
We have regularly had 80 – 85% member retention, and
for the past several years, without much effort, our membership
has made modest, steady growth. We couldn’t handle many
more weekly boxes without a major shift in scheduling and
delivery, so this pattern of slow growth suits us. Our CSA
growing season begins the first week in May and we extend
it through mid-December. We ask that our members commit through
the entire season.
The best membership strategy: good produce
||"Who can resist a pint of Sungold
cherry tomatoes, petite green beans or a perfect cantaloupe?
With every box we build a relationship with our members
and make the case for continuing membership. "
Our most basic membership strategy is to make our members
very happy. To that end the membership drive for the next
year begins with the first box. We put our “best food
forward” with tasty, clean, beautiful and special ingredients.
Everything gets well washed, well chilled, packed and placed
attractively in the box. “Special” comes from
how we talk about our varieties in the newsletter –
our weekly ally. Wild ramps, for example, are easy to make
special. They are harvested from the maple woods and coveted
by area chefs. Winter spinach, on the other hand, could be
mistaken by the unsuspecting palate to be just another bag
of baby greens. But, we take the opportunity to explain the
sweet, juicy, savored difference, knowing that it will allow
our members to discover a value they weren’t anticipating.
As the season goes on we keep making every box the best yet.
Week after week the flavors speak for themselves. Who can
resist a pint of Sungold cherry tomatoes, petite green beans
or a perfect cantaloupe? With every box we build a relationship
with our members and make the case for continuing membership.
Knowing that it is easy to ask a happy member to renew, we
have put serious thought into asking for a deposit on next
year as early as September, when the sweet tastes of summer
are still in the mouth. After consideration we always decide
against it. Instead we choose to put out complete renewal
forms in early November, closer to the end of our delivery
season. We can’t justify the double bookkeeping an early
deposit, followed by a later complete sign-up would entail.
In search of early renewals
Like all CSA farmers, we’d love to have all our members
renew well before we get busy in the spring. For us, that
means by April 1st. We make no secret about it. We offer an
incentive to members who renew by January 1st. They receive
a $10 coupon good for products from our farmers’ market
stand, “preservers” quantities of tomatoes, or
garlic braids that we deliver just before Christmas. Perhaps,
more than anything, the coupon is a gesture of appreciation
on our part. We explain why early renewals help us –
cash flow, knowing who is returning, and getting some of our
bookkeeping out of the way when we have more time. Each year
approximately 100 members, the non-procrastinators, we suppose,
take us up on the offer.
We have tried other early bird offers in the past. We used
to allow members who renewed before January 31st to get in
on the previous season’s price. One year, that meant
a $40 savings and by the time we added it up it cost us well
over $5,000 in discounts. Had we been paying substantial interest
on a pre-season farm loan for spring inputs, that may have
been justifiable. That wasn’t the case. We later discovered
an unforeseen complication. Members who signed up early one
year and then signed up after the discount period the following
year had to absorb a two-year price increase in one year.
That greatly changed their perception of affordability and
eventually hurt our membership efforts.
We took our dilemma to the core group and they, naturally,
suggested the sensible alternative, a more modest dollar value
in the form of a coupon. It reduced the impact on our income,
yet still gave a good value to members. It also encouraged
member purchases of other farm products they might otherwise
not take advantage of. We call that win-win! Thank you, core
This year we also gave the same $10 coupon to members who
used the monthly electronic payment plan for the first time.
For several years we have had 100 families who allow us to
automatically debit their bank account in monthly installments.
It requires minimal set up and is written in a way that allows
it to be rolled over to the following season without effort.
They notify us if they wish to quit or make a change. We notify
them of any price increase from season to season. These represent
our true “perennial members.”
The idea of a perennial CSA is a concept we embraced a couple
years ago. Since our farm carries on, year after year, and
is a perennial venture in nature, why not have perennial members?
Unfortunately, as logical as it sounded to us, it did not
resonate with our members. We explained that we were frustrated
with the fact that on the last delivery date of the season
we had hundreds of members, but two days later, we technically
had none. The relationship we had cultivated with them was
over when the season they had paid for ended. Even though
most would eventually renew, we couldn’t bank on any
one of them until we had a new agreement form and payment
The perennial philosophy – once a member, always a
member, until they notified us otherwise – was an elegant
solution. It backfired. Potential members shied away with
visions of long term cell phone contracts and club memberships
that couldn’t be broken. Current members were confused,
too. If they didn’t need to notify us unless they were
quitting, when did they need to send in their payment? After
one year our “perennial CSA” idea was put back
on the drawing board.
After deliveries cease in December we have only one way to
reach out to all members, a mailed newsletter. We make it
newsy, interesting and always include a membership report.
It includes reminders to sign up and encourages members to
tell their friends about Harmony Valley. Because the CSA brochure
and agreement form is now downloadable from our website, members
can easily pass on information to others, or get a form to
replace the one they misplaced. The newsletter sparks a flurry
of renewals, but for some, the snow flurries outside in February
just don’t give them a sense of urgency.
In the coming year we will put in place a group e-mailing
option to make winter newsletters more affordable. For now,
we settle on one.
Down to the wire: the final 50 percent
By March 1st, the date when the share price increases modestly,
we have heard from about half of our membership. The other
half gets a reminder through the pre-event publicity surrounding
the CSA Open House hosted by the Madison Area CSA Coalition,
MACSAC, a non-profit umbrella organization made up of CSA
farmers and devotees.
Each year MACSAC invites the public to meet area CSA farmers,
taste seasonal recipes, participate in a raffle, and, in general,
have a good time. At that event we give away hundreds of brochures
but find that most of the letters received following the event
are renewals from members who happened to catch the media
On April 1st, with four weeks remaining before our deliveries
commence, we expect to have 330 confirmed weekly shares sold.
That leaves 110 weekly boxes left to sell, if we are to return
to last year’s membership. Taking into account that
about 30% of our members choose to buy an every-other-week
share, a little math reveals that we need seven sign-ups in
the mail box every day until the first delivery.
Numbers like that can make us a little anxious. It motivates
Richard to start phoning the members we haven’t yet
heard from. This year he has a list of 150 names. He calls
after dinner and politely stops well before bedtime. The conversations
are reaffirming and usually result in renewals. When a member
has decided not to renew Richard has the valuable opportunity
to find out why.
We have spent most of this article discussing membership
renewal rather than recruitment. In part, this reflects the
maturity of our CSA. We are not trying to expand. It also
represents a philosophical point of view. We believe in making
our members happy and retaining them. It is important to give
someone who ventures into CSA a positive experience. Even
if there were unlimited numbers of potential members out there,
and a CSA farmer had unlimited time and resources to recruit
them, we feel a farmer’s first responsibility is to
their current membership. That said, no matter how expert
your farming and how finely tuned your CSA program, members
move on and new members are needed. We tap into our best tools
for recruitment, our own happy members!
||"We tap into our
best tools for recruitment, our own happy members! Members
can speak honestly and knowledgably about their experience.
They are more likely to approach the kind of people who
will be a good fit to the CSA. We frequently take the
opportun-ity to encourage our members to “spread
the word.” We give them a $10 coupon for every new
member they find."
Members can speak honestly and knowledgably about their experience.
They are more likely to approach the kind of people who will
be a good fit to the CSA. We frequently take the opportunity
to encourage our members to “spread the word.”
We give them a $10 coupon for every new member they find.
We spend very little of our own time actually recruiting.
We are sometimes asked to talk to groups. We do so happily,
but don’t seek them out. We find that a more effective
strategy is keeping our good name and logo in front of the
public. To that end we support a Wisconsin Public Radio food
show, we attend a weekly high-profile farmers’ market,
and donate partial shares to local, private school fundraisers.
Those activities give us a presence with people who are likely
to value locally produced organic food. We also maintain a
decent website and advertise seasonally in several natural
food store newsletters.
When our members talk about Harmony Valley to friends, those
friends often are familiar with our produce and have a positive
opinion of us. Who could ask for more?
We hope that in sharing how we think about membership and
how we act on our ideas has given other farmers food for thought.
Community Supported Agriculture is ever evolving. The more
CSA farmers we meet the more ways we discover to handle the
very complex business of running a CSA successfully. In the
months to come we will attempt to contribute ideas that will
help make your CSA successful.