Harmony Valley Farm
90 miles northwest of Madison and about 30 miles south
of La Crosse
Years farming: Since
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 predators
• 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 obligations.
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
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
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.)
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
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
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
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
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 group!
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 in hand.
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
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 coverage.
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
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
For more on Richard
de Wilde, Linda Halley and Harmony Valley Farm, visit
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.