CSA NOTEBOOK: Harmony Valley Farm, Wisconsin

Two veteran CSA farmers share their insights
APRIL: Richard de Wilde and Linda Halley have been running a successful CSA for 11 years. Every other month they’ll share practical details on what works and doesn’t work, from production and presentation, to marketing and member retention.

By Richard de Wilde and Linda Halley

Farm-at-a-Glance

Harmony Valley Farm
Viroqua, Wisconsin

Location: About 90 miles northwest of Madison and about 30 miles south of La Crosse

Years farming: Since 1973

Total acres: 75 (approx. one acre per crop)

Crops: Over 60 berries and vegetables, from wild leeks and celery root to raspberries and pumpkins.

Season: Start harvesting in April, finish in early November. CSA deliveries start the first Saturday in May, and extend into December.

Regenerative practices:
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

Marketing:< CSAs, farmers markets, wholesale distribution, restaurants, farm stand, local retail stories

 

 

Editor's NOTE:

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:

1. 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.

2. 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 prices.

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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.)

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 jitters.”

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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

For More Information...

For more on Richard de Wilde, Linda Halley and Harmony Valley Farm, visit their website:

www.harmonyvalleyfarm.com

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.