June 23, 2003: Here at Harmony Valley we
take delivery of our share boxes very seriously. We know that
the delivery point (or pick up point) is the last moment our
produce is in our hands. We want to make sure that everything
up to and including that point is done well to maximize the
quality of the produce and the quality of the CSA experience
for the members.
Choosing a distribution system
Eleven years ago, when we were just venturing into CSA with
our first 35 members we held a pre-season meeting and invited
their input. Would they like a “farmers’ market”
style delivery, or an “already packed” set up?
After describing how both would work there was strong preference
for everyone receiving an identical, pre-packed box. It seemed
fair and satisfied the urge for “quick and easy.”
Without any previous experience to draw from (neither members
nor farmers knew anyone personally who had participated in
CSA before) the market style, pack-it-yourself option seemed
fraught with uncertainty. What if the carrots were gone when
the last members arrived? What if there were lots of leftovers
at the end? Simple, straight forward, packaged shares held
appeal for farmer and shareholder alike.
Beyond that, we decided to pack into standard waxed produce
boxes instead of quaint baskets or environmentally friendly
canvas bags. We looked to the future, daring to imagine more
members, and realized stacking was going to be essential.
We already had a source for such boxes and maintained several
different sizes in inventory all season long for our wholesale
We also resisted the urge, right up front, to name or code
each box to a specific member, or to tailor each box with
personal preferences. Once again, we were imagining how this
whole new program would work if we grew beyond our handful
of pioneer members.
It became apparent early on that our packing system of identical
boxes had huge benefits in efficiency, but created some frustration
on the part of members. The innocent herb, cilantro, became
the first focus of frustration. It tends to inspire passion,
both positive and negative. A member told us she didn’t
even want the evil smelling bunch in her kitchen.
is everything: Letting members
drop items they didn't want into a "swap box"
made them feel like they were paying for more than
they were getting. Removing those oft-swapped items
from the regular line-up and setting them up in
a "Choice Box" for members to pick from
for free made everyone feel like they were getting
We set to devising a creative solution that would allow a
member to remove the offender from their box without wasting
it; hence, the birth of the “swap box.” I don’t
doubt that many other CSA farmers have thought this system
up out of necessity. At Harmony Valley, a member who doesn’t
want an item contributes it to the swap box. Other members
may help themselves to anything that has been left behind
in the box.
The “swap box” led us to another revelation.
Consistently, herbs, bunched greens and some less common vegetables
were contributed more often than anything else. To find out
if it was a problem, or if the swap box was meeting the intended
need, we asked the experts, our members.
We discovered that some members perceived a contribution
to the swap box as paying for something they didn't want.
I suppose, if they took out as much as they put in, it would
have been different, but contributors to the swap box tended
to be less flexible about what they ate and less adventuresome,
liking mostly common vegetables that rarely found their way
into the swap box.
We began to deliver the most frequently swapped types of
items on the side to be added to the share box if the member
so choose. We christened it “The Choice Box.”
Generally it contains enough of a single item (like cilantro)
for about 2/3 of the members at a delivery site to take some.
Now the perception was one of getting something extra, rather
than giving something away.
Ten years later
After more than a decade of experience, our delivery system
of pre-packed, returnable waxed boxes and choice and swap
boxes on the side, has remained very much the same. Small
but important improvements, of course, helped tweak the system.
- Consistent layout of delivery site each week
- Lots of clear signage
- A table for distribution of newsletters
- A notebook for communication between members, farmers
and site hosts
These improvements are necessary because the site is mostly
self-service. We deliver most of our 440 vegetable boxes to
12 sites on Saturday mornings in a city 2 ½ hours from
our farm. To make that happen we have to be efficient and
Richard or I run our route with the help of two CSA member
volunteers each week. We drop off the boxes, set up signs
and supplies, pick up the flattened, returned empties left
from the week before, and move on. Then members have several
hours in which to drop by and pick up their share.
and easy pick-up: Members volunteer to
"host" the drop-off/pick-up site, but
don't need to "tend" the place. Linda
and Richard set up a self-serve station so pick
up is a breeze for all involved.
We find that a clean garage provided by a CSA member family
is an ideal site. The first week or two of the season, the
site host, or coordinator, meets and greets the members, passes
out a letter of welcome containing any special rules that
may apply to their site, and runs new members through the
pick up process. After that they do not have to “tend”
the site during pick up hours.
At 5 p.m. they close down the door and, if there are unclaimed
boxes, make reminder calls to members who may have forgotten.
They refer to a check off list to determine which members
haven’t yet picked up. If boxes remain unclaimed, they
get delivered to a food pantry, distributed to interested
or needy neighbors or taken to church the next day, depending
on the coordinator’s situation.
Finally, sometime during the weekend they e-mail us a report
about the delivery results. We especially like to know if
the choice box seemed adequate or excessive, and about problems
that may have come up. In return for all their help and the
use of their garage weekly, we reduce the cost of their weekly
CSA share by $10 per box picked up at their site, or up to
half a weekly share value.
As a precaution against mistakes, we leave a couple extra
CSA boxes in town at different site locations for the first
few weeks. All the site coordinators know where the boxes
have been left and are prepared to direct a member to them
if a shortage occurs at their site.
Our feeling is that we need to do whatever we can to assure
that a member who deserves a share receives a share, no matter
the cause, be it our mistake or a mistake caused by another
member. Once we are back at the farm, 100 miles away, it is
impractical to get produce back to town to correct a problem.
Pros and Cons
Our method of delivery would not be practical or desirable
for all farms or situations, but it has worked incredibly
well for us over quite a period of time. The best parts are:
- Efficiency of delivery:
A 4-1/2 to 5 hour route, with 400 boxes, covers the whole
city of Madison and an outlying community. Drive time to
the city and back adds another 5-1/2 hours though.
- Maintenance of quality
of the produce: Delivered cold, and enclosed
in the wax produce box in the shade, the contents remain
cool for hours.
- Ease of accuracy in quantity
delivered: All of the above allow us to
be reliable, timely, consistently high-quality.
Shortcomings in this system:
- Lack of member to farmer
contact: However, we really have a great
opportunity for contact and interaction with the member
volunteers who help us deliver--two different members each
week means we see about 60 members per season.
- Limited individualization
of the share: Variety is fairly adequately
addressed with the choice box. We haven’t solved the
problem of some members feeling like they got too much and
some feeling like it wasn’t quite enough. In recognition
that some households are small and not everyone can find
a satisfactory household to share with, we offer an every-other-week
option. It has been well received and hasn’t caused
us to pull out our hair making the logistics work.
What ever distribution system you settle on for your farm,
be sure that it best helps you meet your goals and speaks
to your philosophy.