CSA NOTEBOOK: Harmony Valley Farm, Wisconsin

Serving CSA members better
As the CSA season draws to a close, the Harmony Valley team brainstorms about ways to boost member retention from year to year—and to encourage former CSA members to become faithful farmers' market customers.

By Linda Halley






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

November 9, 2004: For Harmony Valley Farm, CSA deliveries continue into December, but this time of the year we also begin to get commitments from current and new members for 2005. In our area, the Upper Midwest, many CSA farms end their season in October and it is wise to broach the topic of signing up for the next season while you are still remembered fondly. An added bonus is that you may still have a free way to distribute agreement forms, either in the CSA boxes or alongside newsletters at the delivery sites, if you don’t wait until after deliveries have ended. And, to be brutally honest, in our case we want to approach members before they have had the opportunity to tire of winter veggies. Delivering into December means the members get a hefty dose of root crops, some beloved (carrots and sweet potatoes), some challenging (rutabagas and sunchokes.) The winter boxes are treasured by many long-time members, but they can catch new folks by surprise—having to learn to use and enjoy six or seven new vegetables over the period of a couple months is a challenge for some! So, while the taste of tomatoes and watermelon are still recent memories, we ask for commitments for next season.

Our return rate varies each year, but it has been as high as 85 percent and as low as 75 percent. There are lots of factors that effect return rate and not all are under our control. The economy in our area is quite good, relative to some other parts of the country, but more and more people are feeling edgy about their job security. That has played a part in returns in the past and we guess it could easily be a factor in 2005. In 2002, after 9/11, early signups were very difficult to come by. By January, people’s confidence had begun bounce back and nearly 80 percent of our members returned.

Whatever the reason, it is hard for us to NOT take it a bit personally when a household doesn’t renew, even when our rational minds tell us not to. Being perfectionists, we are forever striving for return rates in the 90 percent range, trying creative ways to meet our members’ needs. We know that the foundation of our CSA is high quality produce, delivered in a dependable way with a readable and informative newsletter. We also know that sometimes that isn’t enough. Over the years we have concluded the obvious: you can't please everyone all the time. However, we have also made a less obvious observation: CSA is a value added product, and much of that added value is derived from “service.” So while we can tweak the variety of produce in the box to some extent to better meet our members' needs, we shouldn’t forget that we can also tweak the type of service we offer to better meet our members' needs.

Here are a few of the service-oriented plans we have used to attract and keep members:

Every-other-week share

While many CSA farms offer two sizes of shares, we decided after our first season to eliminate that aggravation. I used to be adamant that offering a small and a large share was just a very bad plan. Now I’ve seen the error in my position: it is a bad plan for our farm. We bunch many items for wholesale, our market stand and to sell to retailers. It is inefficient and problematic to make smaller bunches for those small CSA shares. As a result, every time a bunched item is in the box, the small share gets a bigger bunch than it should. Repeat this scenario for bulky items like cabbage, watermelon, cauliflower and you end up either giving the small boxes a reduced variety of items, giving them more than their share, or creating a sorting, harvesting and packing nightmare trying to pull and keep separate small cauliflower, small watermelon, etc.

Maybe we were just not organized enough to keep the details straight that two box sizes require, but we keep a lot of other details straight and this one just seemed like a complication that didn’t have enough payback to make it worth it. Believe me, our farm crew was 100 percent behind our decision to drop the smaller box size. I could write an entire article to dissuade CSA farmers from having two size options unless they offer a bulk box/pack-your-own type of set up, but I think it's best to just get down off the soap box.

The second year, without a half-share option, our small member households felt left out in the cold. We, of course, encouraged them to split a box with another small family, but that didn’t work for everyone. So, a member gave us the simple idea of selling a box that was the same size, but just delivered every other week. It has worked great! Freshness hasn’t been a problem because everything starts so fresh and we deliver it using a refrigerated truck. When fragile items, like raspberries, are included in the box, the members get used to the idea of eating those items first. We charge more than half the cost of a regular share because an every-other-week membership still incurs the same overhead of bookkeeping time, newsletter writing and printing time, and delivery time. For the 2005 season, an every-other-week box will cost $365 for 15 boxes delivered over 34 weeks. The weekly vegetable share costs $640 for 30 boxes delivered in the same time span.

There can always be hidden consequences to new plans but by pricing the every other week share in a way that creates equivalent compensation to us as a weekly box, we really don’t have a preference which membership a family chooses. We had no idea what percent of our members would pick an every-other-week share, but it has leveled out at about 30 percent. On the downside, of those 30 percent, you know some of them are going to get mixed up on what week they are supposed to pick up their box. It does happen, but I can’t say we feel it is a serious issue. A significant, unforeseen benefit is that it offers new members a less costly way to try out CSA. Our members tell us that their friends are much more willing to pay $365 for something they aren’t yet sure of, than over $600 for a weekly share. We are going to continue to offer the every-other-week share. Perhaps you should consider it for your CSA if half-shares are not working.

Helping members with waste

Everyone hates paying for something they don’t use. Sometimes members don’t use what they bring home in their box. It spoils in their refrigerator. They waste it, and they hate waste. Too much waste means a member doesn’t want to renew, so we give them lots of help in this department: recipes in our weekly newsletter, free or discounted cookbooks, member tips posted on our website, and soon, a way to find indexed recipes from previous year newsletters on our website. Short of cooking it for them, help is there! We even had veteran members offer to serve as mentors to new members who were being introduced to new foods for the first time. The mentor program has not been well utilized in the 12 months since a creative group of members put out the offer, but we still think it has potential. Our core group will put their brains to work on this one this winter.

Flex plan

Another way members pay for something they don’t use and feel like they have wasted their money is when they can’t pick up their box on delivery day. Fitting in a trip to the delivery site each week can be challenging for some of our busiest or most disorganized households. When it came to sign up time again last spring, we heard this line more than once: “I’m just too busy (or away from home too much) in the summer.” This year we tackled that problem by creating the “flex plan.” If weekly or every-other-week shares don’t work, then we let members pick the weeks they want deliveries. They must buy at least 15 boxes (weekly members receive 30.) Members can either fill out a delivery calendar upon sign up or they can call ahead to skip a delivery. Received boxes are subtracted from the total purchased and when they have received all that they have paid for, their season of membership ends.

We knew we’d need a fool-proof way of keeping track of each flex plan schedule and that there would be a cost to do so. We used weekly planner software to keep track of the flex plan deliveries and we tacked on an additional charge. The flex plan per box cost came in at $25 per box, nearly $5 more than the cheapest weekly option and a couple dollars more per box than the regular every-other-week plan.

We didn’t introduce the flex plan until more than half of our membership had signed up this past spring, so we had only a handful of flex plan participants. Our bookkeeper breathed a sign of relief knowing that the “experiment” was less risky with fewer members. As it turns out, the scheduling was easy and not very time consuming. With most of our season over we have a good record. No errors were made on our part or on the part of the members participating. We have yet to get much feedback from the members, positive or negative, but we plan to offer it again in 2005.

Perhaps the flex plan will never have extremely wide appeal because we let our members know that with a few days advance notice we can arrange to deliver their box to a different site or, if they are every-other-week members, we can switch the weekend on which they pick up, then switch it back when they are back in town. Once we established a system for recording phone or e-mail change requests it really became a simple matter. Most members who do ask to make a change do so only once in a season, but it really means a lot to them. They appreciate each and every box and don’t want to miss out. We are often told how much it means to them that we are flexible.

Maintaining a connection when membership ends

Pre-paid cards: Finally, for members who have decided not to renew, but who love our produce and want to support us (this describes 90 percent of the folks who choose to drop out) we are trying a pre-paid “Supporter” card. We have had the suggestion from members who are dropping out at least once a year for several years now. They buy a card that is redeemable at our farmers’ market stand and that gives them a discount on what they buy.

I decided to take the suggestion more seriously this year, and so I made a mock up of a “Supporter” card to bring to our upcoming core group meeting. We’ll be running this idea by the group: For $95, the purchaser receives a pre-paid card the size of a business card with numbers printed on the front equaling $100. When a purchase is made at our market stand, we'll mark off the value of the purchase by punching or slashing the numbers on the card face equivalent to the purchase total. We think 5 percent is about the smallest discount one could offer and not make it insignificant, but we don't want it to be greater than the discount CSA members receive. Our CSA members generally receive 5 percent more in produce than if they had purchased it from our market stand. We find that if we charge less than that for a share, or give members more produce value than that, we don’t have a sustainable, viable business.

Whether core group advisors will react positively to the card idea I can’t guess. Richard and I have been pretty lukewarm about the idea in the past, but it would be very low-cost and low-risk to implement. We’ll take our core group’s advice about this one.

Web pre-orders: Recognizing that households do opt out of CSA with the intention of shopping more at our market stand (and thus gaining more choice), we are trying to make it easier for them in another way. We vend at a very large market, crowded and unfriendly to the serious, busy shopper, but one that offers great rewards in its varied selection of quality, local products. To reduce shopper frustration in dealing with the crowds, we are offering pre-ordering on our website. Shoppers can view a list of what we will be selling and how much it costs. Then they fill out a quick form, essentially an e-mail to us placing an order that we will have reserved and ready for them when they arrive at our stand. We hope this makes shopping at our market stand easier and increases the actual number of times they attend, since even the most well-intentioned former members don’t shop very regularly.

I hope these ideas for how to offer improved services to CSA members stimulates ideas for ways your members might be better served, making your CSA more sustainable and viable. I can’t emphasize enough that creative options are not a substitute for what CSA is fundamentally about: your fresh, high quality produce. But you already knew that!

I would find it very interesting to hear of the many creative ways other CSA farmers have tried to meet member needs through alternative seasons, quantities, vegetable combinations or other services. I can be reached at harmony@mwt.net.