TALKING SHOP: NOFA–NY Conference, January 30, 2004
CSA Grower’s School
Advanced Training for Advanced Farmers: Serious about CSA

By Steve Gilman

Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, Inc. (NOFA-NY)

Purpose: NOFA-NY is a membership organization made up of more than 1,100 farmers, gardeners, businesses and individuals in New York State. They work together to create a sustainable regional food system by promoting land stewardship, organic farming and local marketing.

Programs: NOFA-NY Certified Organic LLC provides USDA-accredited certification services to organic farmers and food-processors; the NOFA-NY website lists hundreds of organic farms and their farm products; to educate and encourage its members, it organizes regional workshops, farm tours and an annual conference; its newsletter helps members and others to connect food and farms. NOFA-NY offers the “Farmer's Pledge” document and protocol to assist farmers who wish to communicate details of their sustainable organic farming practices to their customers.

Contact Information:
NOFA-NY, Inc.
P.O. Box 880
Cobleskill, NY 12043
(518)734-5495
Certification: certifiedorganic@nofany.org
(607) 724-9851
On the web at: nofany.org

Posted April 20, 2004: The NOFA-NY all-day CSA School session opened with a packed classroom at 8 a.m. sharp.

Thick, green three-ring binders loaded with source materials were stacked high on tables next to the registration desk. This wasn’t your basic CSA 101 (community supported agriculture, to the unititiated)—most of the attendees were experienced organic growers looking to augment their farm’s existing CSA programs or wanting to start up new ones. The four instructors at the front of the room had accumulated more than 40 years of CSA experience between them. Clearly, the CSA movement has matured significantly since its beginnings in 1986—possessing deep roots and a substantial body of knowledge that is leading to rapid growth worldwide.

A wealth of experience

Instructor Janet Britt, for example, headed up a pioneering CSA farm venture in 1988 after working for a season with Robyn Van En on Indian Line Farm in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Robyn was a founder of the CSA movement in this country in 1986, the same year the Temple-Wilton Community Farm was independently started in New Hampshire. A group of consumers in New York State’s Capital District region were inspired by Robyn’s work and after meeting for a year helped put it all together, including finding suitable farmland for the farmer and organizing distribution centers in neighboring areas (since the farm is located “20 miles from everywhere”). Originally called the CSA of the Upper Hudson-Mohawk, the Schagticoke, N.Y. farm evolved into Buttermilk Falls Organic Farm, LLC, under Janet’s management. The CSA serves 100 families a year and always has a waiting list.


Indian Line Farm, The Berkshires, MA

Scott Chaskey also started out in 1988, with 10 families at Full Circle Farm on the South Fork of Long Island, N.Y. In 1990, the CSA concept was presented to the Peconic Land Trust in nearby North Amagansett on the Atlantic coast. A hybrid stewardship project was created where the CSA was joined to a conservation land trust. After two years of positive experience, the project evolved into a separate entity, with Scott as head farmer. Quail Hill Farm CSA now encompasses 25 acres of land trust land, serving 200 households. Talking about the CSA concept, Scott said that it was “a ’60s idea that worked,” and he would farm no other way. He paid tribute to Robyn Van En, who died suddenly six years ago at the age of 49, describing her as the Johnny Appleseed of CSA farming.

Further south in Accokeek, Maryland, Shane La Brake has been the CSA farm manager of the Ecosystem Farm since 1995. It is situated in the midst of National Park Service land directly across the Potomic River from George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, 10 miles south of Washington, D.C. The 8 acre certified organic farm is a project of the Accokeek Foundation and is designed to train apprentices and sell vegetables through the CSA. Since the park rules require that no structures, power lines or cultivated ground be visible to Mount Vernon’s viewscape, the farm’s fields, solar-powered packing sheds and irrigation system are tucked behind tree lines and hedgerows. Historically, the area was extensively used to grow tobacco for colonial exports, although its clay soils and high water table present considerable challenges for vegetable farming.

The newest farmer to CSA was David Hambleton of Sisters Hill Farm, a 190-member nonprofit CSA in Dutchess County, N.Y. David was hired by the Sisters of Charity in 1998 to start the CSA farm on their land; he has expanded the operation to 3 acres using concentrated cultivation and hoophouse-growing techniques. David’s intensive growing methods are very productive, demonstrating that CSAs can feed large numbers of people from small acreage. In 2003, for example, the farm produced 65,000 pounds of high-quality vegetables for its shareholders, as well as for nearby low-income families, through a project run by the Sisters. David spent a number of years working on other farms to gain experience before launching this endeavor. Central to his approach is designing in quality of life and family-time up front so that the farm doesn’t end up consuming all his waking hours.

Exploring the CSA option

The CSA Grower’s School was part of the 2004 NOFA-NY Conference held January 30 through February 1 at the Holiday Inn Conference Center in Liverpool, N.Y. (just outside Syracuse). Although the session was set up as a separate Friday pre-conference, the CSA thread was woven throughout the main conference schedule Saturday and Sunday. Another 13 workshops covered everything from “College-based CSAs” and “CSAs for Low Income People” to “Restaurant-Supported Agriculture” and “Organizations Helping to Build CSAs”. The all-day school session, however, allowed participants extra time to dig deeply into the many aspects of creating, managing and growing crops for a CSA.

The instructors put together the day’s curriculum by topic, with well-organized co-presentations. They engaged in a cooperative dance, frequently exchanging slide trays on the carousel projector as they took turns presenting differing perspectives on the various CSA operations. The green binders were designed to supplement and back up each section and contained such practical information as actual farm shareholder outreach materials (including newsletter examples and member response forms) and internal farm record-keeping tables and crop rotation plans.

“Is CSA Right for You” was the catch-all title covering the importance of designing the CSA to fit one’s location, skills and resources. Just as important is an assessment of the personal attributes farmers need to make it work. Shane stressed that the farmers not only need to be competent growers but must also be good people-persons (or have someone in the organization who is), as an interactive partnership with shareholders is key.

Dave said CSA revolutionized the way he deals with consumers. It allows him to preset the size of the farm he wants and to generate the income and lifestyle he needs without having to think further about money or pricing. For those getting started, he quoted the book Sharing the Harvest by Elizabeth Henderson with Robyn Van En that “farmers should start small and grow into it.” The instructor added that CSA works on the large scale too—with the 2,500 member Watershed Organics CSA in N.J. and a 40,000-member “box scheme” organization in Denmark as major examples.

The team also delved into the “scary part” – CSAs that fail due to their inability to deal with common pitfalls. In addition to the lack of grower skills and financial resources, a dearth of people skills is again at the top of the list. Ongoing communication problems cause shareholders to lose confidence in the farmer and the program. The risks (including the possibility of adverse weather, crop problems and pest outbreaks) should be clearly presented up front so shareholders understand what they’re getting into. Realistic assessments of resources and capabilities are important so farmers don’t overextend themselves—such as taking on too many shareholders with too few crops.

The personal challenges to running a CSA are physical (being healthy and in good shape); mental (making valid appraisals and continually learning from experience); emotional (having the ability to handle varying situations); and financial (having adequate capital and cash flow). There was general agreement that newsletters are the most important regular communication tool growers have to reach and retain shareholders. Someone in the CSA should have the writing skills necessary to generate regular issues to educate members and keep them connected to the farm and the farm community.

Farmers also need to realistically assess their land’s growing capacity. Shane testified to his experience that you can grow good crops on poor ground but it takes much more time and resources. The general formula in “Sharing the Harvest” of being able to generate 20 shares per acre can be ratcheted upward the more the soil is built up and balanced. Overall, however, the panel agreed that one acre of fertile soil is better than five acres of poorer ground any day.

Building a successful CSA from the ground up

Section II dealt with “Finding Members and Setting Up the Organization.” Here a “core group” of shareholders can play a decisive role in handling both aspects—there’s nothing like a satisfied membership’s word-of-mouth to bring in more people. Janet recounted the story of an enthusiastic shareholder who was instrumental in signing up many state workers from adjoining offices. There are numerous working models to choose from, however, from the single farmer working alone to member run CSAs that hire a farmer. Member involvement in producing newsletters, farm events and recruitment tasks can free the farmer to spend more time farming. Shareholders often possess many valuable skills and professional expertise that can help out with everything from advertising to legal work.

The instructors carefully covered the legal structures available to CSAs. A "sole proprietorship" limits the liability to the farmer or owner and is appropriate where members and others do not want to take on the business risk. A "general partnership" (with a spouse or others) is a way of sharing risk among the principals without indemnifying others, while a limited partnership limits the liability to how much each member invests. The "corporate structure" covers multiple owners and limits liability to what is contained in the business, protecting personal assets. There are increased regulations and fees for this model, however, and owners are taxed twice via corporate and individual assessments. "S corporations" also offer protections but income is only taxed once, as a partnership. Finally, the "Limited Liability Company," or LLC, combines several positive elements in one easy package, including liability protection with far fewer compliance regulations.

Regarding insurance, the team recommended business liability insurance that is traditionally available to U-pick operations for covering CSA members on the farm. Some policies can cover shareholders as “volunteers”. The operating concept is “due diligence”—a demonstrated good-faith effort to provide safe conditions on the farm.

“Retaining Members” was the last segment before lunch. The panel again underscored that newsletters are the number-one tool for making the CSA experience more meaningful for shareholders. They can help generate enthusiasm for Swiss chard in the middle of the summer while keeping a focus on the bigger picture. Shane said many of his farm’s newsletters center around three main themes: “What does it mean to eat fresh, eat local and eat in season.” There was general panel agreement that the newsletter writing task should not be left until the last minute, where it can suffer with conflicting harvesting and packing operations.

Many CSAs offer a work-share option at a lower price, which helps shareholders to connect more deeply to the farm if they so desire. Some shareholders only want to “pay and pick up” and it was stressed that this should be an acceptable option for everyone. It is key, panel members agreed, to not make people feel guilty about their level of involvement. Overall, they said, it’s wise to reinforce positive messages and not whine too much about the weather and other vicissitudes in the newsletters. Bartering CSA memberships with artists for brochures and artwork or for skills such as welding are another means of meeting the farm’s needs and engaging members in the larger community.

Putting on farm events is a fun way to get people to the farm and inspire community. Farm tours, speakers, tomato tastings and seasonal celebrations are all effective draws to the farm. The instructors also urged the class to think outside the box. Scott, for example, works with a local restaurant to produce an annual benefit dinner that is widely advertised and well attended. The benefit is designed to raise capital for buying additional farm equipment as well as attract new members.

The school’s buffet lunch break offered a relaxed opportunity for participants to mingle and compare notes with fellow classmates. The instructors were available to answer questions and lead informal discussions. Then it was back to work and the afternoon session shifted gears to address crop production considerations.

Farming to feed a CSA

In a segment titled “How to Plan Crops for CSA,” Dave underscored the importance of surveying the membership—formally through written questionnaires and informally through conversations at the pick up centers—to find out what they want. End-of-season feedback forms are an important tool for determining customer preferences. The instructors found that the more they could support less familiar crops like kohlrabi with newsletter write-ups and recipes during the summer, the higher their ranking that fall and the more shareholders looked forward to reconnecting with them the following season.

In addition to producing a diverse amount of crops and varieties, CSA farmers need to grow numerous successions of the most popular crops such as lettuce and broccoli so they are available on a regular basis throughout the season. It is a constant balancing act for the grower to keep from producing too little or too much of any one crop. No matter what the crop, however, a constant commitment to delivering high quality is the key consideration.

Dave stressed the importance of not relying on memory but keeping detailed records of crop planting, harvests and quantities packed for shareholders. A harvest sheet hangs on a clipboard over the scale in his packing shed, and workers are trained to diligently log in everything produced. Over the winter this information is extracted from the daily logs and entered into a database that can be sorted by crop, seed quantity, harvest date, rotation sequence, etc., in order to form the basis for the following year’s plan.

The instructors all said that it is most cost-effective for them to produce their own seedlings in greenhouses on the farm, although start-up operations may wish to purchase seedlings if they are not well set up to do this at the outset. Janet sows extra quantities of herbs and tomatoes for plant sales to the public as a means of generating extra springtime income. Scott talked about reclaiming the lost art of growing in cold frames as a means for hardening off seedlings and alleviating overcrowding in the greenhouse. Quality seedlings produce quality crops. Transplants also get the farm’s production off to an early start when crop selection is limited, and they help generate regular crop successions when direct-sowing conditions in the field are less than optimal.

Another option is to plant some pick-your-own crops for shareholders. For labor-intensive crops like peas, beans, strawberries and cut flowers, this option widens the choices to members while cutting harvest costs for the farmer. Some farms also sponsor gleaning events where the fields are opened at the end of the season and any remaining crops are free for the taking.

CSA production and pricing

Next, the panel briefly covered tillage, agreeing that less is more in terms of promoting soil health and building organic matter. Scott drew some nods of agreement, however, when he went into the problems of using a spader, a popular implement a few years ago. While it can produce better soil effects than many tillage tools, it operates at very slow speeds and turns out to be a very high maintenance piece of equipment.

Despite the over-abundant rainfall of the 2003 growing season in the Northeast, the instructors agreed that an irrigation system is a necessity in this era of weather extremes. Lettuce and leaf greens require an inch of water a week, for example, and overall crop production suffers during periods of drought. Standard-overhead and drip systems were compared, but the most elegant was David’s quick-connect zone system. The water supply is controlled by inexpensive solenoid valves and zone boxes, allowing him to preset a timer and systematically cover the entire farm automatically once the nozzles are in place.

While insect and disease pressure seems to have lessened over the years on the mature organic farms, weeds require constant vigilance. David takes a zero tolerance approach utilizing a bare fallow/stale seedbed approach to exhaust the weed seed supply in the soil coupled with not letting any weeds go to seed. Smother crops like buckwheat in the summer and oats over winter protect bare soil and out-compete weeds. Rotational planning was also high on the list to break both weed and pest cycles. Culivation implements of choice ranged from the Lely tine weeder, basket weeders and propane flamers, to hand-operated wheel hoes and stirrup hoes, using the biggest tools first and fine tuning by hand.

All the instructors make use of high tunnels for earlier lettuce and greens production in the spring and for extending tomatoes and peppers into late fall. Good airflow is a major consideration for preventing diseases. Scott provides a winter share from Thanksgiving until the end of February using unheated greenhouses (with row covers to further protect crops) and a root cellar.

The final segment addressed pricing the share. While the actual farm budget should form the basis, farmers need to be realistic. Supermarket prices establish a food price relativity as does competition from nearby CSAs. The bottom line is the farmer must be paid a living wage with farm costs covered. Recent studies show shareholders generally benefit by paying a wholesale price (or less) in return for their upfront dollars. The resulting “associative economy” is based on much more than bottom lines, however. CSA goes way beyond a financial arrangement—offering community, a link to nature, participation in growing one’s food supply, a tie to place and a real connection to farm life.

The school session concluded with breaking the class into four smaller groups centered around each instructor. Ample time was allotted for questions and more focused discussions. Classmates agreed that the CSA Growers School covered a lot of ground in the intensive session and provided a solid overview of the current state of the art of CSA in the Northeast.


Steve Gilman is a long time organic farmer and organic farming writer, with a special interest in CSA.