JUNE 3, 2003: Giving the customers what they
want is a key element of success in any business. For western
Pennsylvania organic growers Don and Becky Kretschmann, the
principle not only guides their marketing strategy, but is literally
responsible for launching their profitable CSA venture ten years
Successful CSA: Organization
Don Kretschmann advises farmers with productive
capacity not to overlook organization as an element
of CSA success.
Kretschmann Farm has a spreadsheet
that keeps track of each member’s data,
including likes, dislikes, pricing, payment, vacations,
and special bulk orders.
The Kretschmanns use this data to create delivery
schedules organized by stop, weekly packing lists,
labels for the crates, and billing records, including
a list of people who are behind in payments.
They also analyze
the crates of food each week to
assess their income from specific crops and the
retail value of the shares for members.
After starting in farming by growing corn and tomatoes for
the wholesale market in 1971, the Kretschmanns were twenty-year
veterans of Pittsburgh area farmers’ markets by 1993.
“I’d heard about the CSA concept,” recalls
Don of that summer, “and one of my market customers
kept bugging me, ‘Won’t you try it, won’t
you try it?’ I eventually said you market it, and I’ll
Don’s customer put flyers up at Carnegie-Mellon University
that July. The next month the Kretschmanns began delivering
shares after market, and by the end of their first CSA season
they had 85 members.
It’s that easy, right? Hardly. The Kretschmanns began
their CSA with productive capacity. From there, success has
meant catering to the needs of today’s busy consumers,
spreading risk and increasing diversity by partnering with
other farmers, and keeping some eggs in the wholesale basket.
ASC: Agriculture Supported Convenience
Don readily admits that his CSA differs slightly from the
model of customers having intimate, hands-on involvement with
“My model expands the pool of potential subscribers
to regular old commuters and busy people who have plenty to
do,” Don says. “They are willing to commit money,
but don’t have much time. I’m providing for their
needs, and they’re providing for mine, just like family
members are committed to each other, even though the husband
and wife might work two separate jobs.”
At the Kretschmann Farm, nestled outside Zelienople thirty
minutes northwest of Pittsburgh, providing for the consumers’
needs means weekly deliveries of food in wooden-slat crates
to porches and garages at thirty-three metropolitan area drop-off
locations making it one of the largest CSAs in the country.
The Kretschmanns affix a label to each crate identifying customers
by name, produce likes and dislikes, and whether they get
a paper copy of the CSA newsletter, all of which informs the
farm laborers during the packing process while giving the
crates a personal feel for members.
drop off: Providing for the consumers’
needs means weekly deliveries of food in wooden-slat
crates to porches and garages at thirty-three metropolitan
area drop-off locations making it one of the largest
CSAs in the country. This is just one of those drop
Variety among the colors and smells from the organic herbs,
vegetables, and fruits makes each crate an attractive cornucopia
that keeps the customers coming back. The Kretschmanns build
the selection around a salad, always mindful that surprise
and diversity are two of the great benefits of using the CSA
model, for both the consumer and the farmer.
“People like that they don’t have total control
over what they get,” says Don. “Some say its like
Christmas in the summertime. If we give them tomatillos, hot
peppers, and cilantro, they can try to make a salsa. One year
we threw in wild purslane and a purslane fritters recipe.”
Here convenience shows up again, in the form of a weekly
newsletter with nutritional data, recipes and suggested uses,
plus tidbits on how purchasing from a local organic farmer
helps the economy and the environment.
“The newsletter is a key,” says Becky. “It’s
nice to see the crate of food, but knowing more about it attracts
“It lets you manage expectations,” Don adds.
“One of the beauties of the whole CSA thing is you wind
up with such an efficiency, because you're not only selling
the perfect 'number ones', but sometimes you're selling things
that normally would not be saleable in terms of wholesale
appearance. But you need to explain any shortcomings in the
newsletter, and learn where to draw the line between putting
it in the crate and throwing it in the compost heap.”
Building a Community of Farmers
Farming always involves risks, so if the CSA model eases
nervousness on the marketing side of the equation, it heightens
anxiety on the production side.
“I don’t quite buy the whole thing about the
customers taking the risk,” Don confesses. “I
feel I have to have product.”
confesses: “I don’t quite buy
the whole thing about the customers taking the risk
. . . I feel I have to have product.”
This compulsion led Don and Becky to partner three years
ago with western Pennsylvania Amish farmers. Under one such
arrangement today, Daniel and Aaron Schwartz of Sligo, Pennsylvania,
produce and butcher USDA-inspected, free-range broiler chickens
that the Kretschmanns deliver to their CSA customers, plus
eggs that the Kretschmanns buy outright for inclusion in the
crates. In addition to spreading risk a bit, it increases
diversity, giving the customers chickens monthly and eggs
weekly, whereas before they could only share in the Kretschmanns’
twice-a-year production of pastured poultry.
Besides chickens and eggs, the four Amish families with whom
the Kretschmanns are partnering supply strawberries, green
beans, peas, melons, and squash. Because Amish families tend
to have many children, hand labor intensive produce seems
to be good for them.
There are downsides and challenges to these arrangements.
Customers are used to buying eggs when they run out of them
and chickens when their evening menus calls for some. It seems
harder for people to get used to the delivery system, requiring
more education through the newsletter.
For some customers, too, partnering with other farmers may
stretch the concept of CSA.
“It presents a difficult dance,” says Don. “One
of the things with CSA is people want to be dealing with the
farmer. I’ve learned, however, that it is only fair
to tell members when produce is coming from other farms.”
Back to Basics with Wholesale Cooperatives
The strategy of partnering with area farmers makes so much
sense to Don and Becky that after putting Amish goods in CSA
crates one year, they decided to take the partnership to store
shelves the next year.
|"...they formed Pennsylvania
Local Organic Works, LLC, in 2002. A cooperative of five
area growers with room for more, PLOW seeks to level the
playing field between the farming Davids and the wholesale
Goliaths of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio."
“The organic market is growing at ten percent a year,”
advises Don. “There’s good money at the wholesale
level, they’re buying food for that market from all
over the country. So I decided, why not supply it locally?”
After the Kretschmanns and Schwartzes dipped their feet into
these waters in 2001, they formed Pennsylvania Local Organic
Works, LLC, in 2002. A cooperative of five area growers with
room for more, PLOW seeks to level the playing field between
the farming Davids and the wholesale Goliaths of western Pennsylvania
and eastern Ohio.
To point PLOW in the right direction, Don and company sought
advice from Jim Crawford and Chris Fullerton of Tuscarora
Organic Growers, a cooperative of twenty-five producers that
has operated since 1988 from south central Pennsylvania. TOG
helped PLOW with everything from bylaws and organizational
structure to crop specs, box sizes, liners, and produce quality.
USDA also has sample governance documents and perhaps grant
money for getting started.
Then came the hard part: pinning down buyers.
“Buyers don’t bat an eye at changing suppliers
for a nickel,” says Don.
It’s too early to say whether PLOW will be successful,
though the ingredients to sustain it seem to be persistence,
creativity, and a close eye on income and expenses. PLOW has
had to hit the phones many times with potential buyers such
as Giant/Eagle and Whole Foods Markets. This year Giant/Eagle
is interested in fifteen crops, giving PLOW quantities and
price ranges for each. Whole Foods has been harder to reach.
“Eventually,” shares Don, “we said, what
are you buying now? They said basil, so we put basil in the
ground, and they’re buying it from us.” PLOW hopes
such speculation will prove fruitful for the sale of Amish
sugar baby watermelons too.
New CSA Farmers
from the Kretschmann
• Build productive capacity with wholesale
and farmers’ markets first. CSAs can encourage
poor crop selection and production habits.
• Once you have productive capacity, get
as much retail business as you can through the
CSA, but spread marketing risk with restaurants
and wholesale buyers. Kretschmann Farm income
is 90% CSA, 10% wholesale and other sources, though
the product distribution is more 75%, 25%.
• In dry years, irrigate half your crops
for the CSA customers, leaving the wholesale crops
• Put high value, low volume crops in the
crate. Sweet corn, often a losing crop in terms
of income per acre, is a winner in the CSA crate
because of high demand.
• Be flexible. If people must leave mid-season,
give a partial refund.
• Find CSA customers where people know
the need for good, healthy food.
• Never get to the point where you are
not answering the phone yourself.
Asked for advice for potential wholesaler growers, Don says
to go everywhere you can, never taking anything as an impossibility.
PLOW met one potential wholesale buyer at a farmer-to-chef
event in Pittsburgh. And just as diversifying with extra items
creates marketing advantage, Don recommends diversification
on your CSA and farmers’ market routes by visiting restaurants
and stores along the way.
As for money, PLOW committs to returning 80% of its sales
to the farmer members who grow the food. In addition to the
20% which covers the cost to operate and deliver from a centralized
office and dry storage location, PLOW tracks expenses carefully
to charge farmers mileage and labor for pickup at their farms.
“When you calculate expenses carefully and plan to
pass 80% of the wholesale prices to the farmers,” reasons
Don, “math lets you determine what those prices need
The Secret Ingredients
Looking over the Kretschmann Farm, with its hillside orchard
and fifteen to twenty rolling acres of productive farmland,
one wonders about the intangible elements of success.
“Start young and foolish,” says Becky. “You
learn. One year we had onion sets that we neglected, the next
year Don ordered ten times as many. I said, ‘You’re
nuts.’ He said, ‘It’s a problem of scale.’
And he was right, we took care of the greater volume.”
At the suggestion that foolishness is in good supply during
youth, the Kretschmanns admit they still have their own healthy
dose. Yet experience has added the voice of intuition too.
“Listen hard,” says Becky with steady, determined
eyes, “and do what you’re called to do.”