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 ago.
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
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 do it.”
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
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 the farm.
“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
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.
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
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
“I don’t quite buy the whole thing about the customers
taking the risk,” Don confesses. “I feel I have to have
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
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
|"...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
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
• In dry years, irrigate half your crops for
the CSA customers, leaving the wholesale crops to nature.
• 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 to be.”
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.”