Supplying good food to local people in a busy world
Don and Becky Kretschmann share the insights they've gained over 32 years of farming--including the secret to running a successful CSA

By Daniel E. Brannen Jr.

A Successful CSA: Organization is Key

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.

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.

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 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 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 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.

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 the customers.”

“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.”

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.

Advice for
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 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.”