The right web-based mailing program frees farmers to farm, allows shareholders to pitch in with CSA communications
CSA coordinator explains how PHPlist has saved her farm enough
to fund low-income shares and micro-loans for new greenhouses.

By Anna Barnes, Prairieland CSA Coordinator, CSA-L Moderator

Edited and reprinted by permission from a posting on Prairieland Community Supported Agriculture’s CSA-L listserve (www.prairienet.org/pcsa/CSA-L/). CSA-L is for networking on Community Supported Agriculture, and is primarily for the benefit of its farmer participants. The actual Prairieland CSA is an entity that engages a farm family to produce its shares on the family’s converted corn and soybean farm in northeastern Illinois. The author has served on the CSA’s communications group.

You've been labeled SPAM

Spam blockers were why we originally turned to web-based mailing programs. Because they operate like this listserve and only include the recipient and the sender (individual or organization) in the headers, they are more likely to get through than messages with several recipients, ccs, or bccs.

January 12, 2007: Emailing our shareholders used to be a huge pain for us. If your CSA has webhosting, whether or not you have a site up, you can use web-based mailing programs and make your life much easier.

Some programs are clearly better than others. One out-of-date address or overloaded mailbox is enough to crash programs like Mailman. So after spending three hours sifting through 198 email addresses to find the one bad one three years ago, we switched to PHPlist, which our webhost—Zillionbucks.com—offers to us as part of its lowest priced hosting plan. We can't imagine operating without it. Our sister food co-op uses it, as well.

PHPlist allows us to enter data into our own specified fields, such as email address, first name, last name, as well as co-shareholder names so we know who to remove when people go on sabbatical or move. You also can include phone numbers and date joined (or not) if you have this in another program like QuickBooks. Since PHP is a web database at its core, importing/exporting data is easy. You can mass subscribe your shareholders at the start of a season.

Additionally, PHP allows us to create lists for our entire membership or individual pickup points, in the event we need to communicate specific site information like changes in parking. You also can copy individual records between lists or entire lists easily. Each summer we compile a “waiting” list and move people to the next season's mailing list as they join in late fall/winter with the click of a button.

Because it is web-based, PHPlist also allows us to send messages remotely. So, the entire task of writing or sending a newsletter can easily be delegated to a shareholder or divided among shareholders.

You can also queue messages for later sending. The program also stores records of each message sent, so it is always easy to find what you or others wrote last week. If you include phone numbers, you can delegate someone to remotely export a phone list and start a calling tree in the event of a crisis, say when a delivery truck breaks down.

We regularly copy our new data to our desktop machine, so in the event we or our web host would crash, we shouldn't lose anything.

We still print out newsletters for a couple of members who don't have email, but being able to do our communication online has saved us hundreds of dollars in paper, toner and postage over the years. We have been able to use the savings to fund sponsored shares for low-income members of our community and to make micro-loans to our farmers to help pay for greenhouses and other improvements.

PHPlist runs on most servers, and your ISP may have it running already. To check whether yours does, go to http://uptime.netcraft.com/up/graph/ and type in your website address/URL.

Your host's servers need to be running PHP 4.3 or higher. If your host has Fantastico setup (ask your host, or check/have your webmaster check your site's control panel interface), you can install PHP on your site and begin using it within minutes.