Posted February 16, 2007: In November 2001,
the board of Prairieland Community Supported Agriculture (PCSA)
found itself in an agonizing position. We had serious concerns
about our farmer's ability to provide quality produce and
maintain positive relationships with our shareholders. With
our turnover increasing at an alarming rate, we also had concerns
about the sustainability of our organization. We knew we had
to do something to protect the future of CSA in our community.
So, after a great deal of hand-wringing, we voted to terminate
our farmer's contract and put the organization on hiatus for
the 2002 season.
A different Kind of CSA
Unlike many CSAs, Prairieland is not farmer-driven. It was
started by members of Common Ground Food Co-op, located adjacent
to the University of Illinois campus in Champaign, Illinois.
Though Prairieland had ceased being part of the same parent
organization a couple of years earlier, we still carried the
values from our food co-op founding.
In the winter of 1994-1995 a group of Common Ground volunteers
found a willing farmer and decided to build a CSA for him.
Operating largely on twenty-something idealism, they decided
to sell shares for spring 1995 instead of waiting until the
following year. Given that the volunteers initially targeted
predominantly graduate student and young university couples,
most of the shares were not purchased until immediately before
the start of the season due to the shareholders' lack of cashflow.
In an attempt to get share numbers up, the volunteers sold
some shares after the season started. Unknown to them, this
decision would dog the CSA for years to come.
By the end of the first season, the farmer had decided he
would be better off quitting farming and returning to school
himself. And so the search was on for a new farmer. To hedge
their bets, the volunteers selected two farmers. However,
one was superior in terms of quality and reliability. This,
too, would make for problems down the road. Eventually the
better of the farmers quit, leaving the other to solo for
two years until the board pulled the plug in 2001.
Finding new farmers
If there was going to be a new beginning, the first step
would be finding new farmers. I consulted with our former
star farmer, whom I was secretly hoping would jump at the
chance to return to the CSA solo. He declined, but let me
run a couple of names past him as potential candidates. I
received a thumbs up on only one.
Armed with my very short list, I found myself driving an
hour north to Watseka, Illinois, to ask Jim and Diann Moore
if they would like to be PCSA's next farmers. Watseka is in
Iroquois County, close to the Indiana line.
It was now January 2002. If the Moores declined, my colleagues
and I were prepared to shut the CSA down completely. I knew
the Moores were not interested in becoming certified organic
like our former star farmer. What I didn't know was how much
of an understatement being certified organic would have been
for their operation.
In more than a decade of writing for farm magazines, I hadn't
seen a family who was working harder or doing more with their
land. The Moores accomplished more on 100 acres than most
farmers in our area did with ten times that much. This was
exactly the kind of family and farm I wanted PCSA to support.
As we sat at the Moores' kitchen table, I laid out the case
for their working with PCSA. They assumed I was interviewing
other farmers. I assumed they would want to consider it for
a few weeks. We were both surprised after 30 minutes to realize
that neither was the case.
About halfway home, I pulled off at a gas station to call
my husband. With the snow whipping around me, I yelled into
the phone, "They said, 'Yes!' They said, 'Yes!'"
We had crossed the first hurdle.
Redesigning and rebuilding
But there were still several hurdles to go, not the least
of which was figuring out how to operate the CSA with a smaller
One of our board members was having second thoughts about
terminating our farmer and declined to continue on the board.
Another's son had a friendship with the farmer's eldest son.
She also found it difficult to continue.
Figuring that two people would be the smallest pool of help
the organization would need to face, my colleague Tamra Stallings
and I decided to build our new CSA to match. We took a hard
look at our procedures and policies.
We eliminated anything that made more work. Monthly meetings?
Gone. Who needs them when there are phones and email? And
so we went down our list of inefficiencies and pet peeves.
PCSA had been blessed with web programmers since its inception.
However, its website wasn't doing much more than providing
Tamra and I decided to shift more of our workload to the
web and the shareholders themselves. She developed an online
signup form tied to a back-end database. This would eliminate
the need to re-key hundreds of pages of paper share reservations.
The data is collected in the database as it comes in, as well
as emailed to the appropriate core worker(s). It can be exported
from the database into a spreadsheet, or one could simply
import the emails into a spreadsheet as they arrive and the
shares are reserved.
At the request of the Moores, we also cut the number of delivery
pickup points from five to two. This meant fewer volunteers
to recruit as pickup hosts and less hassle for soup kitchens
and other organizations that collect the extra produce after
“First” season anxiety
The first season (2003) after the hiatus was a nail biter.
We had set a goal of 85 shares and were only at 63 when the
season started. We found ourselves repeating the mistake of
our predecessors by selling shares after the start of the
season to get our numbers up.
Despite an early season flood, our farmers provided amazing
produce in 2003. We kept our shareholders in the loop on the
effects of the flood in the newsletter. By the end of the
season, when the flood's effects were forgotten, we decided
to capitalize on the shareholders' enthusiasm by selling shares
earlier than we ever had.
Giving first priority to the current shareholders, we began
selling shares in September. We figured that shareholders
could make multiple payments in September, October, November,
and January, and take December off. We assessed a late fee
to any payments that were not made by January 15.
The other decision we made was to use what had made us excited
about having the Moores as farmers as the focus of our marketing.
Unlike other CSAs in our area, ours had the opportunity to
actually transition the next generation of farmers. By April
we had sold 102 shares, meeting our growth goal a month ahead
of the start of the 2004 season.
Tamra and I opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate, and
I ran a second bottle to the Moores to tell them the good
news. Finally, it seemed we were free of the 11th-hour signups.
With only three shareholders without email, we decided to
further streamline our system. We had tested emailing newsletters
during our two-week preseason with good results and decided
to use email for the main season, as well. At the end of the
season, a shareholder gave us a tip that freed us from even
more paperwork and number crunching. We put our end-of-the-year
shareholder survey online with surveymonkey.com.
You can't plan for everything
In 2005 Tamra moved to Nashville, Tennessee, but graciously
offered to continue our share signup programming. Mary McKillip
took over as treasurer. Working from a large waiting list,
we upped our numbers to 145 shares—only to face a record
drought. The Moores were in a particularly bad area. Because
they use long rotations of produce followed by intensively
managed pasture to produce grass-fed beef and lamb—as
well as pastured turkeys, chickens, eggs and pork—they
were hit harder than other farms.
By July we knew the Moores were going to face liquidating
We began soliciting donations from our shareholders and at
the local farmers’ market. We held bake sales and a
fundraiser with local chef Thad Morrow. Morrow, whose restaurant
features some of the Moore's meat and polenta in its seasonal
Italian menus, offered up a case of his own 1996 barolo (a
good year for a special Italian wine) and his restaurant,
Bacaro, for an evening.
At the same time, a shareholder stepped forward to offer
hay from her farm at a deeply discounted rate, making every
dollar we raised go that much further.
We were able to help the Moores spare the majority of their
However, 2006 share sales were slow. We had no waiting list
from the previous year. Even though they received the same
amount of produce as in previous years, many shareholders
decided not to continue. With only 125 shares sold by May
2006, the Moore's eldest son, Wes, opted to take a contractor
up on an offer to pour concrete after he graduated from high
I couldn't help but feel sad going to Wes's graduation party
at the farm. All I had wanted was to give Wes the chance that
my friends and family didn't have in the 1980s. We had tried
so hard and come so close. But, as Diann told me in the weeks
after the party, "This way, he'll know if he really wants
As usual, the Moores had scrambled to make the season’s
produce and products pencil out. They added a second farmers’
market on the weekends, which Wes came home to help them with,
and traded their less-efficient Angus-cross herd for steers
from a local organic grass-fed dairy.
Celebrating a new farmer
By fall, Wes had grown very concerned about his decision
not to farm. A colleague had been killed in an accident on
a job site in another state and Wes was worried for his own
safety. One day Wes pulled his father aside and laid out his
plan for returning to the farm full-time for the 2007 season.
And so we find ourselves today. Mary McKillip has stepped
down from treasurer to raise her new son and finish grad school.
Our new treasurer, Julie Rundell, is processing the last of
the payments for our most rapidly sold-out season to date.
And shareholders past and present are looking forward to a
March 11party to celebrate Wes's joining the farm full-time.
It may have taken us a year longer than we expected, but
it has worked out better than we planned. Wes is sure of his
decision, and we have had the opportunity to come together
as a community to support our farmers.
Prairieland CSA is finally living up to its name.