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
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
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 organization.
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 minimal
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 pickup.
“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
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
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
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 their
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 herds.
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 school.
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 to farm."
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
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.