The end was the beginning: Things are much better
five years into a re-started CSA

Taking a break to streamline its whole structure—and persevering through drought and disappointment—is bringing the next generation back to the farm.

By Anna Barnes


All photos © 2005 David Riecks

Lessons learned by Prairieland CSA

People don't read anymore. If something is really important, make sure it is in the first paragraph of your newsletter or email.

People will still ask you the same questions, frequently, even if you put them on your website’s list of FAQs. That’s why they call them “frequently asked questions.”

Marketing the relationship with the farmer is more successful than marketing access to organic produce.

People buy their groceries with credit cards. Many want to buy their CSA shares that way, too. Make it easy for them with Paypal or with a store on www.localharvest.org.

Early payment discounts and late signup penalties don't work nearly as well (for encouraging people to sign up and pay promptly) as refunding partially paid shares and reselling them to someone else. Believe me, word gets around quickly when a CSA actually follows through to find a new owner for an unpaid share.

Use only one farmer for similar produce items. This way he/she bears all the responsibility for quality.

The responses on produce surveys are always a wash, but you still have to ask every year to make people happy.

Never forget to say “Thank you” to your core workers, volunteers and farmers.

Click here for a 2006 profile on the Moores by Sustain.

 

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 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 information.

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 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 their herds.

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 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.