How to Start a CSA Business
Growing plants requires patience, perseverance, and daily commitment. Whether you’re new to gardening or a seasoned farmer, this guide will walk you through the steps required to start a Community-supported Agriculture (CSA) business.
Steps to Start a CSA Business
Most CSAs are run by small-scale farmers who also sell produce or other natural goods to consumers at farmers markets, restaurants, or other businesses. As such, it’s important to keep in mind that the financial payoff of a CSA is just a small part of the overall value of starting a CSA. Small-scale farming is a noble profession: it provides opportunities to engage with and improve your local community, and it helps the global environment.
Step One: Learn Your Market and Identify Your Customers
Much of the nitty gritty detail-work of planning and launching your CSA business will be determined by your location. Are you farming on an urban lot, surrounded by restaurants, grocery stores and residential homes? Or do you live way out in the country, two hours away from a major metro area? Based on your specific situation, you’ll want to consider many different questions, including:
How much demand is there for a CSA in your area?
A great place to start is by asking friends and neighbors where they get their farm fresh food. You can also search online to find other CSAs and farmer markets nearby to see if others are seeing success with the CSA business model.
Who is your target market?
It’s important to clearly define your ideal CSA member. This is vital not only for marketing purposes, but also for things like creating a realistic business plan. Try to get answers to questions like:
- How many meals a week do they cook at home?
- What vegetables and herbs do they use on a regular basis?
- Are they open to trying new things?
- Do they like to experiment with new recipes?
- Are there certain things they absolutely won’t eat?
- What would their preferred payment model look like?
- Are they open to paying for the season up front? Or would they rather pay on a month-to-month basis?
Come up with as many questions as you can to get all the information you’ll need to provide a great CSA experience for your members.
What does your competition look like?
One model you can use to analyse your business competition is known as a S.W.O.P. analysis. This is a written breakdown of your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. How will your business stand out from existing CSAs or other sources of farm fresh produce in your area?
You can also find out how many members CSAs nearby have, and what additional side businesses they are operating. This information will help you estimate what portion of your overall income could potentially come from CSA memberships, and it may also spark ideas for additional offerings you could provide your members.
Recommended: Once you're ready to start recruiting members, check out our guide, How to Find Members for your CSA.
Step Two: Make a CSA Business Plan
Do Your Homework
Before you sit down to write-up your business plan, it’s important to have a sense of the techniques and strategies that you plan to use on your farm. There are tons of books and other educational resources out there. It’s helpful to have one or more role-models that inspire you to guide your trajectory as you’re starting out.
If you’re unsure where to start, a great book to check out is Elliot Coleman’s, The New Organic Grower. Elliot Coleman is one of the pioneers of modern organic farming and his book has some really useful sections on soil health, crop rotations, seasonal extension and much more.
Choosing Your Acreage
Once you’ve gotten a clear sense of your market and your general approach to gardening, the next step is to decide your acreage and draft your business plan. Although it’s tempting to “go big or go home,” you want to be careful not to take on more than you can realistically handle. If you’ve never run a commercial gardening business like a CSA before, or if you do have experience but are on a new plot of land, you’ll need to focus a lot on research in the first year.
If you're starting out alone with no employees, your best bet is to begin on 1/2 acre or less. This can provide enough space to make a revenue, but not so much that you’re overwhelmed by the learning curve. In the beginning, a lot of time will be dedicated to building infrastructure and learning weed/pest management solutions, so you won’t have as much time for planting, managing, and harvesting crops. In addition, the techniques and equipment you start off using may be completely different by your second season, as you get more familiar with your microclimate.
Creating a Crop Calendar
Another important aspect of planning a CSA is developing a crop calendar. This could be something as simple as an excel spreadsheet showing a comprehensive breakdown of what you will grow, when you will plant, when you will harvest, and where in the garden it will be planted. It should also include yield projections, plant spacing and any other crop specific details that should be noted.
Although there are no universally reliable methods for determining your expected yields, it is important to do your best to estimate this as it is crucial for running an efficient and profitable CSA. Here are three tips for for getting a sense of how much food your garden will actually grow:
- Check with other CSAs or gardeners in your area to see what are their average yields for the different crops you plan to plant.
- Contact the agriculture departments at nearby universities, as they may have expected yield tables specific to your climatic zone.
- Over time, you can measure your own yields by weighing each harvest in order to develop your own statistics based on your unique microclimate and growing conditions.
There is no single right way to create a crop calendar since every climate is different, although you can find many different templates online. It’s usually a good idea to sit down for a few weeks during the winter before your first season to hash it all out, but you definitely don’t want to wait until the spring, right before your season begins.
Recommended: Check out our easy-to-follow guide on creating a CSA crop calendar for a simple walkthrough and useful tips.
Deciding on a Revenue Model
During your planning phase, you will also want to consider the different types of CSA revenue models. In the traditional CSA model, members usually pay upfront for the entire season in the form of a one-time payment.
However, if you’re looking to offer greater flexibility to your members, you can also offer a weekly or monthly subscription that can be started or canceled at any time.
Some CSA’s also divide memberships into seasonal shares (spring, summer, fall, and possibly winter).
Whatever you choose, it is important to select a revenue model that works well for you and also appeals to your target customers. As you gain experience, you can always adjust and try new payment models as needed.
Drafting a Formal Business Plan
It is important that early on in the process of starting your CSA you create a thorough business plan. This should include at least the following items:
- Mission statement. Here you succinctly state the core values and overarching purpose of your business.
- Market analysis. Write out the results of your initial market research, including the information you gathered on various local competitors and your ideal member profile.
- Executive summary. This is a brief overview of your business plan. Be sure to cover all the essential information, but leave the details and explanations for later.
- Startup costs / financial requirements. Estimate the cost of any equipment, supplies, seeds, etc, that will be needed to get your business going.
- Farm design & crop selection. Include a sketch or mockup of your garden design, including the crops you will plant, how many, etc.
- Plan for weed and pest management. Explain how you will deal with weeds, pests, and any other challenges specific to your microclimate.
Keep in mind that your business plan will evolve over time. Nonetheless, it’s important to start somewhere by putting your vision into writing. A written business plan will be useful for personal use and also for presenting your vision to potential investors. If you plan to seek financing/grant money, a formal business plan is absolutely necessary.
Recommended: Need help writing a business plan? Try our easy-to-use Business Plan Generator. You can also check out our Business Model Canvas tool for additional planning and strategizing.
Step Three: Set Up Your Infrastructure and Get Supplies
It’s important to invest in the right infrastructure, equipment, and field inputs when you're starting out. Here we cover the essentials, but it’s a good idea to create your own list so that you are 100% sure you’ll have everything you’ll need.
The infrastructure of your farm will evolve over time, and you don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money up front, as there are affordable options. It’s also important to consider whether you are farming on rented land or land of your own.
If you are farming on rented land, you may not want to invest too much in permanent infrastructure that can’t be broken down and moved if need be. For example, instead of installing a greenhouse with a cement foundation, you can opt for a hoop house which can be disassembled and moved. In many cases, agreements can be made between farmers and landowners on splitting costs.
The following list is the critical infrastructure needed to run a commercial operation.
- Animal fencing
- Post-harvest area, including a place to wash, package, and store produce
If you are operating on less than one acre, you don’t need big equipment, or even a tractor. Basic hand tools like the following will suffice:
- Stir-up hoes
- A bed rake
- A push seeder
- A rototiller (unless you opt for a no-till approach)
- Agricultural sillage tarps
- Seed starting trays
Recommended: If you're wondering where to start when making your initial equipment list, check out our article on the most essential equipment for new CSAs.
It's important to consider your land’s fertility. Without good fertility, you have poor plant health, lower yields, and crop failure. Healthy topsoil is the foundation for biological diversity, which will reduce pest pressures and increase all around growing success. Sources of organic fertility include: compost, animal manure, cover crops and mulches such as leaves or wood chips. There are also methods of making your own compost, and you should experiment with these different methods.
When buying seeds, it’s important to source from a reputable catalogue. Johnnyseeds.com is a great source for tried and true varieties of seeds. UFseeds.com is also a great source for seeds, and they have a good selection of cover crops as well. Bad seeds from an unreputable source will lead to low germination rates and this can be devastating to business. Good genetics goes a long way, and it’s a small investment to make in the bigger scheme of things.
Step Four: Refine Your Brand
Now that you’ve got the logistical planning taken care of, it’s time to revisit why you wanted to start a CSA in the first place. You’re probably not getting into small scale agriculture for the paycheck. It’s crucial that your personal values show up in your marketing and business practices. Customers are looking for more than just a great product, they want to be part of something bigger than themselves.
There are many, many benefits to starting a CSA business:
- Providing fresh, organic food to your community
- Inspiring local community members to do more at-home gardening of their own
- Modeling sustainable agricultural practices
- Reducing greenhouse gas emissions
- Helping others to live a healthier lifestyle
- Teaching the value and benefits of eating seasonal foods
Take time to consider what your unique mission is and how you can best communicate it to your CSA members. You should be able to explain your ideology to anybody, anywhere, in down-to-earth language.
At the same time, you have to be practical and realistic about what is possible on your farm. Certain goals may need to be long-term objectives if your initial set-up can’t perfectly accommodate all of your ideals — and that’s perfectly okay.
Step Five: Network and Promote Your Business
They say it’s not about what you know, but who you know. And in farming, this is especially true. Take the time to reach out to other farmers in your area as well as your local ag extension office to start building relationships with like-minded individuals. Find relevant community events and attend them. You may discover new partnership or marketing opportunities that you didn’t think of before. Our relationships are our most valuable asset, both as individuals and as business owners.
But most importantly, just start telling people what you’re doing! Often it’s easiest to start with friends and family members, as they are going to be some of your first customers. Also, they will naturally tell other people they know about your CSA, and the word will begin to circulate your larger community.
Running a CSA is not just about selling retail produce; you want to offer members a great CSA experience by helping them cultivate a relationship with their local farmer (you) as well as the land itself. Most people buy into a CSA because they want to know where their food is coming from, and they want to support local farming. Here are some tips for connecting with your members and helping them develop a sense of belonging and commitment.
- Launch a newsletter. This can be something as simple as weekly newsletter covering your latest activities on the farm as well as the challenges and trials you’ve come up against. If you want, you can also include informational content about eating fresh, organic foods, the beneficial impact of local agriculture on the environment, or even some of your favorite recipes.
- Host a potluck. Having an annual brunch is a great way to bring the CSA members together and create a sense of community. Get your members engaged in the cooking so you can all share recipes using ingredients from the garden!
- Offer volunteer opportunities. There is no better way to connect people to the land then to get their hands dirty in the field. Volunteerships are a great way to educate members about their food and to develop a personal relationship with the farm. Having a group event where everyone comes to help can be very useful also in getting certain tasks done, although volunteers are often very inexperienced and shouldn’t be trusted with certain tasks. Bringing volunteers to the farm is also a way to scout for potential employees or interns.
- Talk to your members. It’s a simple but powerful thing to make conversation with your members wherever you get the chance. Next time you have a box pickup, take the time to ask your members what they think of the produce, and find out how they’re using it. You can learn a lot about what they like and don’t like, and it shows members that you care. Good communication is the foundation of customer service.