Last Updated: February 16, 2024, 12:13 pm by TRUiC Team

How to Create a Crop Plan for Your CSA in 5 Steps

Creating a crop plan is crucial to successfully running any commercial market farm and it is especially important for doing a CSA. In a CSA, you will need to have a sufficient variety of fruit/vegetables in each and every box in order to keep members happy. This requires a carefully, well thought out plan prepared months in advance.

Recommended: Read our 5 step guide to starting a CSA written by a successful startup CSA owner.

Person harvesting sweet potatoes

Step One: Choose the Right Crops for Your CSA

A good place to start for any crop plan is to decide on what type of crops you want to grow. This will depend a lot on the needs and wants of your CSA members. If this is your first year doing a CSA, then you can conduct market research by surveying potential members and asking what they’d like to see in their box. Generally speaking, there are some crops which are obvious staples in an American diet, and others which are less popular. The better you’re able to match your harvest to the diets of your local community members, the more successful your CSA will be.

If you’re just starting out, keep in mind that your first season will be somewhat of an experiment. You will also want to consider the potential profitability of each crop. There are several factors that determine the profitability of a crop:

  • How much labor it requires to grow
  • How much space it takes up in your field
  • How long it takes to grow
  • How much labor it requires to harvest

Certain crops are fast-growing, highly productive, and easier to grow while others are the exact opposite. For example, beans are a common staple in most American diets. However, because they require a significant amount of time to harvest, you may want to consider only doing one succession of them throughout your season, if at all.

Another important principle to remember is that in a CSA, you’re selling by volume, not weight. Microgreens are normally very profitable because they can be sold for a high price per pound. However, they may not be ideal for a CSA.

Step Two: Create a Crop Availability Chart

Now that you’ve chosen your crop selection, draw up a chart that depicts which crops will be available during what times of the season. This can be done on an excel spreadsheet with the week number on the Y-axis, and the crops on the X-axis. Then write in, week by week, what you’d like to see in your CSA boxes.

Remember to be realistic about what can grow during what seasons, based on your local climate. Night shades such as tomatoes and peppers grow well in the summer, and more cold-hardy crops such as spinach and baby lettuce grow better during the cooler parts of the season.

After you’ve drawn a crop availability chart, go back and see how many types of produce are in each weekly box to figure out where you are light on variety, and adjust your chart accordingly.

Step Three: Calculate Yield Requirements

In order to project your crop yields, you need to figure how much of each crop (in terms of weight, bunches, heads, etc.) you're going to include in each CSA box. Then multiply your per box requirement by the amount of CSA members you plan on having. After you’ve calculated the amount of total crops you’ll need to grow, the next step is to figure out how much space you will need to produce a sufficient harvest.

For example, let’s say you want two heads of broccoli in each CSA box for four weeks during the spring and you have 20 CSA shareholders. Multiple 2 x 20 and you get 40 heads of broccoli per week. Then, consider planting 25% extra in case of crop failure. Now you know that you’ll need to plant 50 broccoli transplants every week for 4 weeks during the start of the season.

There is data available online for projecting yields for any given crop. You can check the agriculture department at your state university, or ask a local librarian for help finding more information. However, the best data is what you compile based on your own experience growing food on your land. There are many, many variables that affect crop yields, and every micro-climate is different. For this reason, you’ll want to keep accurate records of each harvest in order to make accurate projections in future seasons.

Step Four: Create a Crop Calendar

A crop calendar is a comprehensive spreadsheet that shows your planting schedule, projected yields, estimated harvest dates, and all other important details in your crop plan. Now that you have taken the previous three steps, you can now compile this data into a crop calendar.

The first step in making your crop calendar is to determine your planting dates. To do this, use the crop availability chart you created earlier and work backwards. For example, if you want head lettuce on June 1st, and you know the DTM (days to maturity) is 45 days, then you know that you need to plant your lettuce seeds on April 15th.

In this way, you can go through all of your crops on your crop availability chart and determine the required planting dates to harvest them on time.

If this is your first year planning a CSA, this step can be somewhat intimidating, as the DTM is difficult to determine without accurate data. The DTM for a crop changes slightly during different times of the season. During the summer, for instance, lettuce might take 40 days to mature, but for a fall planting, it might take 60 days.

Consider contacting your local Ag extension office to ask about exact planting dates for your climate. Neighboring farmers in your area may also be willing to share with you the ideal planting dates for your crops.

You will also need to figure out which crops require succession planting and which ones can be planted all at once. For broccoli, you will want to have successions if you plan on having it every week. Indeterminate tomatoes, on the other hand, can be planted all at once and will continue to produce throughout the summer.

In addition to your crops and respective planting dates, you may also want to include other information in your crop calendar, such as:

  • Total bed space for your crops
  • Crop spacing (both in row and between rows)
  • Whether the crop needs to be transplanted or can be planted directly in the soil
  • Tray type (50 cell, 72 cell, 128 cell, etc.)

Draw a Field Map

When you are done planning out the crop calendar, it is time to decide on the location of your crops. If you have limited space, you may want to consider drafting a field map before creating your crop calendar in order to figure out how much available bed space you have.

There are entire textbooks written on farm design, so not everything can be covered here, but some important things to consider when deciding on crop location are:

How well certain crops do in close proximity to each other
Distance from the farm’s “home base,” where crops are processed and stored
Previous successions of crops that were planted in the space
The type of irrigation that is installed (overhead or drip)