Retaining members from year to year is a key component of operating a successful Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. It is a good indication of satisfaction among customers and reduces marketing time and costs. Happy shareholders will tell their friends and neighbors about the farm, and “word of mouth” is the most effective and inexpensive form of advertisement. Member retention is an important part of our management strategy and is necessary for economic sustainability.
The member experience at Quiet Creek
All of our 200 members pick up at the farm. We set up the CSA barn as if it were a farmers’ market. All the produce is piled high in bins with labels indicating the allowed amounts per share. We offer a Regular share for families and a Small share for couples which is about 2/3 the amount of the Regular. Members pick and pack their own produce from the barn and may also pick a certain amount of flowers, herbs, berries and specific vegetables in the U-pick garden each week. In addition, we offer Cooperative Shares through a local orchard, dairy farm, poultry farm and bakery which are picked up at our farm. Weekly harvest updates with stories, pictures and recipes are sent to all members via email. At the close of each season, members report on their farm experience through an online survey. It is our aim to have a full, rich experience for our members.
Over the past 12 years (eight at Quiet Creek Farm and four at a previous farm), we have consistently had a retention rate between 70 and 80%. There will always be some member turnover due to people moving, life changes, etc. so 70% member retention is a good goal. This benchmark can be achieved by focusing on producing high quality vegetables and maintaining a good share quantity, establishing and maintaining relationships with shareholders, and supporting members’ connection to the farm.
Delivering high quality
We focus the most energy on providing the highest quality vegetables in quantities that are suited to the share size. At CSA pickup we put out only the best marketable produce. It is unwise to treat CSA members as a receptacle for the leftovers from other marketing avenues. We tell our interns, “If you wouldn’t buy it, don’t put it in the bins.” Seconds are used by the farm crew, composted in the field, or sold at 50% of wholesale price to members for processing and preserving. We keep all bins piled high so the share room always looks abundant. We make sure there is sufficient quantity so that even the last member to arrive has some choice in his or her share. There can’t be just one head of lettuce left for the last person to pick up. Our members really appreciate having the same quality experience whether they arrive at 2 pm or 7 pm.
The quantity of items in the share will certainly vary throughout the season and from year to year based on weather conditions. It is our goal to have a minimum of eight items in the share and 10-12 items in the summer and fall. We always plant for more members than we have because we can’t make up for a shortage of produce. The practice of planting 20% extra greatly reduces stress for the farmer, who has already made the commitment to provide ample shares for all members and must meet this task for 23 weeks from June to October. At the same time, we don’t want to overwhelm members with too much produce especially for crops with short-term storage such as greens and lettuce. Extra crops are sold wholesale or, like seconds, offered to members at wholesale prices for preserving or even tilled in if necessary.
Making members a part of the farm
Although providing high quality shares is very important, it is not enough to do just this. Successful CSA farms must work to create a long-lasting relationship with their customers and to provide them with a unique, positive experience. Many of our members re-join the farm every year for the “farm experience” as well as the vegetables. We want people to feel that we are their farmers and that Quiet Creek CSA is their farm.
All members are greeted at pick-up by the friendly face of our barn manager who answers questions; helps members get their vegetables, cooperative shares, and U-pick (even providing examples of each U-pick crop); and keeps the produce bins piled high. Over the years she has become a friend to many of our members and has consistently been voted one of the best aspects of CSA pickup in the Members’ Survey.
Many members simply enjoy the peace and tranquility of the farm. In the harried lives many people lead today, the slower pace and quiet beauty of the farm is a welcome weekly retreat. Harvesting their own peas, beans, cherry and paste tomatoes, herbs, edamame, hot peppers, strawberries, raspberries, and cut flowers in the U-pick garden is s a much loved and memorable experience for members and their families, and one they want to re-create year after year.
Coming to the farm and visiting the U-pick garden also helps connect members emotionally to the farm. By U-picking in the same conditions as the farmers—extreme heat, rain and mud, cold and wind—the members gain empathy for the farmers’ work and direct knowledge of how their food is raised. They are also more understanding when difficult conditions strike the farm because they can see for themselves the evidence of too much or not enough rain, hail, or frost in the fields. Although it is not possible in every location, we feel that having on-farm pickup is an advantage in promoting member retention in the CSA.
It is very important to foster a connection to your farm whether or not members are picking up on-site. A farmer’s blog or newsletter with pictures is a great tool to inform, educate and get into the hearts of your members. We send a weekly Harvest Update via email to all members that begins with a “farm story” which may be about the weather’s effects on the crops, an upcoming change in harvest, seasonal eating, beneficial insects or pests on the farm, farm crew activities, etc. The week’s harvest is listed as well as the U-pick items available. Specific storage information for share items and harvest information for U-pick crops are given. Beautiful pictures of the farm, crops, crew working in the field and more are throughout the email. This is key. If people don’t read everything, they will at least look at the pictures. We also put a special effort into giving at least three tasty recipes and highlighting the vegetables of the week. This feature seems to be greatly enjoyed by our customers.
Nurturing a responsive relationship
Customer service is important in maintaining member relations. It is our goal to respond to emails with questions or concerns in 1-2 days, which can be challenging in the busy season. However, responding in a timely manner helps keep CSA members happy, as does offering some flexibility in pickup schedules. We allow our members to switch from either of our two pickup days as often as needed provided they let us know in advance. We also allow each member to have one double pickup. The week following or preceding their vacation members may pick up two times the normal share. Our members really appreciate this gesture and it is actually not difficult to do. Many people schedule vacations around the same time and the missed shares generally balance the doubles.
The annual survey is a way for members to give input and provide direction. We ask for the most and least enjoyed vegetables, suggestions for new vegetables, best and worst aspects of pickup days, etc. Open-ended questions are included for comments and suggestions. Making this an online feature increased the response to 60% of all members. Analyzing the results for common trends, we use the information to plan next season’s crop production and CSA pickup.
Keeping members from year to year is essential to being a successful CSA farm and the key to retaining members is customer satisfaction. Providing members with excellent quality vegetables and ample shares, maintaining good relations with members and supporting members’ connection to the farm are all integral to keeping shareholders happy. Just as the CSA farmer grows a wide variety of vegetables to ensure a good harvest, the farmer must also strive to follow as many different paths to good member retention as possible.
John and Aimee Good run Quiet Creek Farm, a mixed vegetable operation, at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA. They can be found online at www.quietcreekfarmcsa.com.