Lauren Kaplan - Jan 03, 2017

Marketing Your CSA (Part I): You're Selling More Than Just Vegetables

Photo credit to Working Hands Farm

This is the first of a four-part series on marketing your CSA, loosely following the four P’s: product, price, placement and promotion.

I like to think of CSA marketing as a sort of matchmaking process. (Just go with it for a moment.)

So you know this sweet bunch of vegetables, and you want to set them up with this totally great community you happen to know. They’re perfect for each other! To make the match, you’ll want to extol the virtues of your vegetables, of course… but in a way that speaks specifically to your community.

What I mean is that the first step in marketing your CSA is aligning what you have (your product) with what your customers want. To do that, consider the following three questions:

1: Who are your would-be members? What do they want and value?

It’s probably fair to say that most people who join a CSA want some if not all of the following:

  • food that is fresh, nutritious, delicious, and beautiful
  • a balance of familiar staples and experimental crops
  • convenient pick-up locations
  • good bang for their buck

(What this means, of course -- from considering what constitutes a “familiar staple” for your community and how to find that balance, given that every member survey I’ve ever seen has at least two people with opposite opinions on everything from crop variety to quantity -- will be different for each community. This, in part, is where the matchmaking comes in.)

But beyond this, what else might your members want? Do they want open green space in their community? A place where their kids can pick berries and chase butterflies, or a prettier drive to work? Do they want to know where their food comes from? To feed their families with nutritious, pesticide-free foods? To keep money in the local economy? To eat healthier? To feel good?

(Who doesn’t?)

2: What else are you selling besides your produce?

If you have or are starting a CSA, you know your product: a diverse and carefully selected array of quality agricultural products, varied enough to keep your members satisfied for a set number of weeks. But your CSA is likely offering up much more than food, which would-be consumers could probably find somewhere else.

What else are you selling?

Good value. This doesn’t mean cheap food -- far from it. It means food that is worth what people are paying for it. Averaged over all of the different crops (and everything else) your CSA provides, you’re offering a price-per-pound that competes with grocery store options, either by being a lower dollar amount or a higher quality and added value for the same (or higher) price.

Connection. A defining element of community supported agriculture is the partnership between members and farmer. More than any other model, CSA offers members the opportunity to develop a relationship with their farm -- your farm. Increasingly, more people want to know where their food comes from. Allowing members to connect increases transparency about your products and organic farming methods, and provides consumers with a sense of trust and peace of mind.

Community. In addition to the relationship they form with your farm, your members will also forge relationships with one another: fellow like-minded people with shared values, including supporting local organic farms. This is, of course, something you can facilitate through events, work days, type of pick-up, etc. In today’s world, creating this type of community is not insignificant.

Education. Your members can learn so much from eating seasonally, trying new vegetables, and reading about growing challenges or new recipes in your latest farm newsletter -- to say nothing of participating in any pick-your-own opportunities, gardening workshops, work-days or classes you may offer. This is practical, experiential education you are offering -- once-common skills and knowledge about growing and preparing food that have been lost -- and it has value.

External benefits. In supporting your farm, CSA members are likely choosing food that represents small-scale agriculture and diversified farming. Supporting a farm that practices responsible environmental stewardship means less pollution, safer water, healthy soils, and biodiversity, as well as a distribution system that strengthens the local economy and green open space.

Something to feel good about. By joining your CSA, people can feel like they are doing good, thus feeling good about themselves -- and (marketing gurus agree) that’s worth something. Many farms now take food stamps and offer a sliding-scale model that subsidizes shares for lower-income families. This is a great way to build community and increase food security in your community, ensuring that everyone can enjoy healthy good food from your farm.

Yourself. Yes, you, in that your farm is an extension of you and your farming philosophy. The USDA says Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food… but sadly, most of us don’t. You can help change this. Greet your CSA members, tell them a little about yourself, your philosophy, why you are farming. We are often drawn to those around us with a vision, a passion, and enough gumption to see it through. Don’t underestimate the value that you and your love for your work can bring to the CSA.

3: Where is the overlap in what you are offering and what your members want?

Once you have this, the matchmaking is easy. You are no longer trying to sell something based on its assets (fresh! shiny! organic!). Instead, you are meeting existing needs and wants of your consumers.

It’s important to know the real value of what you’re offering, and to be prepared to articulate this in your sales and marketing efforts. When members purchase a share in your farm, they’re getting a share not only of vegetables, but of your vision, of your farm’s work in stewarding the land and building a greener community -- something they won’t get buying organic produce at the grocery store.

What’s left -- and what parts II, III and IV will explore -- is determining appropriate pricing, placement of your products (ie: pick-up locations), and promotion to communicate to your customers how your CSA will meet their needs.

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After graduating from UCSC's Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, Lauren Alexandra Kaplan spent a season at an organic CSA farm in California before returning east to farm in the Hudson Valley. Prior to pursuing farming full time, she worked in book publishing and helped to launch an urban farm in NYC. Alexandra is an avid salsa dancer and maker of jams, pickles, and kraut.

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