Making CSAs More User-Friendly and More Farmer-Friendly

The CSA box has been the new it thing for a few years now, but it still doesn’t have all the wrinkles ironed out; and woe betide the person who dares to say so. While CSAs provide a great opportunity for regular fresh produce delivery, they aren’t perfect, and the solutions to many of the problems involved require finding a delicate balance between the needs of consumers and farmers. Things that would make them easier for consumers could create an undue burden on farmers, while things that might streamline the process for farmers could make CSA boxes unpalatable for consumers. How do we find a happy medium?

Here’s what’s great about a CSA membership: For a fee, you get fresh, local, seasonal produce.

Here’s where things start to get complicated, though.

For one thing, that produce might not be delivered to you directly. Farm-to-door delivery requires either delegating that task to a farm employee or someone specially hired for that purpose, working through a shipping company, or coordinating with an agriculture collective or similar group. All of these things can add cost and time burdens, which is why some CSAs prefer to deliver to a central drop-off point or to several key distribution points. All well and good if you have time and a car, which not all consumers do, thus making CSA boxes accessible only to people who probably already have alternative venues for fresh local produce, like traveling to farmers’ markets or even directly to farm stands. Which doesn’t do a whole lot in terms of addressing the shortage of fresh food in low-income communities.

Speaking of which, CSAs can actually get pretty expensive, and some require an up-front subscription fee where you buy in with a membership that lasts six months or a year. Mustering that amount of cash can be a huge problem for people who don’t have a lot of income to spare; even if they could afford the monthly box, they might not be able to afford the subscription fee. For that matter, they might not be able to get a box that suits their needs, like a half membership for a single person or couple who can’t possibly go through a whole box and don’t have someone to split with.

For farmers, though, that up-front money is critical. It ensures that all the subscribers are lined up at the start of the season so they don’t have to worry about chasing down funds throughout, and provides a cash infusion for costs like seeds, equipment upgrades, and other farm expenses. Collecting money every month or week is time consuming and difficult, and doesn’t provide a reliable revenue stream. What happens when members decide to drop out halfway through the year, and the farmer was counting on their income? How about when people get behind on their bills or refuse their boxes, forcing the farmer to reroute boxes that have already been picked and packed?

And how about the fact that you never know what’s in a CSA box? For some people, that’s part of the fun; the box can be a great way to learn about new food and taste new flavours. However, it can also be a problem, because it can make it hard to plan and predict meals, and you may end up with food you don’t know how to use. Some farms have taken to including recipes in their boxes or websites so people can get some ideas, which can help, and others may provide information about the upcoming week’s box in advance, but that’s not always a great option when a farm can’t predict what other orders might come in, how the weather might affect crops, and so on.

At other times, consumers may be all too familiar with the contents of their CSA boxes; kale for the sixth week in a row, for example, or a profusion of carrots and potatoes and nothing else. This is a reflection of the reality of administering a farm, but it’s not necessarily something consumers like to see. They don’t like hearing that produce has seasons, and that not everything is available all the time.

So how about sending consumers to the farm to pick their own CSA boxes? Again, this requires access to time and transportation, limiting this option to only some customers. And it’s also a pain in the butt for farmers, who would need to provide people with training and information, make sure they don’t pick crops designated for other customers, and take on the liability of people in an environment with heavy equipment, trip and fall hazards, and other potential risks. For them, the problems with this approach would definitely outweigh the benefits of having a steady CSA membership.

Some farms also allow people to customize their boxes; usually larger CSAs, and those who have agreements with other farms allowing them to buy or trade produce to make up CSA orders. Consumers who opt for that solution will probably need to pay more, because they’re not getting the farmer’s choice of produce. And farmers will have to dedicate more time to CSA management and handling to ensure that people get what they want, when they want it. With institutional clients like restaurants ordering in large quantities, this may not be a big issue, but it can become unsustainable with individuals in a CSA.

Ultimately, CSAs also come with shared risk, which is not something you can mitigate. By joining a CSA, you’re joining on to support a farm for the term of your contract. If it’s a good year, bully for you: you get a diverse assortment of crops in a bountiful box every week. If the year is bad, for any number of reasons, you’ll see the thin side of farming along with the thick. Many consumers are excited about the idea, but not fully educated about what it means and the reality of farming, making outreach a critical part of effective CSA management, which means, that’s right, even more time requirements for farmers and their staff.

Can we reach a balance? Absolutely, but it’s going to require work on both sides.