Video Clip: Large-Scale CSA from Farmers and their Diversified Horticultural Marketing Strategies


Farmers and their Diversified Horticultural Marketing Strategies [DVD]. V. Grubinger. 1999. University of Vermont Extension. Available for purchase at: (verified 31 Dec 2008).

This is a Farmers and their Diversified Horticultural Marketing Strategies video clip.

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Michael Docter and Linda Hildebrand, Food Bank Farm. Hadley, MA.

Audio Text

My name is Michael Docter and this is Linda Hildebrand, we’re at the Food Bank Farm here in Hadley, Massachusetts. This is a community supported agriculture farm, a CSA as we call them in the jargon. It's a 500 member CSA, that means we have 500 shareholders who purchase a share in the harvest every spring, and that entitles them to come by the farm on a weekly basis and pick up a steady supply of organic produce. We’re also a project of the Food Bank and what that means is we donate half of what we produce here to agencies served by the Food Bank. The farm is financially self-sustaining while we are owned and operated by a non-profit. The income we generate from our shares is sufficient to pay for the entire operation of the farm, our salaries, as well as the food that we donate and sell to our shareholders. It is a financially sustaining entity without any government subsidy.

We are bound by our mission to give away half of what we grow, so we have to be pretty efficient. And that’s why we selected the CSA model because we felt that it’s actually a fairly lucrative way of farming. We cut out our transportation costs, Linda and I never leave the farm, we cut out our refrigeration, all of our packing costs, we cut out our money handling and accounting costs. We like to think of marketing as the easy part for our CSA. Selling the initial shares was not very difficult. We got our lists out - 5,000 person list of people who donated money to the food bank, environmental organization lists, we put up brochures on bulletin boards in community places where people had a positive association with that institution, the Y, the daycare that everybody loved, that kind of thing and we came up with our members very quickly and easily for our first year. The problem is that keeping members is really the difficult thing, retaining members from one year to the next. Most of those initial members who joined for sort of political reasons or because they wanted to help out the food bank or social concern reasons, they left pretty quick as soon as they realized they had to eat a lot of vegetables. The biggest limiting factor we’ve found with our CSA and the CSA as a model is that people want choice, this is America after all. If you go in there and tell them, as we did during our first initial years that, thou shalt take a head of broccoli this week and thou shalt take a pound of carrots, it drove people nuts. So what we did, is we looked at the supermarket model and we figured we needed to offer them more choice. So what we’ve done is we’ve taken those 80 varieties of vegetables and put them on a table and said to people, you take what you need. We’re able to control the volume by the size of the bag, but they’re able to control what they need, because they have a variety of vegetables they can choose from. We offer three distribution days per week - Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And on a given day we could have about 200 shareholders walking into the share room and that’s a lot of people to satisfy.

Every vegetable has just a short window when it’s at peak flavor, and our customers expect the freshest vegetables that we can grow, and in order to accomplish that, we plant successions - we’re always planting things. For instance, lettuce and greens go in every single week. Every week we have a fresh supply. Carrots have a very short window when they’re at peak flavor and so every two weeks we’ve got carrots coming in. So we always have a plentiful supply of the staples people expect - we always have corn, tomatoes, broccoli - those things we offer every single week. One thing we also try to do is we offer specials, every once and a while we’ll bring in some fennel or we’ll bring in some kohlrabi. People don’t want those things every week necessarily, but it really keeps people’s interest up and it gives us a chance to educate folks on some other types of vegetables that are out there.

One of the things that is efficient about our operation is that we get all of our cash up front. It saves us a little bit of money not having to go to the bank in interest, but that’s not what’s significant. What’s important is we don’t have to handle money all year long, we take it all in and we’re done. So there’s not an elaborate accounting system involved. Now at the same time we realize that there are some things that we really wanted to sell on the farm. We wanted to be able to buy in other local farmers' products, we wanted to be able to make value-added products. So what we did was sell these scrip cards, which is our own little funny money system. They now come in 20-dollar increments with twenty, one-dollar punches on them. We sell them to our members and they can use it in our store essentially. We now have fresh baked organic bread for sale every week, local eggs, a variety of other products that we can sell to them and it’s very quick, we don’t have to make change. We also make a point of everything that we sell we keep in dollar increments, so that it fits into our system very easily.

Another advantage that we have because we’re a CSA from a marketing point of view, we can get instantaneous feedback from our customers. We pick something that morning, a new variety or a new type of display and we will find out that afternoon whether they liked it or not. We can also do a great deal of focus grouping with our members, informally, formally, however we do it. Usually we’re just sitting around the distribution room chewing the fat with our members and asking them, what did they like, what didn’t they like. A favorite part of a lot of our shareholders experience is our u-pick and what we’ve done is taken some of the more labor-intensive vegetables and we’ve put them into our u-pick and we call it they-pick. For instance, sugar snap peas, beans, strawberries, things that take a lot of work to pick, we have our customers pick it and they love it. One of the best things, is people come here to the farm and we have a direct relationship with people. They like knowing who their farmers are and they like the fact that they can call this farm their own. We tell people, 'treat the farm like your own', they can come, they can pick vegetables. There’s pets for them to visit, rabbits and chickens. Its just a very comfortable place for people to be and it’s a good way for people to see how their food is grown and it’s a nice connection with the community for us.

This video project was funded by the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (USDA).

Published June 15, 2011

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