Four Reasons Sylvanaqua doesn’t do CSA

Sylvanaqua has adopted an unusual marketing model in which we forego the traditional avenues of Farmers Markets and CSA, instead focusing consumer sales almost exclusively on buyers clubs. This is the second part of a three-part series explaining the pitfalls of Farmers Markets and CSA, and the benefits of Buyers Clubs.

Links to the other articles in the series:
Part I: Five Reasons Sylvanaqua doesn’t do Farmers Markets
Part III: Four Reasons We Think Buyers Clubs are Awesome 

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A few months ago, before we started the farm, we were looking into ways to direct market our products to consumers. It wasn’t long before we came across Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). CSA is wonderful in theory: consumers and producers share risk and a more intimate relationship, people eat locally and seasonally, and it gets folks out of the supermarket.

But coming from a consulting background (I know. Sorry.), I couldn’t help but notice that the actual implementation of CSA is rather awkward. And after attending a seminar at Polyface Farms and having by concerns with CSA seconded by perhaps the world’s most famous farmer, we decided to forego CSA altogether in favor of buyers’ clubs. Here’s why:

1. Inconsistency in Units

The central unit of measure in CSA is the share. It’s a pretty simple concept: you sign up for shares of meat, eggs, produce, dairy, etc., and every week a box of said product is either delivered to your home or picked up by you at a central location like a farmers’ market. Shares may involve X pounds of meat, Y pounds of fruits and veggies, etc.

The problem with shares is two-fold. First, figuring out what constitutes a share for a particular farm can be fairly confusing, and gets more confusing when you’re dealing with things like quarter shares, half shares, our double shares. Second, once you’ve finally figured out what a share is for a given farm… that definition almost never translates to another farm. For Farm A, a meat share might be 5 lbs of pork. For Farm B it’s 3 lbs of lamb and 6 lbs of ground beef. For Farm C it’s the same as Farm B, but it includes eggs and the price is twice as high.

None of these things are a problem for people who are truly committed to eating fresh, local, beyond-organic food. But they are a problem for people who are on the fence about where they get their food; the ooey-gooey middle of culinary swing voters who comprise the biggest opportunity of market share capture for natural farmers. These are people who would like to buy naturally raised/grown food, but aren’t fanatical about it, and will head to the supermarket at the drop of a hat if the alternative is too difficult. These are folks who don’t want to spend 10 minutes per farm figuring out exactly what a share is, and then another hour or two (or more) comparing apples and oranges of shares of different farms to figure out what constitutes a fair price.

In short, if we want to appeal to the largest potential market, we have to make it as easy as possible for them to buy directly from us. CSA can’t do that with its ambiguous definition of a share, and it certainly can’t do that when..

2. It’s surprisingly difficult to get into a CSA

Before we started the farm, my wife and I wanted to sign up for a CSA so that we’d have an incentive to go to the farmers market each and every week (sometimes, you want to do something else with your Saturday morning). That’s when I came across something disturbing: getting into a CSA can be more difficult than getting into an exclusive nightclub dressed in a burlap sack.

I’d assumed that signing up for a CSA would be a simple matter of filling out an online form. Put in your name, address, phone number, email, select your shares, pick a drop off location, put in a payment method, agree to some T.O.S. regarding seasonal availability and risk, and done. Right?

No.

There were rarely any online forms; you usually have to make a phone call or write prose to an email address. And once you do, you’re often told that there’s a waiting list. Again, the true-believers in the natural food movement will happily sign up for a waiting list or head to the next farm in the list on EatWild. But the swing voter is putting down her computer and going to the supermarket. Every time we natural farmers allow a swing voter to go to the supermarket, God produces another season of Jersey Shore to torment us all.

But say you finally get past the bouncer and into the CSA. Things actually manage to go downhill from there.

3. It forces consumers to roll the dice

Part of the reason CSA exists is to introduce the consumer to the seasonal, risk-based, unpredictable nature of food production. I get that, and I appreciate that. So do the true believers. But again, this feature of the CSA models casts the swing voter out to sea.

With CSA, there are a couple of important things you agree to. First, you agree to share the farmer’s risk of crop or livestock failure. If weather, bugs, or blight wipes out a percentage of the farmer’s production, then you take that hit in what you get with your shares, with no change in the price.

Second, you agree to take what the farmer gives you. This generally means that you have no idea what you’re going to be getting in your box from week to week. While that’s probably fun for a young single person with lots of free time to try a new recipe every single day of the week, it creates nightmares for everyone else, especially people with families who like to be able to plan meals for the next week or two with mostly familiar recipes.

While the idea of sharing risk sounds nice, it sticks in the craw when you occasionally get half or none of what you paid for. And people tend not to enjoy surprises when it comes to food. What if you hate pork chops? Or you’re allergic to the peanuts? Or the stilton in your dairy share makes you gag?

4. Too much change

I’ve spent a lot of time in this article talking about culinary swing voters because I truly believe they represent the future of the natural food movement. Our model is predicated on an increasing share of all food being produced naturally rather than industrially, and it’s not going to be long before the market of true believers is saturated. Once it’s saturated, the swing voters are where the action is, and getting those people to adjust their attitudes and habits is going to be critical to keeping the movement going.

When it comes to changing attitudes and habits, there’s only so much change a person can handle all at once. If we’re going to lead the swing voter from the industrial food space to the natural food space, it has to be done with as few deviations from that person’s routine as possible. So put yourself in the shoes of that swing voter for a moment. The swing voter that’s accustomed to driving to a supermarket with ample parking, being surrounded by infinite choice, and having year-long availability of absolutely everything at nearly rock bottom prices.

Now think of yourself as the swing voter who wants to give Natural a try, and comes across CSA. You’re bombarded with inconvenient changes: the units don’t make any sense, you have to make a phone call or write an email to sign up, there’s a waiting list, you don’t get to pick what you want, you might get food items you hate, you can’t plan for what you’re going to receive, there’s a chance you won’t get anything at all, the prices are higher, and picking up your share at the farmers market usually means finding street parking in a downtown area on a Saturday.

Too. Much. Change.

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Want more? See the final article in the series, Four Reasons We Think Buyers Clubs are Awesome, where we talk about buyers clubs and why we believe they’re the best mix of convenience, seasonality, local production, and farm-to-consumer connection. Or see the first article in the series, Five Reasons Sylvanaqua doesn’t do Farmers Markets.

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