Um, no. I told her that it was unfortunate that her program was discontinued, but I would not be stepping up to replace it. A CSA, or community supported agriculture, is a system where subscribers pay an up-front cost in the spring (when the farm has a lot of expenses) for a share of the produce grown over the season. Subscribers get a box of produce, usually weekly, and over a set period of time which varies by farm. Sometimes there are add-on options to include meats, cheese, eggs and other products. Sometimes pickup is at the farm, but often there is a more convenient pickup location, and some go as far as to deliver fresh produce right to your door! It's a great idea, and it works really well in urban areas where you can get a box of seasonal, local food without the inconvenience of shopping or making a special trip to the farm. The farmer gets money when he or she needs it most, and eliminates waste of produce that remains unsold at the end of a market day, because abundance is shared among all the subscribers. The downside for subscribers is that you get what is in season. You don't get to choose the produce, it is what the farmer has growing that week. You may get vegetables you don't care for, or that you have no idea how to cook. If the farmer has a crop failure, you simply don't get any of that vegetable. It's a way to help share the risk of making a living with Mother Nature, and to support what your local farmer is doing, through both the good AND the bad.
So, what's the big deal with taking money now for produce later? The first, and largest reason that we won't is that to properly run a CSA, I would need to plant, weed, and harvest TWO SEPARATE garden spaces. One would be split between the CSA subscribers, the other would supply the farm stand. Of course, right there you can see that would double the work in some ways. But if not, then you run into a host of problems- if you only plant a single garden, how much produce do you give to the CSA? Do they get anything out of our single greenhouse, or is that only for the farm stand? Do they get any of the garlic I planted last year, when I was not planning on doing this? When the first few tomatoes or last of the sweet corn come into season, do you put that in the CSA boxes, or offer them to the loyal farm stand customers who have been patronizing us for years? Either way, someone's going to be unhappy. Two gardens would really be the only fair way to do this.
There are also the logistics- basic business stuff. Sure, I was approached by a lady who asked just for this, and said she had others interested. But if it was too small a market for the other farm to continue to serve, the odds are that I would have no more subscribers than they did. Probably less, as CSA was their primary business model, and ours is not. I've also had exactly one email so far this spring asking if it was something I offered. (In comparison, I've already gotten four asking to buy baby peacocks, which is a pretty niche market.) It's a LOT of work to make just a few people happy. Marketing the CSA separately, of course will be more and separate work. More, separate paperwork to figure out if it's profitable at whatever cost we set the first year. Also having never been involved with a CSA, I have no idea what constitutes a fair weekly share. It's difficult to quantify how much produce when it is going to change every single week. How many square feet of garden do you plant per subscriber? How much do you charge? How many weeks should it run? Do you offer more than one size? Other things to consider- where do you get the boxes? Are you providing new cardboard ones weekly, or complicating things by trying to reuse totes or crates that need to be returned? What if someone doesn't? Where do these pickups occur? In a rural area like ours, home delivery wouldn't be a very reasonable way to go. Do all pickups happen at the farm or do I need to reach out to places like libraries or the Visitor's Center? When would these pickups be? How long of a time window would I need to sit there to get all the boxes picked up? Can I fit it into an already packed summertime schedule, or do I hire a driver, increasing my cost and losing the personal connection with the person eating the food I grow?
Then you of course have the customer service aspect- how do you deal with folks going out of town- after all, lots of people go on vacation over the summer months when the CSA would be in full swing. Do they get extra the next week? What if someone HATES kale? Do you let them customize? Can they replace x, y, or z with some meat or eggs? Could you do it for campers who will be up x number of times over the summer, but only on these dates, here is a list? It could get tricky in a hurry.
To offset this extra work, I would have to either hire help, or discontinue something else I'm currently doing. Neither seem like great options. I've been in management before, and hiring, training and firing are something I'm frankly glad to not do anymore. I also don't want to do less in other areas. I love raising the livestock, offering my customers healthy, humanely raised meat and eggs. I'm devoting a lot of time and effort right now into improving my breed conservation and offering live rabbits and poultry for sale, which is not only income but also helps me feel that I am doing important work, helping a few breeds of livestock take one step further away from extinction. That speaks to my heart. It's great fun for me to experiment with growing herbs, creating salves and sewing and making jewelry and doing the other things I offer in the Etsy store and at the farm stand. Taking on more garden work and reducing the amount of time I spend on any of those activities would make my life less rich. It's important to me to be constantly learning more and doing more. And while it is true that some CSAs offer subscribers the chance to come work on the farm for a reduction in cost and to gain a better appreciation of the work that goes into producing their food, that is work too. It's difficult to entrust part of my livelihood to someone who does not know how to garden or farm. And the help would require constant supervision, and it's a pretty sure bet I could do a lot of it faster myself than supervising and training a helper for the day. And then I have to look into liability insurance for these activities, creating a restroom for visitors/helpers that does not involve them coming into my home, my one last bit of private space, and doing my best to make sure workdays have work in them and don't turn into a farm tour that only adds to my workload.
I'm learning sometimes to say no. To acknowledge that there are only so many things I can do, and still do them all well. Looking at the pros (extra spring money) and cons (a LOT of extra work), this is just going to be one of those times. It's important to have some limits, to know what I can handle without going crazy. To say yes often enough that business continues to grow, but to say no often enough that I still have time to spend with friends, family, and do things that I enjoy that may or may not be related to farming at all. I also think it is important for me to have a vision of what I want for the farm as both a place and a business. Personal connection with my customers is important to me. So is inviting them to the very place the food is grown. And if you're going to come all the way here to meet with me and visit the farm, why take all the fun away by just handing you a box and sending you out the door, when you can select for yourself the varieties and amounts of the food that you will be eating? Maybe I should stock up on boxes after all, and hand them out to folks interested in CSA every time they visit...we can call it a "build-your-own-share" program. After all, it's been working for my other farm stand customers for years!