Here at Parker Family Farm I run our CSA with the Debit Style, as opposed to the Box Style which I highlighted in my last post. The debit CSA offers more freedom to you, the CSA member, in several important ways. You can choose which type of vegetables (or meat, dairy or other products your farmer offers), what quantity of each item you get and even whether or not to get anything at all. As with the Box Style CSA there are many variations on the Debit Style. In this post I’ll give you a bit of information about how I run the Parker Family Farm CSA and why our customers find it to be advantageous.
Like the Box Style, Debit Style CSA’s require an up front investment from the customer. However, one of the biggest advantages to this system vs. box style is that it allows for a lower initial investment by the customer. Let’s say you purchased a prepaid phone card. You can buy any amount of minutes you like. If you pay for 20 minutes you’ll get twenty minutes. Conversely, you could by 400 minutes. But 20 minutes might be all you can swing right now. A debit style CSA is like that. At Parker Family Farm our shares sell for $100. By investing your $100 in the CSA you then have a prepaid account with us. This gets you $100 worth of vegetables (and/or eggs when they are in season) with the caveat that you will actually end up getting more than $100 worth of vegetables. How much more is hard to quantify. At the grocery store you can buy fractions of a pound of an item and you will pay for exactly how much you get. As a small-scale, one-man packing day show (as it were) it is more efficient (and earns me better customer retention) to get close to the ordered amount (but always over) than to spend time getting exactly the right number of pounds. Once I put a potato in a bag I don’t want to take it out again and find another one just to get the exact number. As long as I get to the ordered amount, a little over is good. For instance, if you ordered 2 lbs of potatoes I might put 2.1 pounds in the bag but call it close enough. This doesn’t seem like much perhaps but if you multiply that overage across your $100 share you come out quite well, especially if you purchase what are known as ‘high value’ items like early tomatoes. And remember, at the grocery store you would be paying for that extra .1 lbs. Also, I routinely offer my members discounts that I do not make available to my farmer’s market customers. It’s kind of like a special club membership. There are perks. I do this because it is incredibly valuable to me to have loyal customers and to have them make investments in their CSA when I need cash flow (like around seed ordering time, etc.)
Did you notice I kept using the words ‘ordered amount’? This is what most of my customers find to be the number one key factor that makes them prefer our debit style to our original box style CSA, of which many were members. In fact, when we first offered the debit style we kept the box style. Of 30 members only seven went with the box style, the rest all switched. The next year we did away with the box altogether and only lost two or three of the seven members. Now, they all like the new system, we’re up around 70 members and growing all the time (with our box style we were stuck at a 25-30 member plateau). One reason is that they can order whatever amount they wish. Usually at this time of year we’ll have several orders for potatoes each week. Some people order half a pound, some people order five pounds and we get everything in between. Whatever they order the total cost is deducted from their prepaid account. If you want 7 pounds of onions and there is enough in your account then you get 7 pounds of onions. If you order 2 pounds of baby spinach for your family of 5, great! Another, maybe single or elderly customer might order 1/3 of a pound and make it last several days. Also great! You can tailor your orders to your needs!
In fact, you can have no order at all. One of the problems our customers would run into with our old box style CSA was what to do about the share when they went out of town on vacation for a week or weekend in the summer. They would either have to find someone to pick-up (and return their reusable share bag) for them or ask us to donate it to a local charity. With the debit style system customers are free to leave on a summer get-away without having to worry about the share (don’t worry I still donate a lot to different food banks and organizations I support). They simply refrain from ordering that week. Likewise, you may be in town but you may not like any of the vegetables on offer during a given week. No problem. Save your account for the seasons you like best.
Our CSA runs year round. In the winter we offer mainly root crops and other storage items from the root cellar. During the winter months our sales drop way down but we maintain the accounts even if people go months without ordering. This allows people to tune back in, as it were, when their favorite season comes around again. This also helps our customers who live in a warmer climate during the Winter and return in the Spring.
The way the logistics work is different for each farm but ours is based on weekly (in the winter it’s once every two weeks) emails to our customers. The email simply contains a list of the available items and the cost for each. If the customer happens to want anything that week they would simply reply and tell us which items and in what quantity. I then deliver it to one of several locations Newport, Hampden or Bangor where they can pick it up.
Some debit style CSA’s are centered on the farmer’s market booth. Many farms offer members the opportunity to shop at the farm’s booth at the local farmer’s market and the cost is deducted from their account. We offer this option to our members too but most find it is more reliable to pre-order so they are sure to get items that might sell out quickly such as snap peas, carrots, baby spinach or head lettuce, all very popular items with our market customers.
Ultimately, the Debit Style has worked very well for us here at Parker Family Farm. It has increased our membership substantially, it has helped me focus my efforts on growing things that sell well and it has allowed me to branch out into other areas of interest such as our burgeoning vineyards, orchards and our pigs.
There is a substantial amount of administrative work involved that didn’t exist for our Box Style CSA because we have to send out the weekly list, compile orders, write each customer an invoice, keep track of their accounts and more. In my case, my wife does an amazing job keeping track of all the administrative tasks associated with the accounts and ordering. I can’t imagine how she is able to keep track of everything so methodically and accurately. But many farms use expensive software and customers simply go onto a secure site and place orders from a spreadsheet. We may go that route eventually but for now we are able to manage pretty well with simple emails. This also helps me stay connected with our members which is a very important part of my farming and food ethic.
If you like the idea of a CSA but have been unable to commit because of the rigidity or higher upfront cost of a box style, you might find a debit style to be just the thing. This new approach to CSA, at least around here, is bringing more and more people on board. There are farmers in Maine who have been operating debit style CSA’s for years and now the idea is finally catching on. You may find it fits your lifestyle and allows you and your family to finally break away from the industrial food chain and partake in the most amazing, healthy, safe, real food from a local farmer you can get to know and trust. To find a local farm you can simply use a search engine. You can also use a very helpful tool put together by MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers And Gardeners Association) at MOFGA.net. There you can search by county or product and view a list of farms that might fit your needs. Happy researching! Local food. Eat well – be well.