Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a great way for farmers and consumers to connect. The demand for fresh local food is growing steadily; there’s never been a better time to start market gardening. Learn how to start your own CSA and grow an income from your garden.

What is Community Supported Agriculture?

In the CSA model, customers support the farmer by buying a share of vegetables from her market garden. Customers often pay in advance for the season; this early cash flow provides start up capital for the farmer to buy seeds and supplies. In this model the CSA farmer can launch a market garden with little capital of her own.

What is the benefit to the consumer?

Customers of the CSA benefit by receiving a weekly share of fresh, natural food, often delivered right to their door. They also benefit from the knowledge they are supporting local food and local farmers, and reducing the ‘food miles’ that most produce travels before it reaches the consumer. Finally, the consumer is connecting back to the real source of all food, the soil. Many CSA customers feel a sense of ownership as they support their farm.

How to get started in Community Supported Agriculture

Step one is to set some goals for your CSA garden. How much money do you expect to make from your garden? Do you expect to make a part time income, or will your CSA be your main source of income for the season?

Once you have set an income target, you need to determine a price for your CSA shares, and the number of customers you will need to reach your target. For example, if you plan to make $10,000 from your garden, and you think that $500 per share is a fair price for your produce, then you will need to find 20 customers to meet your income goal. You can determine a price per share by surveying other CSA farms in your area, and comparing their offerings and prices. You can also estimate fair price by determining how much of each vegetable you plan to include in the share, and researching to find out an average price for each one.

Finding customers for your Community Supported Agriculture market garden

The first step in marketing your garden is to reach out to your warm market. Talk to your friends, family, co-workers, golf buddies, car poolers, in short everybody, and tell them you will be growing delicious, fresh vegetables in limited quantities, and if they hurry they can get on the list to get some. If they are interested, sign them up and accept a payment to help finance your garden.

If your warm market can’t fulfill your target for customers, then you have to find another source. Mail out flyers are a good way to target a specific area to find more customers. Find a neighborhood within your delivery distance, and send each home a flyer describing your garden and the benefits of your CSA program. If you write a good, compelling flyer, you can expect to receive about a 1% response rate. In other words, if you send out 1,000 flyers you will net about 10 customers. Repeat the mailing in other close neighborhoods until you reach your target.

Planning your Community Supported Agriculture market garden

Once you have confirmed how many customers you have, you now need to plan and schedule your garden to grow the vegetables for them. One of the big advantages of Community Supported Agriculture is that you know exactly how many customers you have, and therefore you can plan your market garden to be quite efficient. You will need to know your last spring frost date and your first fall frost date to plan your growing schedule. You also need to know how long each vegetable takes to mature, how much it yields, and how often you need to replant to keep a continuous harvest coming.

For example, if you have 20 customers, and each customer expects to receive one head of lettuce per week, then you know you need to harvest at least that many lettuces each week. If lettuce takes 50 days to grow to maturity, and needs one square foot of space to grow, you can figure out when to start the plants, and how much space in total you will need. You carry out this calculation for each crop you plan to grow.

Growing your Community Supported Agriculture market garden

A successful market garden requires regular attention to survive and thrive. You need to take all reasonable effort to grow and protect your crops; your customers are counting on you to bring them fresh vegetables each week. You should plant more than one variety of each vegetable, and make multiple plantings at short intervals to protect against crop failure. Grow disease resistant varieties whenever possible. Raised beds can protect against heavy rains and flooding, and drip irrigation will protect against drought. Floating row cover will provide a physical barrier against insects, and will protect young plants from cold and wind.

Starting a Community Supported Agriculture market garden is a great business you can start for very little cash. If you are successful you can grow from a part-time to a very good full time income with CSA.

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