Should Food Retailers Promote Community Supported Agriculture?

Spring has arrived, and with it the promise of a new growing season replete with fresh, local, and organic fruits and vegetables. In Michigan, we’ve had a long winter diet of root vegetables and fruit from our freezers, and we’re longing for some fresh variety. In my house, we are waiting with great anticipation to begin our weekly share of vegetables from our local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm. We are members of Maple Creek Organic Farm, which has been owned and operated by Michelle and Danny Lutz since 1995.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with CSA farms, they offer a subscription-based service for fresh, local, and organic food. Subscribers pay the farmer in advance for the promise of fresh produce over the growing season. Some farmers also expect a member commitment of work hours to help supplement labor costs. The farm’s crop production is then based on membership. Throughout the growing season, members receive a share of produce on a weekly basis either through a common pick-up or delivery system.

As a CSA member you develop a relationship with a local farmer, receive a weekly share of fresh-picked great-tasting local food, and cultivate friendships in your local community. You also develop a strong sense of satisfaction that you know where your food was grown, when it was harvested, and the distance it traveled to your plate.

At first glance, you may think food co-ops are in direct conflict with CSA farms. Admittedly, if I am getting all my fruits, vegetables, and flowers through my CSA membership, I am no longer buying them from my local grocer. If that’s the case, why would my local grocer want to promote community supported agriculture? If you subscribe to the theory of economic abundance, there are enough resources for everyone. With a bit of cooperative support and some creative marketing, food retailers and CSA farms can foster economic abundance in your local community.

Cross marketing with your local CSA

There will always be consumers for whom the CSA model does not work. Young families, college students, and working singles may not have the resources to pay in advance for a seasonal farm share. These consumers still want to purchase fresh, local, organic produce on a regular basis. Make a commitment to sell locally grown produce from community farms at your food co-op. By taking advantage of this freshly picked locally grown organic produce, you are not only providing a better product for your customers, but also supporting local farmers.

Don’t keep locally grown produce a secret!

  • Label your locally grown produce with the farmer’s name, location, and photo, if available.
  • Invite the local farmers into your store for a “Meet the Farmers” day.
  • Give out recipes promoting seasonal produce and provide information about where it was grown and harvested.
  • Sponsor a weekly or monthly farmers market in your store parking lot.

Letting your customers know you support local farmers generates community goodwill and keeps dollars flowing among friends and neighbors. And remember, your local farmers need to shop, too! Support them and they will in turn support your retail store.

Co-sponsor educational events

Co-sponsoring an event with your local CSA can not only show your commitment to promoting local food and farmers, it can be a profitable way to bring together your community and provide needed publicity for your retail location.

Many CSA farms offer classes in canning, freezing, and preserving fruits and vegetables. Co-sponsoring a CSA educational event is a great way to show your support for the community while reminding residents that you can provide all of their shopping needs not available through their CSA. The strawberry preserves members are learning to make still require sugar, fruit pectin, and canning jars!

Distribute in-store flyers promoting the class, highlighting your joint sponsorship with the CSA farm.

  • Promote the event with signage at your retail store to show your community support.
  • Ask your local farmer if you can display signage promoting your food co-op at the farm event.
  • Donate product that will be used in the recipe being demonstrated.
  • Provide recipe cards that prominently display your food co-op name and logo.
  • Offer a discount coupon to every CSA member attending the class.
  • Obtain a mailing list of CSA members and follow up the event with a thank you note and information about your next community event.

Make sure you fully promote the event to maximize the benefit of your participation. Promotion occurs before and after the event. An entertaining post-event article in your co-op newsletter will reach those members who were unable to attend the event. Informing members about your positive actions within your community will also encourage customers to attend the next co-sponsored event.

Children: next generation local food consumers

Many CSA farms have a special garden area just for children. This gives CSA member parents an opportunity to complete their service requirement uninterrupted while children have an opportunity to learn about gardening. Two things children love are to play in the dirt and to be active. Letting them plant, care for and harvest their own little garden accomplishes both.

The underlying benefit to parents and food retailers is that they are learning. Children will experience a sense of pride and enjoyment when growing and cultivating their own fruits, vegetables, and flowers. They also tend to be more willing to taste produce they grew on their own, leading to healthy eating and less risk of obesity. And remember, today’s little farmer is tomorrow’s busy consumer.

  • Donate paper, crayons, juice boxes or other kid-friendly items for the CSA to have on hand for member’s children.
  • Sponsor a children’s day at the CSA farm promoting local food and farm education.
  • Offer a local food drawing or coloring contest and provide small prizes for entrants.
  • Display food co-op signage detailing your contributions to the local farm.
  • Coordinate farm tours with local CSA farms for food co-op member families.

As a food co-op, supporting your local CSA farms makes good business sense. Cross marketing, educational programs, and engaging children are all ways to increase retail sales. Long-term benefits to your retail business will come through fostering community goodwill, consumer dietary health, and a strong local economy.

For a detailed explanation of Community Supported Agriculture, please visit the Local Harvest website at www.localharvest.org/csa.jsp. Local Harvest provides a search tool for looking up CSA farms in your area.

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Joan Tobin is co-owner of Eat Local Food, a marketing services firm (www.eatlocalfood.com).

See other articles from this issue: #130 May - June - 2007