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The Comprehensive Guide to CSA Distribution Models and Fundamental Questions to Ask When Developing a CSA Model

Before you decide on distribution, there are some fundamental questions to ask when you are designing your CSA program:

  1. How much risk do CSA members actually have? What happens if there is a bad crop year?
  2. How much flexibility do customers have in deciding what products are in their box?
  3. Can members put their box on hold? Allow them to put their share on hold and pick up a double box the next week? Allow them to mark the box for donation to the local food bank?
  4. Will you grow 100% of the food in your box or will you include products from other farms? How will you make it clear to customers which products come from your farm and which come from other sources?
  5. How long is your growing season? How many weeks will members get boxes?
  6. Will pick up happen on farm or off farm?
  7. How will members pay? How many boxes do they agree to when they sign up? Do they pay 100% up front or do you offer a payment plan?
  8. Do all members pick up each week? or do some members pick up every-other week?

The answer to these questions will drive the distribution model you choose.

Here are 11 different common models. Many farms mix-and-match to suit their personality and growing season, but these are models I see often:

The completely traditional CSA

This is the CSA model that was practiced when CSAs started in the United States in the mid 1980s: the farm's only distribution is through the CSA. There are no farmers markets or wholesale distribution to distract from the CSA share. Members fund the farm. Members share in the bounty and the lean years, but by mitigating risk through good farming practices and crop diversity, members will almost always have a full box. There is on-farm pick up and a work requirement.

Example: Temple-Wilton Community Farm in Wilton, NH

The seasonal box

The seasonal box CSA grows a diverse number of crops and CSA is just one of the marketing channels for the farm. Customers sign on to a summer season of between 20 and 30 weeks, depending on the climate, by purchasing a "share" of the farm in the Spring-time. There are different sizes of share available based on the household size. It is common to have a Small, Medium and Large share feeding 1, 2, and 4 people respectively.

The products are boxed each week for on-farm or off-farm pickup. Off-farm pick-up often happens at drop-offs in area towns and cities such as porches, coffee shops, gyms, and churches. CSA members share in the bounty and lean years, but farms mitigate risk through good farming practices and crop diversity. All of the products are grown on the farm unless otherwise noted.

The seasonal CSA is usually anchored with a main summer share, but there may be other seasonal shares sold by the farm such as Spring, Farm, and Winter shares. The farm may offer add-on shares like eggs, chicken, or bread and may offer weekly "extras" sales such as tomatoes for canning or locally grown flour.

Market-style

The market style CSA share is much like the seasonal box except that products are displayed in bulk bins at the distribution site and each member comes to pack up their own box. This distribution may be on the farm or at an off farm location. This model requires staff at the pickup location to keep bulk bins full and to help customers. Because of this, it is a more expensive distribution model, but customers will feel a greater connection to the farm because they know some of the CSA staff, rather than simply picking up a box on a neighbor's porch.

Each week's share may be completely predetermined for each member, partially pre-determined (for example, each member must take lettuce, beets, and carrots, but has free choice for other products), or completely up the the customer (this is the "fill your bag" model).

Because the products are not put in each member's box, they are less likely to take a product they don't like and then feel guilty when they throw it away. Also, they will not complain as much about spoiled product because they picked it out of a bulk bin themselves!

Some CSAs employing this model will have a "sharing table" where members can leave products they don't like and trade it for other member's disliked products!

This model also lends a sense of community to the CSA, because members hang around the pick-up site for a while as they pack their box. They have time to meet and greet with neighbors and talk to staff.

The buy-down CSA

This is a mid-point between a CSA farm and a farmers market. Customers buy a certain amount of credit at the beginning of season, for example $300 or $500, and then order each week that they want a box. Often the customer is not required to order a box each week, which mitigates customer concerns about missing a box due to vacations or other reasons.

The ordering may happen ahead of time using a ordering software like Small Farm Central or it may happen at the market, farm stand, or farm. Either way, purchases must recorded so balance can be tracked.

The goal is for each member to get down to $0 in their account by the end of the season. The CSA must decide what to do with unspent credit at the end of the year and this must be spelled out in the member agreement that the member signs at the beginning.

Flexible-week CSA

Members sign up for a certain number of weeks throughout the season. For example, the CSA delivers shares for 25 weeks through the summer and the member signs up for 10, 15, or all 25 weeks. They then choose which 10 or 15 weeks they want to get their share to work around vacations and other issues.

There is more member data management with this CSA format, but it mitigates concern that the member will get too much product or that they will miss a box on vacation.

California-style CSA

To sign up, the member simply purchases the first week's share at, for example, $35. The member is charged $35/week until they cancel. They can put their box on hold and there is no long-term commitment to the CSA.

I call it the "California-style CSA" because this is a model that seems to be more popular on the West Coast of the United States, likely because the growing season is more year-round and it does not make as much sense to separate members into seasons.

The Full-diet CSA

The full-diet CSA is a huge challenge to grow for! This kind of CSA offers a year-round membership that attempts to satisfy all of the food needs for each member. For example, the Essex Farm is a good example of this type of CSA. They produce grass-fed beef, pastured pork, chicken, eggs, fifty different kinds of vegetables, milk, grains and flour, fruit, herbs, maple syrup, and soap.

Costs for this kind of CSA are very high because the farm is providing so much food. The Essex Farm charges $3700/year for each adult in the household.

Multi-farm CSA

Through a cooperative or other business arrangement, a group of farmers get together to market, plan for, harvest for, pack, and distribute a CSA box.

The advantages for the farmer is that there is less administrative and marketing overhead and the farm can concentrate on growing a smaller number of crops really well instead of worrying about growing 50 different types of vegetables.

The advantages for the customer is that they can have a more diverse box rather than relying on a single farm to produce the whole box. There is likely less risk for the customer because the products are coming from so many different farms and it will be hard for the CSA to pass on any crop losses to the customer.

This kind of CSA can be a slippery slope to a "Distrubutor" or "Grocer" CSA share, but if the farm strives to name and support their member farmers, especially in a cooperative business model, it can be a powerful model.

Winter only

Want to stand out from the crowd and have a more relaxing summer season? Try a winter-only CSA.

This kind of CSA only grows products for the winter season when many farms are not growing at all. This allows the winter-only farmer to focus on storage crops and winter greens production.

Example: North Branch Farm in Monroe, Maine.

The distributor

The distributor does not grow food themselves, but is transparent about that fact. This type of CSA sells only local food and names the farmer, so customers know they are only getting locally produced food.

This is not a CSA in the original definition of the term, but it is a model that many eaters would recognize as a CSA, so it is important to include it here.

The grocer

The grocer is not really a CSA. It is a grocery delivery service and there are an array of models here. Some are trying to source as much product as they can in the local area and some are concentrating more on the delivery and not on the sourcing. This is included here because many eaters will recognize this as a CSA even though it is clearly not a CSA in any sense of the word.

Examples: Farmigo and Good Eggs.





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