An Innovative CSA Model ~ Riverhill Farm’s “Friend of the Farm Card”

68928_10151122255500044_22843818_n

Beautiful Riverhill Farm, Nevada City, CA

Today we are featuring an innovative CSA model, created by Riverhill Farm just outside of Nevada City, CA. Customers pre-purchase “Friends of the Farm Cards” in $150, $300 or $450 increments, which can be used to purchase produce from Riverhill’s farm stand or farmers market throughout the year.  Like conventional CSA subscriptions, Riverhill Farm enjoys some prepayment for their crops.  Unlike conventional CSA subscriptions, their customers enjoy the freedom to select what and when to buy their produce, and the farm can focus on fewer, yet still diverse varieties.

Read on as Alan Haight, co-owner of Riverhill Farm, describes their farm’s evolution from traditional CSA to their new Friends of the Farm Card, customer response and effects on their farm operation.


Written by Alan Haight.

Founded in 2001, Riverhill Farm sits just outside of Nevada City, CA, tucked against the canyon cliffs of the Yuba River. Currently we have 10 acres in production, with plans for additional acreage in the coming years, and sell most of our produce within ten miles of the farm. At the center of the farm is our farmstand, the hub around which most of our farm’s activities revolve. Our farm produces a diverse mix of organic vegetables and fruits, including many heirloom and specialty varieties.

CSA-Allen

Alan Haight

Challenges with the traditional CSA model

In our rural community, demand for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares is limited. As the availability of local and organically grown produce has expanded to quality farmers’ markets, our local natural foods co-op and other retail outlets, interest in CSA in our community has remained static or declined.

Between 2007 and 2009, we saw our farm’s CSA share sales increase, but then plateau at 180 full shares. In subsequent years, the share sales began to decrease, even while we tried new methods of advertising and promotion campaigns. We were essentially unable to increase our subscriber base.

Feeling torn between honoring our commitment of quality to our CSA subscribers and exploring new markets, we found it difficult to make meaningful commitments to other marketing channels as a way of increasing income.

I also began to feel that for every meaningful increase in the number of CSA shares we sold, we needed more labor to match the labor intensity of CSA farming. We had already decided that we weren’t going to hire anymore interns. The difference in cost between interns and paid employees would necessitate reducing the number of workers on our farm, and that number would not be enough to keep up with the diversity typical of CSA.

Adapting to a scaled back workforce

Changing our crew meant changing our production plan to reduce diversity on our farm (instead of reducing acreage), and selecting highly demanded crops which would fit our scaled back workforce. We felt that we could no longer farm to fill the box and hoped that the average profitability of all our crops was enough to pay wages and provide us with an income.

We could have chosen to start selling shares in a larger geographic area or transporting shares to other communities with less access to local, organic food. However, this wasn’t an attractive option for us, as we strongly identify with our customers and our community, and we want the farm to maintain a strong local identity. And, this strategy wouldn’t have addressed our labor situation.

All of these issues converged when one day, one of our regular CSA customers said to us, “I really want to support your farm, but I really enjoy going to the farmers’ market to shop for my local produce. Is there some way I can pay you in advance and get my produce from you at the market?”

Out of this conversation a new idea was sparked.

Friend of the Farm Card is born

We adapted to our circumstances by modifying the traditional, weekly subscription share with our Friend of the Farm Card. Now, our customers pay us in advance of the season in one of three values, $150, $300, and $450, according to the amount of produce they intend to buy from us.

As an incentive to our customers to meet our need for capital when we need it, card purchases made before April 30th get a 10% increased value ($150 = $165), and cards purchased between May 1st and June 15th receive a 5% increased value. Customers can use their balance at our farm stand located at the farm, or at our stall at the local farmers’ market.

197874_10151122254425044_912365896_n

Riverhill Farm at the Farmers Market

Most of our customers have really embraced the new model, and appreciate that they can buy what they want, when they want it, and in the quantity that they will use, while still directly supporting our farm. It has gained in popularity, and we are now selling more than 200 cards a season.

We also allow our customers to carry an unused balance forward one season, especially now, as we and our customers get used to the new model and match card values to buying habits.

It’s important that we still know our customers by name, get to know their buying habits and preferences, and get to know their children. Families and individuals still have the opportunity to use their card at the farm, where they can come for a visit and enjoy the landscape, and also take advantage of u-pick opportunities.

Customer response

Some of our customers did prefer a weekly box filled with the unexpected and unusual varieties that they would not necessarily buy themselves, and liked the challenge of using everything in the box. They also liked that they were forced to eat more fresh produce than they might have if they were buying each produce item at the grocery store. A few of those former customers now subscribe to other CSA’s in our area, but many others have adapted to the card, despite their initial preference to our former approach.

An added benefit of the new model to our customers and the larger community, is that we no longer “sequester” our customers with so much produce that they don’t support other, local growers. Since we no longer grow everything and supply each weekly share with 15 items, our customers that shop at the farmers’ market now routinely patronize other farmers. We like and encourage that, as its increased the customer base of our farmers’ market and contributed to the market’s success.

And our own market sales have increased substantially, in spite of a reduction in crop diversity. Even as card customers use up their card balances, they continue to come to the market to buy produce, simply using cash instead of credit.

Changes in cash flow and bookkeeping

531861_10151122257925044_1874804276_n

Summer at Riverhill Farm

One of the biggest changes to our business with the Farm Card, is that it doesn’t provide us with the same early season capital for start-up costs each season like the CSA did.

We now receive about half the amount we received from purchases of CSA shares. This is due to the lower average value purchase ($200 card average compared to $567 for a full CSA share). To ensure that we have enough money to cover our costs (labor, seed, soil amendments, compost, and all the other things we have to buy before we have a crop to sell), for every year that we’ve been offering the card, we have taken out annual operating loans from California FarmLink.

The annual operating loans are a huge boon to us, and we’ve really appreciated how California FarmLink operates to assist sustainable farmers. They do require repayment in full at the end of the season, but fortunately we’ve been able to do just that.

A second change is that the card system also requires more bookkeeping and more sales activity. Unlike the more simple CSA weekly box system, where all the money is paid upfront and that’s it, we add up each customer’s purchases and log it in a spreadsheet. With the help of a friend well versed in Excel, we’ve developed a simple spreadsheet to track customer balances on a weekly basis. After each market, we enter the amount of each customer’s purchases into the spreadsheet, so the new balance is calculated on a weekly basis. This isn’t a burden, but just a new system those farmers contemplating a card system should be aware of.

Less crop diversity and new marketing channels

An advantage of the card model is that less of our acreage is taken up with the diversity and succession planting typical of producing for CSA. We’ve reduced the number of crops grown on our farm from 55 or 60 to 32 (for now, the lower limit of crop diversity). This has enabled us to plant larger areas of profitable crops and grow them very well, meeting more of the local demand for those crops as a single farm.

In order to get to our first markets in early June with a full load, we grow brassicas, roots, leafy greens and other cold tolerant crops in the spring while we wait for the weather to settle. Our first true summer crops do not typically come in until early July, and we often experience early frosts in the fall, so we need to end the season with the same kind of crop mix as the spring, combined with sweet potatoes, potatoes and winter squash. In this sense, there is definitely a level of diversity that we have to maintain in order to be profitable, not to mention how necessary this diversity is from a biological standpoint.

Additionally, the availability of larger volumes of single produce items from our farm has enabled us to meet the increased demand for local produce through other marketing channels, including our natural foods co-op, BriarPatch. If you were to classify our CSA card as retail sales, then we’ve seen a wide shift in the ratio of retail to wholesale. Retail sales have remained more or less constant (although they are now met through the farmers’ market and farm stand), but wholesale sales to the co-op have increased dramatically, improving our overall income compared to two or three years ago.

We now work closely with the co-op’s exceptional produce department to supply their entire stock of some seasonal crops. The large and dependable volume we now do wholesale has really helped us with the profitability of our farm.

An alternative model to consider

920431_10151622158105044_905127878_o

Alan harvesting greens

For many beginning (and not so beginning) farmers, it can be very challenging to choose which crops to grow. It may be a simple truth that crop selection takes time and experience. But, experience notwithstanding, many of us have accepted the model that we ought to grow everything we possibly can and hold to that model despite evidence that it’s not serving the farm very well. Not many people appreciate that this level of diversity is historically unprecedented. We’ve taken the kitchen garden that used to be associated with the household economy of a family farm and expanded that into a commercial farm, in effect serving as the kitchen garden for a community. There are many farms that have been very successful with this model but, for a variety of reasons, it isn’t feasible for all or even for most.

Finding the production plan that balances crop diversity, cash flow and spring capital, markets, seasonality, a farmer’s personal affinity for certain crops (markets be damned!) and all the variables that go into success and stability for a farm is going to look different on every operation. On our farm, it’s an evolution that’s continuing, and a process that has produced a unique result. Based on the last two years’ experience with the Friend of the Farm Card, I’m pleased and encouraged with the results!


If you have questions for Alan about the Friends of the Farm CSA card or Riverhill Farm’s produce, get in touch: alan@riverhillfarm.com.

For more resources on direct and wholesale marketing and sales, pricing your products, enterprise budgets and more, visit our Marketing & Sales and Business & Financial Planning Toolkits. Here you’ll find info sheets, checklists, worksheets and recommended resources to help you develop a marketing/sales strategy and increase your bottom line.

If you have questions or words of wisdom about your CSA program, or marketing & sales strategy, visit FarmsReach Conversations and post a question or comment!

If you have other great resources to share, get in touch with me: evaa@farmsreach.com. We love to hear from you!

3 Thoughts on “An Innovative CSA Model ~ Riverhill Farm’s “Friend of the Farm Card”

  1. Paul Underhill on March 6, 2014 at 1:35 pm said:

    This is an interesting idea. At my farm we saw our CSA plateau just after the recession started in 2007 and since then gradually shrinking. Since we gave up farmers markets to handle the increased CSA production in 2008, this is a very alarming trend for us. Other farmers in our area (Yolo County) have seen their numbers slip as well. And everyone I know tells me that farmers markets are, if anything, now more competitive than they were ten years ago.

    We have mostly tried to make up the difference by increasing our acreage of certain crops for wholesale. While this is a more efficient form of production, I also feel it is clearly less profitable given that we are still maintaining our CSA instrastructure.

    I’m glad you have found an alternative form of marketing but I am concerned that farmers are losing what has been a very solid foundation for their operations as the CSA trend appears to be waning or becoming oversupplied.

    • The quest for a revenue model that fits with the scale, workforce and temperament of each farmer is unquestionably challenging! Like Paul, I have heard growers in Sonoma County express the challenges of both finding new CSA members and competing in the (albeit well trafficked) farmers markets around the county.

      I can’t say that any one model will work for all farms, but I appreciate that Alan’s approach is still grounded in maintaining a close relationship with his customers even as he concedes to their need for more control over their weekly produce supply.

      FYI: this idea of prepayment that is then redeemed over time is exactly what Credibles (http://credibles.org) is all about. Founded by some of the folks behind Slow Money, it focuses on sustainable food businesses of all kinds (including farms) and handles all the payment/tracking infrastructure – replacing that excel spreadsheet – and provides a marketing channel through their website.

      Could be an alternative for some.

  2. Paul,
    Thanks for your comment. I’ve been appreciating your comments in this forum, and especially enjoyed your presentation at last year’s EcoFarm awards.

    Anything can be oversimplified, but it seems like the origins of CSA, whether in Japan or on the east coast of the U.S. (also Chicago with Angelic) was a consumer-driven relationship between farmer and eater. Eaters approached farmers with the desire to find a trustworthy and safe supply of organic produce out of concern for the health impacts of conventional produce. Since those early years, on the east coast there has also been the additional motivation of working against produce that really is trucked 3,000 miles, so they have more to push back against, namely produce brought in from California, Florida and Mexico, if not Europe. I understand that many CSAs have waiting lists in New York and New England.

    At least on the west coast, CSA seems to be more farmer-driven, and the promotion focuses mostly on supporting the farm with a reliable and profitable market, along with spring capital and other aspects of benefit to the farmer. Farmers struggle to convince customers that they ought to enjoy CSA for all its benefits, while customers have so many alternatives for access to certified organic food. Consequently, farmers motivating customers has become the marketing tool of CSA, which is a tough basis for a reliable market.

    I’m sure your experience selling CSA to urban markets is different than my experience in a rural market, and even a small percentage of a very large urban population base may continue to be a more or less reliable CSA market. That seems to be less so in rural markets, at least here where I farm.

    All the same, it’s clear that we have to continue to try to adapt to constantly changing conditions and anticipate those changes even while it’s not exactly clear what the trends are. That’s not an easy skill for a farmer to maintain while staying focused on doing what they do best.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post Navigation