The New Way to CSA: A Look Back

Nowadays, we tuck shareholder-customized shares—packing lists generated for us by computer—into cabbage boxes and neatly stack them in air-conditioned delivery vans. We offer our thanks to the early adopters of Elmwood Stock Farm’s CSA Farm Share subscription model for sticking with us while we adapted to better systems for everybody.

I stumbled upon a stack of classic peach baskets in the barn loft the other day, which brought back memories of how we used to run our CSA Farm Share program. Back when we began 18 years ago, we thought we were nailing it, sending out lots of food to lots of people via a surprise share of veggies in a Norman Rockwell-esque era peach basket. My initial memory was how one person had to be crouched in the pickup truck bed, ricking the baskets a certain way so as to keep all produce safe after all the work that went into growing, harvesting and packing it. They’d add boards across the bed, working their way back to the tailgate, creating layers of baskets.  

Yep, we thought we had this CSA thing down pat—and we did, for that time. Nowadays, we tuck shareholder-customized shares—packing lists generated for us by computer—into cabbage boxes and neatly stack them in air-conditioned delivery vans. We offer our thanks to the early adopters of Elmwood Stock Farm’s CSA Farm Share subscription model for sticking with us while we adapted to better systems for everybody.

Like most early CSA Farm Shares, we as the farmers decided what vegetables would be in each member’s share each week. We could see what was ripe and ready and send it on its way, doing our best to assemble a nice mix of veggies for everyone. This model worked great for us, and we were happy to see lots of great produce going to our shareholders.

We ran our program like this for several years, with some shareholders excited about the “birthday surprise” of what was in their share each week and learning to eat new vegetables. (In reality, there are no “new” veggies, maybe new varieties of a vegetable or a “new-to-them” something, but these foods have been around longer than we have.) Others liked this farmers-choice method less well. Many learned to share with others, and interest in Elmwood Stock Farm’s CSA Farm Share kept growing, and more people remarked that they learned to like the “new” veggies and to be flexible in their eating habits.

The peach-basket packing method was quaint but hard to load and unload. It was hot up in that truck bed, and greens got wilty fast, but it was all we had. With the growth of CSA shareholder numbers over the years, we invested in waxed cardboard boxes. Veggies went right in, the boxes were easy to stack and load, and the produce stayed fresher. We thought we knew our stuff then. But many of the boxes were not returned, and some that were came back with gross stuff in them. Shareholders who were supposed to get a small box would accidentally grab a big box, or vice-versa. (Box size was the only way to distinguish between the Mini, Regular and Robust CSA share sizes.) So we tried using box liners that shareholders could just grab while leaving the box, but most shareholders took the box anyway.   

I remember where I was standing by the farmers market trailer when Ann asked me what I thought about allowing shareholders to customize their shares each week. I can’t repeat my reply in polite company, questioning the logistics of this sort of thing, but knowing how forward-thinking Ann is, I listened to her pitch. She knew of a CSA farm family with a computer-programming background that had developed a program that could make customizable shares happen. The farmer could post what was available on a private website, shareholders could log in to pick and choose what they wanted, and the software would generate a pick list for the harvest crew, plus labels for each shareholder’s order. Ann was smiling as she talked about this advancement, and I could see she knew it was a good thing, but I still went on the record as a NO, because this idea sounded wildly complicated. 

It turns out Ann was right, as often is the case in such matters. Offering CSA shareholders their choice of our harvest has proven to be better for everybody. It actually helps us balance the harvest and offer even small amounts of any item when there is something that needs to be picked. Obviously, shareholders like the ability to choose their favorites, although some are not expanding their palates like in the old farmer’s-choice days. Initially, some shareholders did not want to adjust their share, thinking it would make more work for us, which is not the case, although it is a little tricky estimating what will be ready in a few days. Another thing we like about it is that every share has a printed label, so mix-ups at pickup locations still happen but have been greatly reduced (and that’s a big deal).

With a few years of running our CSA with customizable shares and having a crackerjack team to pull it all together, we are cooking with gas now. I can’t imagine how, but in some way, a decade from now, the work we are doing today will look like those peach baskets, and we’ll have some new CSA Farm Share development to marvel about. Not to worry—Ann will figure it out. It is CSA shareholders who get the credit for pushing us to adopt these new technologies, themselves a testament to the success of the local food movement. —Mac Stone

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