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Careful with CSA. Match the appropriate sales strategy to the scale of your market garden

Posts: 14
Location: Cantabria, Spain
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This was a big AHA! moment for me once it struck me. I have been researching, reading a lot, there is tons of good info out there, but this deatil seems to have been evading me until last year.

In my experience most micro market gardening startups you come accross will inevitably give you the impression that the CSA model is The Way to Go. Reference material like JM Fortier´s book, countless small farm stories online, viddeo channels etc will all be singing the praises, go CSA, go veg box, to unlock a high price point, to ensure sales, to simplify your crop planning... So no wonder we followed suit on our tiny, 1/2acre market garden, maintained by 2 people and started growing diverse crops to supply a weekly veg box and custom order delivery scheme for individual clients and a nice diverse farmers market booth. Bloody hard work, more like a struggle if you ask me. And that´s because we are just too small for CSA. Yupp, that´s a thing it seems.

It was in one of the youtube videos of urban farmer Curtis Stone (highly recommend watching ALL his content on youtube) where he points out: the CSA model will work well with 1-1.5 acre operations (with 3-5 working it), but smaller operators will do better to scale down on diversity, specialize in high value crops and look to sale to restaurants and food distributors (consumer groups) etc.

There is many reasons for this, most of it has to do with efficency of scale/economy of scale and the value you can create given limited space and time. Think about getting your tools and seeds ready in preparation for planting, the time you spend walking to your garden bed or sharpening your hoe. All these constant time investments are there whether you are doing 30 feet of carrots or 300 feet. A super diverse planting schedule squeezed into a small space, managed by 1 or 2 persons brings down your efficiency in many ways. As a result of your divided attention you may end up struggling to stay on top of everything and at the end of it, the harvest of each crop will be very limited due to your small growing space and limited time... this will inevitably mean that you have less produce hence you can provide less veg boxes, for less clients... and again, each time you take the day to set up for packing the boxes, to load the van to half its capacity, to drive to town to deliver... you do all that work for much less value. That van should be full. Better yet, big, and full. Otherwise you are not economic with your time spent delivering. Better use a small space to grow fewer but higher volume, higher value crops that you can then deliver to larger buyers.

Small farmers are already jack of all trades having to do growing, maintenance, selling, admin... your time you put in is your greates asset AND limitation. so if you are small, you need to be super efficient with your sales channels, meaning delivering as much value with as little fuss as possible. Hence the suggestion to work with restaurant and food distributors/consumer groups, where it makes sense.

And then there is context, aka your own situation - marketing possibilities in your area might be very different from what exists in the well documented US and Canadian market gardening scheme.
So choose wisely and choose according to your scale.

In our case:
Here in North Spain organic food consumption is just taking off, many clients are price sensitive, especially in rural areas, and the CSA model is practicly non existent, it would be quite a work to try convince people to pay up front ahead of the whole season.
We have no option for a roadside or farm stand as our location is not suitable for that.
There is hardly any true farmers markets, most markets are practically just stands of veg grocers with bought in wholesale produce. The one organic market we go to is not bad, but has nothing to do with the buzz and turnover of a truly happening French or US farmers market.
Most restaurants here are very limited in the veg department, that´s just how local taste is I suppose.
This place is starting to sound like the worst ever to stat a market garden!

This season we will endeavor to shift towards more restaurant sales (carefully picking the worthwhile ones), while maintaining our original box clients and farmers market channels to keep us afloat and hope that we can change over to a less demanding form of sales.

As always the devil is in the details and fine tuning your economy of scale, and finding the most efficient sales channels will make the difference between scraping by or smooth sailin´.
Just putting this out there for discussion and hope it can be helpful for those brainstorming about their sales plans.

Good luck to us all!

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