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Cultivating Organic Loyalty: Strategies for Retaining CSA Members

June 26, 2024

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Cultivating Organic Loyalty: Strategies for Retaining CSA Members

Clearing the Weeds: Finding Balance in Member Relations

As a former CSA manager, I can vividly recall the days when I was bending over backward to accommodate the every request of my 200-plus members. In hindsight, I can see that this was the root cause of my own demise. Imagine a 26-week season where each member asked for just one special favor – that’s an average of 8 requests per week that I was scrambling to fulfill. As I wrote in Growing for Market, “The truth is I was desperate for sales. Member retention was low, and meeting CSA sales goals felt impossible. I misguidedly convinced myself that being overly accommodating was necessary to build member loyalty.”

As a Midwestern gal with a heavy dose of “Minnesota Nice,” I had an innate desire to please everyone. I would rearrange delivery schedules, swap out items in boxes, and search for recipes to cater to each member’s unique preferences. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this approach was actually eroding the very loyalty I was trying to cultivate. By making my members dependent on me, I was disempowering them and creating an unsustainable situation for my team and myself.

The Liberating Power of “No”

It wasn’t until I started saying “no” that I began to see a remarkable transformation. When I established clear and consistent policies, and stuck to them, the special requests miraculously dried up. As I shared in that article, “No one was mad at me. Instead of letting members depend on me, I empowered them to find their solutions on their own.”

This shift in mindset was truly game-changing. By setting firm boundaries and refusing to bend the rules, I was able to reclaim my time and energy, while also fostering a sense of responsibility and ownership among my members. They realized that they needed to make the effort to pick up their shares on time, or face the consequences of their actions.

Strategies for Cultivating Organic Loyalty

So, what are the key strategies for retaining CSA members and cultivating that elusive “organic loyalty”? Here are some proven tactics that can help you and your CSA thrive:

1. Establish Clear and Consistent Policies

Make your expectations crystal clear from the start. Clearly communicate your policies around share pickup times, missed deliveries, and the handling of uncollected shares. Reinforce these policies in every communication, from your website to your weekly newsletters. As I suggested, “Add a tagline to emails and print on pickup lists: ‘All shares must be picked up at the assigned time and location. Uncollected shares will be donated and will not be replaced or refunded.'” When members know the rules, they’ll be more likely to follow them.

2. Streamline the Donation Process

Implement a plan for donating any uncollected shares. Designate a reliable member or local partner to collect and distribute these items to food banks, shelters, or other community organizations. As I mentioned, “This relieves the burden on your host site if there are vegetables left behind and it trains members to adhere to the schedule.”

3. Cultivate Strategic Partnerships

When selecting pickup locations, look for businesses that will mutually benefit from the arrangement. As I found, “My best partner was a neighborhood butcher shop. They eagerly promoted the CSA because they knew it would keep their customers coming back on schedule each week, and it was a perfect complement to their offerings.”

4. Offer a Sponsorship Option

CSA memberships aren’t for everyone. Provide an opportunity for those who can’t participate fully to still support your farm through a sponsorship program. As I suggested, “Have an option ready for the folks who say they would love to support your farm but they don’t eat vegetables or don’t cook or are traveling too often. Ask them to sponsor a share for another family either for a full season or even just a week.”

5. Resist the Urge to Overfill

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the top reasons CSA members don’t return is that they receive too much food. As I explained, “People will feel guilty if they are wasting food. Even if you gave them more than they paid for in a week’s share, they will have the perception that they are throwing away money with every item that goes uneaten.”

6. Encourage Swap and Share

Provide a designated “swap box” where members can trade or leave behind items they know their family won’t use. This small gesture can go a long way in empowering members to take ownership of their shares and reduce food waste. As I shared, “This small effort can make a big difference for members who have certain foods that they despise. They can drop that eggplant in the box and forget it rather than watching it rot on their kitchen counter.”

7. Offer Robust Online Resources

Invest in creating a comprehensive digital library of recipes, storage tips, and cooking techniques. As I mentioned, “I created boards for each vegetable and pinned links to thousands of relevant recipes from across the internet. Whenever someone asked for recipes, I would remind them to check the Pinterest page that was always linked in the newsletter and the website.”

By empowering your members with knowledge and tools, you’re not only fostering their engagement but also strengthening their connection to your farm and its mission.

Cultivating Loyalty Through Communication and Community

Of course, setting boundaries and streamlining operations are just one piece of the puzzle. To truly cultivate organic loyalty, you need to nurture a sense of community and belonging among your CSA members.

According to the Pennsylvania State University Extension, “Effective communication is key to retaining CSA members. Keep members informed about farm updates and upcoming events and share stories about the produce and farmers. Utilize various channels such as email newsletters, social media platforms, and farm blogs to stay connected with members.”

Engage your members through a variety of touchpoints, from weekly newsletters to on-farm events. Share stories that give them a glimpse into the daily life of your farm and the people behind it. Encourage members to participate in volunteer opportunities, fostering a deeper sense of investment and belonging.

Additionally, consider implementing a loyalty rewards program to incentivize repeat memberships and referrals. Recognize and appreciate your members’ commitment through personalized thank-you notes or special gifts. Show them that their input and support are truly valued.

Embracing Continuous Improvement

Ultimately, retaining CSA members is an ongoing process that requires a proactive, adaptive approach. As the Pennsylvania State University Extension suggests, “Regularly evaluate and improve your CSA program based on member feedback and market trends. Be open to experimentation and innovation whether it’s introducing new crops, refining distribution methods, or enhancing customer service.”

By continuously seeking feedback, testing new ideas, and demonstrating a commitment to your members’ evolving needs, you can foster a thriving CSA that cultivates organic loyalty for years to come.

So, as you embark on your journey to cultivate a loyal CSA community, remember the power of setting boundaries, communicating effectively, and embracing a spirit of continuous improvement. With these strategies in your toolkit, you’ll be well on your way to growing a vibrant, sustainable CSA program that nourishes both your members and your farm.

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Thornapple CSA: A community-driven initiative championing sustainable agriculture. We connect members with fresh, organic produce, celebrating the bond between land and community.

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