PHOTO: Jesse Frost
With fall and winter CSA sign-ups just around the corner—followed not much later by next year’s sign-ups—now is the time to start thinking about retaining customers. Keeping customers is a lot easier than finding new ones, and the more they invest in your farm, the more they will want to come back year after year. Here’s what we’ve learned that works for us in our five years of running and growing our CSA.
One-hundred percent retention is never going to be feasible. People move, their finances change, they decide to take a lot of vacations—those sorts of things. In general, aim for a 75 to 85 percent retention rate, and devise a way to keep track of that retention percentage year after year. To see how your retention rate changes year-to-year may clue you in on why customers are dropping out.
Before actually inviting people out to visit your farm, there are things you can do from your market booth or CSA pick-up to make your customers feel part of your farm team. A few years ago my wife and I started putting out the occasional “ballot” to our shareholders to see what kinds of crops they would and wouldn’t like to see more of. The response was great. We heard the expected things—less eggplant, less squash, more fruit—but it opened up a conversation with them that gave them a bigger part in decision making on the farm. They wanted more fruit, so we planted more fruit and told them, “This will take a few years, but it will pay off!” The following year we had our best retention rate yet.
Not everyone’s farm is accessible. We know—we live an hour from our market, deep in the hollows of Kentucky. But bringing people out to your farm is a great way to bond them to the land. Anytime we’ve had shareholders out, we’ve let their children dig a potato to show them where their food comes from. To see the farm in action helps to really illuminate the experience and help customers connect to your operation. We want our shareholders to know this is their farm, too, and we’re their farmers. Our goal is always to help them feel their CSA share is an investment, not just a grocery bill.
We know each of our members by name. We know their children’s names. It’s important to us, and it lets them know how much they mean to us. If they like a certain type of tomato or don’t eat cilantro, we take note of that. If your CSA is too large to remember everyone at every drop, consider assigning that job to one savvy employee for each location. Or take the time to meet as many of them as possible and thank them for their investment.
A customer is not always going to tell you if you are giving them too much or too little food. They will just assume the CSA is not for them and drop out the next season. So ask them. Ask if how they are enjoying the share, what they think so far. This will not only make them feel valued, but also help you hone your CSA offerings.
Of course, you can follow all of the above, but if you don’t offer a consistent and quality product, it’s all for naught. Remember, even though your customers obviously have interest in supporting local businesses, people are still doing the CSA for the food (or flowers, or milk or whatever it is you sell). You can and will have failures—such is farming—but always work to provide your CSA members with the best you produce.