PHOTO: Suzie's Farm/Flickr
Liz Young was working on a Sacramento Valley farm in 2010 when she was tasked with organizing the CSA. The farm was packing 800 CSA boxes each week and had been running its operation using a credit-card machine and a data-entry spreadsheet system that a CSA member made for the farm. The CSA program was operating, but not efficiently. Now, Young is an account manager for CSAware, the CSA management software developed by the online local foods directory LocalHarvest.com and one of several software programs designed to help CSA farmers manage their CSAs efficiently so they can get back to farming.
With 800 CSA members, yes, of course, Young’s farm was in need of a software program. But odds are pretty good you’re not at that scale of farming—at least not yet. Maybe you’re just starting your CSA, already running a CSA with much fewer than 800 members or considering starting a CSA. This is a good time to learn about CSA management software and decide whether it’s a worthwhile purchase.
When a farmer signs on to work with a CSA management software provider, he’s taking steps out of his day-to-day CSA homework but not giving up any of his control. “You’re creating a business relationship of service and support,” Young says.
The services offered by the software programs vary, and you can select the one that makes the most sense for the direction your business is headed. In general, CSA management software might offer:
- an e-commerce platform that integrates into your website
- financial, membership, delivery and harvest reports that you can generate on demand
- a web interface that allows CSA members to sign up, update their payment information, be reminded of their orders and make changes to their shares
- tools for communicating with members, such as group email capabilities and billing reminders
The support offered by providers is a benefit, as well. Video guides, marketing tips, newsletters, Facebook groups, blogs and personal support from account managers are designed to improve your farm business. Many software programs are cloud-based, so you can access your information from anywhere. Some have a mobile-optimized website, too.
Size And Scope Of Your CSA
The software managers I spoke to agreed that it’s not so much the size of your CSA that dictates whether you need a software program, rather it’s the complexity of your operation and the time you’re putting into managing your CSA. HarvestHand, for example, has CSAs with as few as six members using its program.
Duncan Ebata, food community builder for HarvestHand, says CSA-software programs are worth considering when you’re “feeling overwhelmed with CSA management (invoices, marketing, customer requests, spreadsheets, et cetera), looking for ways to increase CSA sales or CSA add-on sales, or [wanting] to offer more customized options (payment plans, box contents).”
As your CSA grows in numbers, it will, by nature, grow in complexity.
“I generally think when farmers get toward 100 members, they should think about software because they don’t know people’s names any more and can’t keep track of it all in their heads,” says Simon Huntley, founder of Small Farm Central and developer of its Member Assembler CSA management software.
If you have less than 100 members but are running your whole farm operation solo, you might want the convenience of letting a software keep track of your CSA goings-on. Likewise, even if you’re a smaller-scale farm, you might offer add-ons of eggs or meat, flexible delivery days, or a shopping-cart-like scheme that would be a nightmare to organize on your own.
Costs Of CSA Management Software
The price of the software needs to make sense for your business, of course. Different software programs have different payment models. Some programs only charge a fee during months that you’re delivering farm goods; others charge year-round. Some programs charge a flat fee, others a percentage of business you do through its program, and others a fixed-dollar amount per CSA member. There are usually credit card processing fees, too.
“Farms should look carefully at the pricing models, as percentage of sales and additional fees for bandwidth and setup costs can make some platforms very expensive,” Ebata says.
Making A Choice
Take a few software-program tours to explore what’s out there for you.
“You want to have a relationship with a business that’s aligned with yours, that you feel supported in, and that you feel like has a product that will improve and support your own business,” Young says.
An account representative from any of the software programs should be willing to talk with you about your farm and the direction you’re headed while they walk you through the CSA farmer’s side and the CSA member’s side of their program. With a small farm, there are probably some software features that won’t be of much use to you, but with a vision of things you’d like to offer in the future, you can find a program that will accommodate you as your farm grows. Some of the software programs offer a full version and a less costly, pared-down version. CSAware, for example, is launching a simpler version of its software in spring 2016.
Ebata suggests taking a close look at the communication options presented by the software.
“The difference between mediocre CSAs and exceptionally successful CSAs is customer service,” he says. “Farms should look at how easy it is to communicate to their members through the platform. What features does the platform have to make it faster to communicate to members?”
Talk with other farmers who have similar operations to yours to find out what’s worked for them, too.
“Find a piece of software that is built with your style of CSA in mind,” Huntley urges, as different softwares work better for different CSA types.
Finally, compute the amount of hours and effort that you put into CSA management and decide whether it’s worth the cost of a software program for you to make the switch. You don’t need 800 members—only a business sense that’s begging you to simplify and delegate some of your management duties.