The price of a peach

We decided to try a new CSA funding system this year – CSA by donation! Our prospective CSA members were asked to donate for their CSA box anywhere in the range of $210-420. The idea is that we could have members who might not be able to afford the CSA box otherwise, while members who felt they contribute could help make up the difference.

First off, the background – why did we try this? Back in November, I went to a presentation by Ryan Galt on his statewide CSA survey. Two facts stuck with me – first, that the average price of a CSA box was around $25 (while we had been charging $20 for all our fruit box). And second, that the lowest income CSA members reported being the happiest with their CSA boxes statewide.

color fruit trays

We had been told by other farmers and friends that our CSA boxes were priced much lower than alternatives on the market. We don’t like undervaluing our produce, partly because we are still working on making a living wage at the farm. But also, if we undercut other farmer’s prices, then produce loses value overall, and all farmers will have trouble making a living wage. It seemed like we needed to raise prices. But we also don’t like that many people are unable to afford good quality, local, organic produce. And the people that wouldn’t be able to afford our produce would actually be the happiest with it, had they received it.

So we wanted to raise our prices, but we also wanted to recruit more lower income members. Major dilemma. We first thought of doing a sliding scale rate based on income level, but it made us really uncomfortable to ask CSA members to report their income levels (and we thought they wouldn’t want to either!) Then we thought of honor system marketing – supposedly, when a customer feels they are being trusted (ie. in a farmstand with a cash box and no employee on staff, where it is on the honor system to pay for your produce), they will get an endorphin boost and actually contribute more!

We talked to some members and other farmers, and some people thought we were crazy, but other people were really, really interested and want us to report back whether this works. So the results! The average price was $300.63 for 14 boxes, or an average price of $21.47 per box. So our members actually contributed more than last year, of their own volition. What is also interesting is that our returning members donated more ($314.66), while the new members, who really have no idea what kind of tasty fruit they are getting into, donated less with $256.57. Also, interesting — we had 4 members at the very upper tier, who really contributed to making the whole system work. The data nerd in me wants to know how the donation amounts correlate to income, but I’m pretty sure there are some outliers — the top 4 donation amounts are returning, super-supportive members, one of whom is a grad student.

donation graph

I’m feeling pretty happy with the new system, and it was really exciting to see how it worked out. We also got a lot of great advice over a homemade dinner from a new CSA member, Ariana Brill, who studied cases like these in economics classes, so we’ll be improving the system in future years. Thank you so much to our CSA members for participating in this experiment!!

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