Meat CSA

From the APPPA email list, Julia Cronin of Cedar Meadow Farm explains how her meat CSA works.

I’ve had quite a few requests for information about our meat CSA, so I figured I would post some of the most relevant information in this message. In addition, I have added a folder to the APPPA Yahoo Groups site (labeled CSA) where I’ve included a copy of our CSA Agreement, an excel spreadsheet showing cost calculations, and a few of our recipes.

Please note that this was our first year running a meat CSA and though it went well, we’ll continue to "tweak" it to make it even better. First thing we did wrong was to specify pick up on the 4th Sunday of the month. Believe it or not, we had a couple of months with 5 Sundays so there were several customers who got confused. We ran a 3 month and a 6 month CSA. The 3 month ran from June through August and the 6 month went from July through December. Next year, we will only offer the 6 month and run it from June through November. The three month CSA cost $125/month, the 6 month CSA cost $100/month.

We tried to make all our products seasonal. For example, we offered items like ground beef and hot dogs during prime grilling season: July, August, and September. Once the cooler weather came around, we changed to cuts like stew meat and London broil. I tried to have a theme for every month so customers could see a link to the assortment of foods they got. Every month, customers would get chicken and eggs.

We raised one batch of red broilers (a la Freedom Rangers) and let the customers have a side-by-side comparison with the Cornish Rock Cross. It was great to have the two birds and show them the differences. This month is Thanksgiving and we are featuring all the fixin’s for a Turducken: Heritage Turkey, Heritage Duck, and a Heritage Chicken. If I had planned well, we’d also include sausage from our heritage pigs (for the stuffing) but I didn’t plan ahead on this one. Because the vast majority of our customers have never cooked any heritage birds, we will include complete cooking instructions for each item individually as well as for the Turducken.

I also tried to offer some unusual items that we already raise here on the farm – rabbit, pheasant, quail, and pigeon. This was a bit much and we ended up not being able to source the young quail, all my pheasant died, and I just was too overwhelmed to do the pigeon. There is a big difference between raising animals for yourself and doing it for a group of people! (Duh.)

The CSA requires a ton of advance planning to make sure you have enough of everything for all your customers. For the first three months, I was absolutely certain to make sure each and every package was identical. As I got to know my customers a little better, I was able to customize their packages somewhat to suit their cooking style and family situation (a couple typically cooks differently than a family with lots of children). However, I made sure that all the substitutions that we made were on my terms, not theirs. I had a couple of people who had enquired about the CSA seeing if they could substitute one item for another but I always said No. I would not make substitutions as a practice because this can get very confusing. I only did it when it was convenient for me!

One thing to consider when planning is always holding something back as a "just in case". There will be months when you weren’t able to schedule a trip to the smokehouse in time so your bacon isn’t ready, or the chickens ended up being smaller than you like. I always have ground beef on hand to make up any shortfalls. Make sure you also have some big ticket items to carry you through a drought. We had disaster strike us this spring when we lost all our heritage turkeys to a raccoon. We were able to get replacements, but they are going to be tiny. We decided to go with some BBW turkeys – not our favorite to raise, but they filled in the gap for us.

Our customers will have the choice of a tiny heritage breed turkey for Thanksgiving and a big BBW for Christmas or a reasonably sized BBW for Thanksgiving and a smallish heritage breed turkey for Christmas. Additionally, we arranged to have a side of beef in the freezer by November 1st to really help us out with any shortfalls. Thank goodness we did because we ended up butchering our lambs early – which were going to be the mainstay of the December CSA; however, they were able to fill the gap left behind when we didn’t have the pheasant and quail we originally planned for in October!

The CSA customers got the best of the best, but they also got the opportunity to try items they would have probably never purchased. Items like Fatback, rabbit, leg ‘o lamb, and duck eggs are a few that come to mind. It is imperative that with all your products you include cooking instructions. I’ll never forget when I got my very first ham steaks back from the butcher and tried to cook them the way I always did. They tasted like shoe leather! My philosophy is that these folks are spending a lot of money and I want to make certain they feel as though they got their money’s worth. We all have a great product to sell, but if it isn’t cooked properly, it won’t taste good and your customers will feel shortchanged. I have received overwhelmingly positive feedback on the cooking tips

Another thing to try to aim for is quantity at each pick up. I make sure that I balance out the higher ticket items (Porterhouse steaks and Lamb Chops) with some of the more inexpensive items (eggs, ground beef, stew meat). Customers like to feel like they are taking home a lot of "stuff" each month. They also like variety, as long as it doesn’t seem like a mish-mash of items. If you can figure out a way to link different items together in some kind of theme, they really seem to like that concept. For example, you may want to consider the "Breakfast Bonanza" one month: an assortment of breakfast sausage (links and patties), fresh ham steak, smoked ham steak, bacon, and eggs.

The final point that I would make is to track all your CSA packages. This will give you and your customer piece of mind. What I do is track exactly what went into each package to make certain my customers were getting their money’s worth. I always aimed for a 5% overage in terms of value. Some months I went over, some months I went under. At the end of the term, my goal is to make sure that they get the retail value of $650 worth of product for the $600 they spent. At the conclusion, they will get a breakdown of all the items they received, including the value of their overall purchase. I’m waiting until the end because though there were months where they were getting $115 worth of food, there were also months where they were getting $90 worth of food. The balance at the end is going to make the biggest difference to them.

Oh, a very important thing that I totally forgot! Look around to local farmers to see if they raise anything that you might be able to take advantage of. For example, we don’t raise cows, (not only do I not know the first thing about cow management, we don’t have the space). There is a local farmer who has some of the BEST grass fed beef. The problem is, she doesn’t know how to market her excellent product. It is actually kind of funny – when she first approached me to see if I was interested, she apologized about her cows, saying that since she couldn’t afford grain, they were grass fed. To add insult to injury, they were "only half Angus". Needless to say, we bought a side of beef to try it out and were totally impressed.

As a result, I buy the live animals from her and I coordinate all the processing. I pay her very fairly for her product, and I make sure all my customers know exactly where it comes from. They really like the concept of supporting local farmers, so it really didn’t matter much to them that I didn’t raise it myself. You may find that there is a local
youth who might be interested in raising animals that you can purchase from them (rabbits, for example). Just make sure they raise them exactly the way you want, the product tastes good, and both you and the person who raises them gets a fair shake financially. Not only are you able to expand your offerings without killing yourself, you are helping to promote the concept of farming to others. Yes, at the end of the day I don’t make as much of a profit as I would if I did it all myself, but there is just so much one person can do..

In terms of actually making money, do CSAs work?. Well, I calculated the quantity of meat the customers got each month by using my farmer’s market prices. In the end, I anticipate the customers are getting a 5-10% discount. I have a 15-20% markup on my products so I’m still turning a profit, even with the discount. Of course, my markup is what pays for my labor, so at the end of the day, I’m still taking a bit of a hit to the bottom line.

However, I have two benefits: #1, I have a guaranteed outlet for my product, #2, my customers all pay me at one month in advance. I require the first month’s payment when I open the CSA for enrollment (I open for enrollment on April 1st, close April 15th). Enrollment is guaranteed first-come, first-serve based on when I get your check. Having $1500 at the beginning of the season was a huge boon. It allowed me to buy all my chicks and feed without using credit. I know that I shouldn’t be using credit anyway, but by springtime, I’ve usually run through most of the funds I set aside for the winter..

Well, I think that sums it up for now – take a peek at the folders on the APPPA groups page and you’ll see a folder titled CSA that will have our customer contract, our cost calculation spreadsheet and some recipes. If you have any more questions, don’t hesitate to ask! Also, for those of you who are currently doing CSAs, I would be really interested to see what you’ve been up to and what advice you have to provide! Feel free to add any relevant information to the CSA folder.

Oh – one more thing – KEEP IT SMALL YOUR FIRST YEAR!!!!!!!!! We limited enrollment to 15 customers and it was almost too much to handle. We’re ready now to bump it up to 20 customers, even though we could easily find 30 or 40 who want to sign up.

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