Community Supported Agriculture - A Mississippi Grower's Success Story
Posted on 07/09/2012 at 12:00 AM by Christa Hartsook
Blog article was written by Kimberly L. Morgan, Assistant Professor, Mississippi State University, and AgMRC contributing writer.
Many thanks to Mr. Mike Steede, owner of Steede Farms, Inc. for sharing his 2010 CSA story with Mississippi produce grower audiences in Fall 2010.
For over 100 years, Mike and Heath Steede have grown produce on their south Mississippi farm. Following the footsteps of previous generations, the Steede family has taught their children to hear the rhythms of the dance between Nature and Man. Mike Steede has dedicated his life to educating adults and children in his work in the school system and with the Mississippi State Extension Service. As retirement loomed and 2010 planting season plans were underway, Mr. Steede crafted a master plan aimed at meeting his family’s future needs. He identified the land, labor and capital resources managed by his family, and added market information he had gathered about folks living in the Mobile, Alabama area that were looking to buy fresh fruits and vegetables from a trusted farm family.
Dedicating about four acres to his new venture, Mr. Steede and his family created one of the first Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) in Mississippi. His primary objective centered around the idea of sharing the risks of growing produce in a place known for its hot, humid, pest-ridden summers with buyers that wanted to know exactly who was doing the growing. From the grower’s perspective, this meant having a select number of customers buy shares prior to planting in return for set amounts of produce delivered in each of twelve weeks during the production season. From the buyer’s vantage, they received a variety of fruits and vegetables picked that morning from a local farm family.
At the end of its inaugural CSA year, Steede Farms, Inc. has a repeat customer base including nearly every original customer and a waiting list with more than double this number. Mr. Steede is points out that his success is largely due to his early focus on creating and nurturing his CSA Story. He challenges his customers, asking “I know where my food comes from. Do you?” His customers buy from his farm because they trust him and he repays that trust by providing “picked that day” high-quality produce in attractive arrangements. His customers are primarily young families committed to purchasing food from a local grower known to them, and older folks that used to grow their own produce and no longer have the time to dedicate to full-time gardening. To meet the needs of these two clientele groups, he offers two box sizes, with a Full Harvest built to hold 12-20 pounds and the Lite Harvest to include the same variety of produce averaging 7-12 pounds.
In mid-June 2010, temperatures hovered over 100 degrees for more than five weeks in the Deep South, destroying heat-sensitive fruits and vegetables. Faced with customers holding prepaid contracts wherein he had guaranteed delivery of 15+ pounds worth of produce every week, Mr. Steede contacted each shareholder and gave them two options –wait till this Fall for some winter vegetables, or do you want your money back? Not a single customer took him up on his offer to refund their money; instead, they replied with a resounding “just please keep doing what you are doing!” As a result of their established relationship, Mr. Steede and his customers successfully shared the risk resulting from unexpected weather conditions.
Some questions Mr. Steede suggest that those interested in trying to establish a CSA should ask themselves:
- Do I like people (A LOT!)?
- Do I mind people plundering around my farm?
- Do I mind answering questions about everything (and he means ALL kinds of questions, about your farm, family, the produce, etc., etc.)? and
- Do I enjoy sharing my love for the land and family with others?
Growers interested in starting a CSA are urged to connect with Mississippi State Extension experts and the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce marketing and communications specialists. He suggests growers spend time thoroughly researching the history and success of other CSA’s through websites as eXtension.org, localharvest.org, and Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group. These sites also provide information necessary for successful planting, marketing, pricing, financial planning, and customer relationship management. Mississippi Market Maker is an excellent resource for growers conducting detailed market research to locate and target direct sales efforts, and is provided at no cost to Mississippi farmers and ranchers as an online “place” to advertise your farm.
Mr. Steede initially advertised his shares with a small ad in the local newspaper, and within a few weeks had sold all his shares. His farm is about 30-45 minutes from his customers, and he carried the produce boxed to two locations each week, on Monday and Thursday. He has invested in Steede Farms website as the majority of his communication with shareholders is accomplished electronically via email. Convinced that continuing a CSA is a profitable addition to his family farm business, Mr. Steede plans to expand to serve about 100 shareholders with acreage devoted to fresh fruits and vegetables such as corn, potatoes, greens, onions, butterbeans, tomatoes, and more than three kinds each of squash, peppers, and beans.
If you'd like to explore this option further, or if you'd like some assistance in researching Community Supported Agriculture opportunities specific to your operation, please contact Dr. Kimberly Morgan, Department of Agricultural Economics: P.O. Box 5187, Mississippi State, MS, 39762. (662) 325-0413 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.