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How do I deal with community supported agriculture flakes?
January 15, 2011 9:06 AM   Subscribe

How do I deal with community supported agriculture flakes? I NEED people to pick up their shares.

So I have been coordinating CSAs for about two years now. Currently I run my own in NYC. It's going pretty well, demand is higher than supply, but my perennial problem is people who flake out. The whole point of CSA is you invest in a farm and then pick up your returns. Some people invest in our farms and when pickup day comes they say they have a fever, have to pick up the kids at camp, forget that they were entertaining their parents for weekend, ad nauseum. Some of these excuses seem more valid than others, but the fact of the matter is that I don't have the infrastructure to store their perishable share. I have to struggle to sell it or eat it myself, which isn't always possible. I'm not sure how to deal with the problem.

Sometimes it's even worst because while the minimum quantity is prepaid, there is the option to order more. So if they do that and don't pick up, i have to pay the farmer with my own money. The reason I have a minimum quantity and don't require all payment in full is that this is farms we are dealing with and I have no idea what the final weight of the share will be.

Each share has a small fee that goes towards CSA infrastructure, but it's very small and basically pays for things like coolers.

I've thought about :
1. doing what the Park Slope Coop does and suspending them for an allotted amount of time
2. banning them from the club altogether if they miss a share
3. refusing to refund their deposit and donating their share to a homeless shelter and keeping their fee
4. disallowing them from ordering more than the minimum quantity for an allotted amount of them

I hate to be draconian, but I can't afford to run a CSA if people constantly do this.

What do you advise? Tips and opinions would be appreciated!
posted by melissam to Work & Money (39 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think you should do #3. I have a share of a CSA here in Boston, and I pay ahead of time (I think I have the option of paying over time, but I pay in full up front), and if I miss my share, oh well! It gets donated to a shelter.

If you don't already, you should also give your members the option of having someone else pick up their share. For example, when I am on vacation, I let my sister have the food that week, things like that.
posted by teragram at 9:12 AM on January 15, 2011 [9 favorites]


I don't understand why they end up not paying for the additional they order over the minimum?

I would suggest just charging a penalty for no-shows in the amount that it's costing you to store and then get rid of the share, and set a firm policy that shares not picked up by x day will be donated to a shelter. I would not go the more punitive route of suspensions, because what you want is for people to stay members and keep on paying, right?
posted by yarly at 9:14 AM on January 15, 2011


I would assume #3 was a standard part of the contract people would agree to.
posted by sanka at 9:15 AM on January 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


What about making it a part of your system that there may be extras at the end of the pick up time, and those who are interested can come and buy that stuff up at a certain time. Then state clearly also that those who flake are giving up their share at X o'clock on pick-up day (although sounds like they already know this). If demand is higher than supply, there must be some way to take advantage of this, right?

Also, #3 is good, I agree.

If it's a matter of people not paying the stuff the ordered more of, and flaking completely, I think it is COMPLETELY reasonable of you to suspend them at your discretion. You shouldn't feel at all bad about this: that is lousy behavior, that will, as you say, make it impossible for you to run a CSA. This isn't a big business after all.
posted by dubitable at 9:17 AM on January 15, 2011


Another idea: why not get together with other csas to have a "garage sale" for unsold or abandoned shares each week? I'm sure there are many thrift folks who would jump at the chance to get leftovers at a discount.
posted by yarly at 9:21 AM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why aren't they paying the full amount in advance? Every CSA I've ever belonged to required full payment in advance for the share and whatever extras. At that point, it's not such a big concern if they miss pickup.

So I guess this is another vote for option 3 (plus fixing whatever policy involves you advancing money out of your own pocket). The others seem like needless disciplinarian fussiness. Just get the money in advance, and then picking up the already-paid-for produce is in each member's interest and their sole concern.
posted by RogerB at 9:21 AM on January 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


I've never heard of the model that ties final CSA price to weight. Is that common in NYC? In my experience, the price is always set at the beginning of the season, regardless of the returns. That's how they spread out the risk of a bad season, and provide the funds up front.

In our CSA, you pay ahead of time (or perhaps 2-3 payments over a few months). You sign up for one of two time-slots for pick-up at our location. If you miss a week, the box is donated to schools or shelters or low income groups. If you know you're going to miss a week, you can have anyone else pick it up for you - family, neighbor, another share member, whatever. They just show up and tell them your name. If they are only gone for a day, they can then pick up the share from the friend, or split it with them, or whatever. It's up to them.

This seems to work well for most of the CSAs in our area. They all have that model and they all sell out every year.

Can you look at the final price of the last few years and average that?

I've also heard of CSAs that have online listservs or forums, where members can swap weeks if they want.
posted by barnone at 9:22 AM on January 15, 2011


Why aren't they paying the full amount in advance? Every CSA I've ever belonged to required full payment in advance for the share and whatever extras. At that point, it's not such a big concern if they miss pickup.

I'd love to do this, but a lot of the time I'm selling one lamb per person, which varies in weight quite ridiculously. Maybe I can arrange this in the future.
posted by melissam at 9:23 AM on January 15, 2011


#3 is how my CSA works. And as someone who is frequently unable to pickup my share, I knew that was part of the deal going in.
posted by mollymayhem at 9:25 AM on January 15, 2011


#3 is a great idea as long as it is stated in the contract they sign. If you continue to have problems with them then they should be suspended so other people can take advantage of your great program (again, stated in the contract).
posted by MsKim at 9:26 AM on January 15, 2011


A CSA out on Long Island (Bethpage) that I know of is all veggie (some eggs and they do thanksgiving turkeys) and you pay for the year up front and whatever you don't pick up, you don't get. They either sell it at their weekend farmstand or donate it if it doesn't sell.
posted by Brian Puccio at 9:26 AM on January 15, 2011


My house was a neighborhood depot (dropoff point) for a CSA for several years. I didn't do anything other than provide space for the boxes, ensure their security, and meet my neighbors a bit, but I can relate to this question because sometimes people would space or be out of town or whatever.

At our place, the stated policy was that I would hang onto unclaimed boxes for 24 hours and then find them a new home. Almost always I'd have a neighbor who didn't have the kind of cash to permit them to buy a big box of organic produce ever week, who was grateful for the gift when it materialized. If someone contacted me before the dropoff or within 24 hours and wanted to make other arrangements (a neighbor pick up, get it 48 hours, etc.) that was cool, but in the absence of other info I'd just find the veggies a new home. It worked. Maybe you can make that your policy too.

The most important problem you have, I think, is that it's structured that you're financially responsible if one of the members orders more and then flakes. That needs to get changed, pronto. Either don't permit that option or make it so that they have to pay at the time of the order.

Note to self: find new CSA in my new hometown!
posted by Sublimity at 9:27 AM on January 15, 2011


The only CSAs I have ever heard of require payment in full up front. If it's not your place to change things to make that happen or it just wouldn't work with the add-on system, I think you should do a combination of #3 and #4. Repeat offenders get their contracts terminated and their chance at a share given to someone else.
posted by slow graffiti at 9:27 AM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I should add that you aren't guaranteed to get anything. Year before last was no tomatoes. So yes, things will vary a bit here and there, but you knew that going in.
posted by Brian Puccio at 9:27 AM on January 15, 2011


Could you contact some of the other CSAs in your area and ask this same question? You might be able to form a support group of sorts!
posted by arnicae at 9:28 AM on January 15, 2011


All special/additional orders must be paid up front, non-refundable, regardless of whether the order was picked up.

Any orders not picked up will be considered forfeit and will be donated to homeless shelters.

Banning someone altogether seems a bit excessive, since there are people with legitimate reasons not to pick them up.

If you have to transport the non-picked up items to a homeless shelter, then by all means charge the coop for gas and time.
Send a letter or email out informing the members in the change in rules, including the gas/time thing which would increase the fees.
posted by Neekee at 9:28 AM on January 15, 2011


Could you somehow get it delivered to them (and they have to give a delivery time within 1 day of the pickup time) with them paying the delivery fee plus a nuisance for taking some more of you time? Or is this just too much work for you? (Also, keep in mind, that if you do this, you're more or less offering delivery as an option for an additional fee- I'm not sure your CSA can handle that, it's something you'd have to decide.)

If they can't or don't schedule a delivery, ship it to a homeless shelter and charge them for everything.
posted by Hactar at 9:34 AM on January 15, 2011


I still don't think I understand the payment policy you use now. It seems to me that if they order it, they pay for it, regardless of whether they pay in advance or how much the lamb ends up weighing. How you collect that money is another issue. You could have them pay an estimate in advance then take any extra out of a deposit, for example.
posted by yarly at 9:45 AM on January 15, 2011


Ah, so you do meat and not veggies? Or both? What about having them pay for the meat ahead of time, based on weight: 50lbs = x, 75lbs = y, etc.
posted by barnone at 9:54 AM on January 15, 2011


I'm in a NYC CSA, http://westvillagecsa.org/, and our CSA donates excess food to homeless shelters (or possibly second harvest handles the excess). We also pay completely in advance. Maybe you could contact them and get some advice?
posted by ch1x0r at 9:54 AM on January 15, 2011


I agree, having people pay in advance is probably the way to go. But I'm judging this on the one my wife's parents belong to and that's just vegetables and fruit. I can see people getting worked up over the amount of meat.

But really, isn't the point of joining a CSA to get the random stuff that's available that you wouldn't go to the store and but because you don't know what to do with it? And isn't part of joining the understanding that bad seasons happen.

I also agree that delivery might be a good thing to add. I'm in Charleston, and people downtown can get their food delivered. There's an extra fee of course.
posted by theichibun at 10:00 AM on January 15, 2011


#3, plus: "Sometimes it's even worst because while the minimum quantity is prepaid, there is the option to order more. So if they do that and don't pick up, i have to pay the farmer with my own money."

If they order more, they pay you, period, whether or not they pick it up. If they don't, they're suspended until they make payment. They MUST pay you for what they ordered before they can pick up their next-week's box.

Do they know if they order extra and don't pay, YOU have to pay the farmer with your own money? I'd make sure that's stated on the "extra order" form every time, as well as having them sign a statement with the extra order form that if they don't pick up, they are still responsible for paying for the extra order, which will be donated to a homeless shelter.

(And some people are totally willing to pay for the convenience of ordering and forgetting to pick it up. And some people are totally willing to pay for the convenience of day-late delivery. You could also check in the CSA and see if anyone ELSE would be able to do "last pickup" of the day and do delivery boxes for a small fee, if you decide to go with the delivery option, if that's not something you can swing yourself.)

Also, and you may only have limited control here, pick-up in my CSA was much, much better when they arranged pickup at a church along one of the major arteries on the way from the downtown to most of the residential areas, from 3 to 6:30 p.m. (This is a driving city, though, not a commuter one.) That gave people the option to drive there after school, OR to have a family member who worked downtown swing by on the way home from work, without having to go out of their way. So you might check into pick-up options w/r/t convenience for the pick-up-ees.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:04 AM on January 15, 2011


Nthing that #3 should be your standard practice. Also maybe implement #1 after a set number of no-shows, i.e. three strikes and you're suspended?
posted by elizardbits at 10:06 AM on January 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Do the people in your CSA know that when they flake, it ends up costing you money? I'm not saying this is the solution, but it might help the situation a bit if you make it clear to people what goes on behind the scenes, and cut down on people casually flaking.
I also vote for option#3, and if you really can't arrange payment in advance, then make it crystal clear to people that they must pay for each share regardless of whether they pick it up or not. That means, if they flake, they still owe you.
posted by Joh at 10:08 AM on January 15, 2011


If they order more, they pay you, period, whether or not they pick it up. If they don't, they're suspended until they make payment. They MUST pay you for what they ordered before they can pick up their next-week's box.

Absolutely. They pay for more at the time of ordering. You don't place the order until the funds are in your hands!
posted by barnone at 10:23 AM on January 15, 2011


You can have them pay an estimated average amount in advance then if the lamb weighs more they owe a bit more on next order, or if less they get a credit towards their next order. If they close their account they get refunded any credited amount left.

If they don't pick up then donate to a food bank. Make sure you state that very clearly though with a deadline that includes a time on a day. You could even make this an option for people who would like to donate to the homeless and provide them with a tax cert if you have the right type of small company. People might even enjoy doing this when on vacation.

Also emphasize that you do not have the manpower or time that a large company does so really appreciate their good will, cooperation, and understanding.
posted by meepmeow at 10:39 AM on January 15, 2011


At the end of the night, donate the leftovers to a food bank. My CSA in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, has coordinated this with the local food bank, and someone from there comes to pick up at the end of the night. Also, before this happens towards the end of each evening, that night's volunteers get to raid the leftovers and take whatever. My favorite time to volunteer is August, when a lot of people are on vacation - I come home with eggs, fruit, a bouquet of flowers, twice my share of tomatoes, etc etc.

As for you having to pay the farmer because people aren't ordering extra - why in the world is that situation in place to begin with? What if everyone picked up their share like clockwork every week but still didn't want to buy extra stuff? You need to adjust the price of the CSA shares so that the farmer is covered by those contributions.

Also, once you pay for your share, you've paid for your share. No refunds. Especially if you are using the CSA most weeks, but one week you couldn't pick up your share and want your $20 for the week. Whuh? No. That's not how it works.
posted by Sara C. at 10:44 AM on January 15, 2011


I agree with everyone who says that the extra orders need to either be prepaid, or the farmer needs to agree that the extras will be paid for a week later -- the money should not be coming out of your pocket. With online payments, there is really no excuse for not prepaying (or people can drop off checks the day before), but perhaps the demographics or culture of your CSA prohibits this.

I also think that there is nothing wrong with a strict policy that any shares not picked up by time X (or reasonable arrangements made) get donated to the food bank. It's not your job to store things for people.

People will always be flakes -- in the CSA I was in last year, my guess was that about 20 percent of the boxes weren't picked up each week. People go on trips, have family crises, or just forget. That's ok, as long as they've prepaid and know not to expect storage of their shares.

I buy my meat directly, rather than through a CSA, but the meat CSA I am familiar with does things the same way. You prepay, and they don't store the food for you.
posted by Forktine at 10:47 AM on January 15, 2011


Also, in terms of meat specifically: When I buy an entire animal (say, a lamb) directly from the farmer, I pay a fee to the farmer that is more or less based on the weight. Sometimes it's really loosey-goosey, like $125 for a big lamb and $100 for a small one, regardless of the actual weights involved. Other times it's directly from the weight, sometimes live weight and sometimes hanging weight.

Then, there's a separate charge for the slaughter, cutting, and wrapping, paid to the butcher, and based entirely on hanging weight. Often the butcher will collect both charges (and pass on the farmer's part) so I only have to write one check; some times for a high-demand animal the farmer will want a deposit months before. And I've heard of yet other arrangements, but these are all I've dealt with first-hand.

The point of all this is that there are a range of ways that people pay for meat, and it doesn't have to be tied rigidly to the actual weight of the cut and wrapped pieces of meat. It's totally kosher to have a CSA where you prepay (perhaps $500 for the season, say) for X deliveries of meat, knowing that in a good year those shares will be larger and in a bad year they will be smaller. That's what you do with potatoes; the same logic can apply to meat. Just make sure that the share prices are high enough to cover both the farmer's and butcher's costs, and then you are ok.

tl;dr: There's no need to delay payment depending on weight. Charge up front for the season, and get prepayment for extras.
posted by Forktine at 10:57 AM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you're having problems charging them in advance because you don't know the weight of the lamb, you need to start using credit cards: so you get their credit card info and charge them once you know the weight, and they're on the hook for it whether they pick it up or not.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:00 AM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd love to do this, but a lot of the time I'm selling one lamb per person, which varies in weight quite ridiculously. Maybe I can arrange this in the future.

So, you need a system by which people can pre-pay for an object of variable and undetermined weight / cost. It seems to me there are various ways of tackling this:

1) Allow people to pre-pay a flat price not for the exact weight, but for a lamb in a certain weight range. So for example, they can pay $228 for a lamb that's 35-38 lbs, $246 for a lamb that's 38-41 lbs, $264 for 41-44 lbs, etc. and then you do your best to work with the farmer to match up orders with available carcasses.

2) A few days / week in advance, get a list from the farmer of the available weights (assuming the farmer or butcher can store the butchered lambs for that time). Allow people to order individual lambs. If you can do this a week in advance, people can sign up at the previous week's CSA pickup on a paper list, putting their name next to the specified weight/price and giving you a check.

3a) Collect a deposit roughly equivalent to the lowest likely price of a lamb, and require payment of the remaining cost at pickup.

3b) Collect a deposit roughly equivalent to the likely median cost, and do a mix of collections and refunds when people pick up.

3c) Collect a deposit roughly equivalent to the highest likely price of a lamb, and refund the difference or apply it to people's accounts after pickup.
posted by Orinda at 11:00 AM on January 15, 2011


I just signed up for a CSA and they had two options:
1. Full year, up front
2. Two payments, I think it was 55%/45%

Banning them if they miss a paid share is just too harsh. Don't do unpaid shares - ever. That's a sucker bet and you will be the loser.

As for variable weight items, I think you should do it this way:
Pick the a weight - either median, mode, or largest (I'd pick largest). Charge up front for that. If they don't pick it up, too bad. Either refund the difference at the end of the season or allow the option to have it paid into next year's share.

You are doing a terrific thing, but you don't need to let people walk over you.
posted by plinth at 11:38 AM on January 15, 2011


Yeah, if demand is outstripping supply, you can bump them out to the end of the line as a third strike. If your goal is simply to get CSA produce out to people, you could eventually get a nice team of responsible "shareholders," who provide you with no stress at all.
posted by rhizome at 11:56 AM on January 15, 2011


Maybe I missed it, but if you take credit cards, maybe you can preauthorize the maximum possible charge at order time, then charge for actual price when the order comes in. That way they pay regardless of whether they pick it up.

You might consider doing this for orders over $xxx or only for meat.

Maybe existing members would like to be notified of any excess, which they could buy for a fraction of regular price. That's all bottom-line revenue, and you can use it to buy a coffin freezer to store the excess.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 3:56 PM on January 15, 2011


Along the lines of ways to pay up front for an unknown quantity of meat - are you also running vegetable boxes? You could use veg to even out the value of the shares.
i.e. if $10/lb * [16-19lbs] =$160-$190 for a half animal, charge everyone $200 for a lamb+vegetable box that includes a variable amount of vegetables to meet $200 value.
posted by aimedwander at 4:11 PM on January 15, 2011


If someone orders and doesn't pick up their order, they're on the hook for the entire cost -- period. I would say you can hold their order for some pre-arranged, short amount of time, like 24-48 hours, for an extra $10 fee (or whatever), and then after that? It goes to the food bank and they still owe you the money PLUS the extra fee. It's a CSA, not a supermarket.
posted by KathrynT at 5:22 PM on January 15, 2011


People have good intentions, but poor execution. Be open about this when people sign up. "Your food allotment is an order that you have placed. You will be charged unless you notify the coordinator with 3 days notice. Unclaimed orders will be donated to XYZ shelter. You may be request a receipt for tax purposes."
posted by theora55 at 6:25 PM on January 15, 2011


Sometimes it's even worst because while the minimum quantity is prepaid, there is the option to order more. So if they do that and don't pick up, i have to pay the farmer with my own money.

I'm not sure I understand this. Are you saying that if they choose to order more than they've prepaid for, and then don't pick it up, you don't make them pay for it? But they still get to participate in the CSA as if nothing happened? If that's the case, you are being ridiculously lenient with them. Is there some reason why you don't just say "Look, if you want to order more than the minimum, you are committing to pay for it, whether or not you can pick it up. If you can't pick it up, that's the risk you take. If you don't show up to pick it up and pay me, then you are behind on your payments to me and will need to give me that payment so your account is up-to-date before getting your next share."
posted by EmilyClimbs at 6:51 PM on January 15, 2011


OK, I fixed this. So I estimate the MAXIMUM quantity of meat you can buy and make people put in the deposit for that. When they pick up their meat and it's less, I give the the deposit minus actual price as a refund.
posted by melissam at 10:36 AM on April 14, 2011


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