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Things to Consider When Choosing CSA Software

by Guest Blogger |

The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model has seen a resurgence since COVID-19. This mutually beneficial relationship provides the community with fresh harvested produce each week, supports the farmer with funds at the beginning of the season for growing their crops to harvest, and gives farmers the peace of mind knowing their crops are sold. The traditional CSA model requires the customer to pay in advance for a “share” in the farmer’s crops, over a period of 4 weeks, 12 weeks, or the full season. 

During the pandemic, a CSA can be a good way to connect with your customers and be a resource for your local community. It can also provide an additional income stream, if a farm’s sales have plummeted due to restaurant closures or declining farmers’ market sales. While it is a great way to market your perishable produce, there is a lot of information to organize, track, and communicate to your customers. 

If your CSA only has one pickup location, and you don’t allow people to pick and choose what they are receiving in their box, setting up your own customer-tracking system in Excel or another type of spreadsheet may work for your operation. This will save you money, but may take up a lot of your time. There is also potential for human error. 

CSA software can either make life much easier or cause more frustration, depending on the platform you choose. If you are going to pay money for a platform, it should make short work of keeping track of everything your farm needs to track and be easy to learn and use. 

Before purchasing a CSA software program, talk with a sales representative to make sure the program will meet the needs of your CSA. No software program is perfect! Each program has its strengths and weaknesses. Some software works great for farms that have season-long CSA subscriptions, but not so well for farms that offer weekly subscriptions. Some software may have excellent tools to allow customers to individualize the contents of their CSA box, but may fall short in other areas. Doing some research upfront can allow you to find the best program for your unique CSA.

Here are some questions to ask and things to think about when you are shopping for CSA software. 

Customer Support and Educational Resources

• What resources does the company provide to help you learn to use the software? A Frequently Asked Questions page? Online videos? Call-in customer support? 

• Can you test out the software through a trial run? 

Learning new software takes time. Take a look at the diversity of resources a company provides to help you learn their system. In-depth instructional videos may help you learn the basics you need to get your system up and running, while a comprehensive Frequently Ask Questions page gets you to key information in short order. In addition to basic educational resources, does the company offer individualized support via phone or chat? 

Ask if it is possible to test out the software through a trial run. Test it out from both the farmer and customer perspective. You can figure out pretty quickly if it is easy to work with and if it has the important features that will make your farm life easier.

Software Flexibility to Adjust to Customer Needs 

Given the long-term nature of CSAs, it’s important to think about the flexibility you’ll need in the software system to adjust for times when a customer can’t pick up their box, wants to change their pickup location, or prefers to pay by cash or Zelle. Think about what flexibility your farm offers its customers and ask if the software will allow you to make those adjustments. Lack of flexibility in payment types and pick-up logistics may cause you to lose customers, so it’s important to understand a software system’s limitations in these areas.

Here are some questions to get you started thinking:

            Share pick-up flexibility:

                          • Can you change the pickup location of a share? 

                          • Can you put a share on hold?

                          • Does the software allow for weekly or short-term subscriptions, or was it built more for season-long                                          subscriptions?

                          • Can you manipulate the dates of a subscription? 

                                       o For example, can you extend a customer’s subscription date if they were out of town one week                                                and put their share on hold, or if something went wrong with their box and you want to extend                                                  their share an additional week as a credit?

            Payment flexibility:

                          • Does the system allow you to give credits when something goes wrong? 

                          • Is there a way to enter cash or check payments into the system, or do all payments need to be made by                                  credit card?

                          • If members sign up over the phone, or give you their information at a farmers’ market, is there a way for                                  the farmer to manually enter new CSA members into the system?

                          • How well does the software interface with various payment methods? 

                                       o Does it accept Venmo, PayPal, Zelle, or other payment apps? 

                                       o Does it integrate with credit card reading apps like Square?

Pack and Pick-Up Lists

Ask to see an example of the CSA software’s pack and pick-up lists.

• Are they organized in a helpful manner or would you have to spend time each week changing it into something that works for you? 

• Do they come ready to print? 

• Are they archived in the system so you can access it at any time?

A good CSA software system should provide a clean and organized pack sheet which lists all of the farm’s pick-up sites; the total of number of produce boxes, flowers, add-on items etc. for each site; and a grand total for each item at the bottom of the sheet. This sheet can then be used by the farm to calculate how much to pick and pack, as well as identify how many boxes go to each pick up site. The pick-up sheets for each delivery site should list the customer’s name, what they are getting, and include a place for the customer to sign to verify that they have picked up their share. These sheets should be easily accessed in the software system and retrievable at any time.  

Data Management for Subscription and Pick-Up Logistics 

Consider your farm’s needs for subscription and pick-up data management.

• How does your farm need to sort or search the data from your CSA customer database? Does the software have the capacity to sort/search the data by those categories?

                       o Some common search and sorting categories include

                                   ♦ First name and last name

                                   ♦ Delivery locations

                                   ♦ Subscription start and end dates

                                   ♦ Special orders

• What information does your farm need to know about each customer? In addition to the basics (name, address, payment status, pick up location etc.), does your farm want to have data on subscription start and end dates? Record which dates a member picked up their box? Track the number of weeks a member has left in their subscription? Does the software you are considering include these options?  

• Does the software allow for customization of the data fields?

• Does the customer have access to their data so they can easily tell how many weeks they have left in their subscription or how much they have paid?

It’s important to note that sorting options that seem intuitive to a farmer might not be included in the software. For example, one system I worked with didn’t alphabetically organize the customers by last name, only by first name (due to how they asked the customer to sign up). This ended up being problematic, because I have dozens of customers with the same first name. Pick-up site lists also had to be ordered by first name which customers found confusing. 

I’ve also worked with a CSA software system that only recorded a customer’s sign-up date. When a customer asked me how many weeks they had left in their share, I had to get out my calendar and count! In a good software system, both the farmer and the customer can easily find out how many shares are left, alleviating time wasted from answering phone calls when customers can’t figure out how to use the system on their end! 

Communications and Reminders

Consider how the CSA software integrates into your marketing and communications systems.

• Does the software send email reminders to customers on the pick- up day?

• Does it notify customers when their share is about to run out and remind them how to re-sign up? 

• Is the software compatible with email software like Mail Chimp for e-newsletters?

Helpful software reminds customers to pick up their order and lets them know when their share is ending; this is very important so produce does not go unclaimed and to ensure that people continue signing up once their share ends. If you have sort through the data and communicate to all of these people on your own, it adds more time in front of the computer for the farmer. 

Final Thoughts

If I were looking for new CSA software, I would find out how long each company had been in business. The longer a company has been around, the more time they’ve had to work out the kinks and respond to farmers’ requests on how to upgrade. I would also ask farmer friends what platform they like and why. I’d also google reviews of the various CSA software systems I was considering and see what they say. Some platforms have a stronger connection to local farms for various reasons. If you find a platform that works for your farm that has been supporting farmers, try to return the favor by sharing your positive experience with other farmers. I hope you are able to simplify your life with these tips! 

Additional Resources on CSA and Online Sale Software: For more information on things to consider when selecting a CSA software platform, check out Oregon Tilth’s Questions for Considering Online Sales Platforms for Farms Direct Marketing and affiliated webinar that highlights five online sales platforms (two of which include CSA management systems). The National Young Farmers Coalition Farmer’s Guide to Direct Sales Software Platforms includes a list of CSA management software.

Funding Acknowledgement: Funding for this blog post was made possible by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service through grant AM180100XXXXG055.

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This article was written by Jamie Collins.

Jamie Collins, owner of CCOF certified Serendipity Farms near Monterey, CA, has farmed organically for two decades. She sells produce via farmers’ markets, CSA, and other direct-to-consumer outlets. On the side, she works as an organic inspector and writes about food and farming for various publications.