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Online Tools for Enriching an Offline Community, CSA edition

I had a meeting yesterday with a Anne Cure, a farmer, and her web specialist.  She grows food that I buy via my CSA (community supported agriculture) share–I have a list of Colorado CSAs if you’re looking.  Anne, and the rest of the farmers she works with, has created a great offline community as part of the CSA.  There are multiple events at the farm, including an end-of-year pig roast.  As a CSA member, you get great veggies, you are part of a community and you support a local farm.  It’s win-win-win.

I asked Anne to meet with me because I felt that, while there was some member to member interaction, it wasn’t as prevalent as it could be.  Often, at CSA pickup, I wouldn’t talk to anyone except for Anne, or one of the other farm workers.  And I rarely observed any of the other members having any interactions either.

Being a web guy, I thought that bringing the community online might help.  Of course, there are always challenges around that–it takes work to maintain an online community too!

Here’s a list of all the ideas I thought of to leverage the offline community Cure Organic Farm has built, as well as some we discussed during the meeting.

Some of these ideas take little effort, some take a lot.  Some bring in revenue, some don’t.  Some put all the effort onto existing staff, others leverage excited community members.  Some had been done already, some they had never heard of.

Hopefully anyone else who has created an offline community can pick and choose useful tools and ideas, from below, to enhance that community online.  If you have additional suggestions, please feel free post them in the comments.

  • Use posterous to create a dead simple blog.  Leverage its auto posting capabilities to push content into other social networks (twitter, Facebook, etc, etc).  Use twitter/FB to drive traffic to their farmstand.  Cure Organic Farm does already have a Facebook page.
  • Use email list management software, like MailChimp, and look at the reports to see if email is a useful (aka ‘read’) means of communication.
  • Promote carpooling to pick up CSAs–save gas and promote interaction between members.  Consider using a tool like Divide the Ride.
  • Add a page of ‘Cookbooks Anne Uses’ (they already have a links page of various recipe sites).  Have that link to Amazon and you could possibly make latte money from it.
  • Cure Organic Farm puts out a great weekly newsletter during the CSA season, full of quotes and recipes.  However, searching it is an issue (I suggested Google Custom Search).
  • Also, making those recipes available in some kind of ingredient specific manner would be useful.  Even if the recipes aren’t broken out, just knowing that I can find a recipe for garlic scape pesto in newsletter #5 from 2008 is useful.  This could be done with a simple database or even plain HTML.
  • Forums, of course, are great community building tools.  They also are great for spam.  I imagined forums being used for sharing food knowledge (recipes, ‘how do I use 3 lbs of beets?’), though you could also share community events and even barter goods.  The issue with forums, as ever, is moderation–how to make sure that people are not abusing the forum (or each other).  This qualifies as a high input/high possible return tool.
  • An online calendar.  Both for specific events, such as the aforementioned pig roast, and informal knowledge, like when tomatoes are expected to be ripe, would be great to have on a calendar.
  • Online registration for CSA membership and other event payment.  They do online registration already (if the shares haven’t already sold out).  They currently use paypal, and the fees can really eat into the farm’s profits, so they don’t see a bigger effort into this area being useful.
  • Classifieds.  Kinda like the forums but for money or free.  Same model as craigslist, but aimed at a self selected group of people.  Again, moderation and ensuring appropriate use are challenges.
  • Using a ready-setup community building site like ning could help accelerate online community building.  I also pointed them to the great Transition Colorado Ning site, so they could see what a related organization was doing.
  • Use wufoo (or email) to let users submit newsletter content.  Just sharing what other businesses and professions other CSA members are in can help knit the community tighter.
  • Advertising on the site.  They weren’t too keen on this, but I think that the correct type of advertising would be useful.  Again, possibly too high effort to be possible.
  • List of links to local resources.  They are already doing this, but should make it easier for people to request addition.
  • Write a blog.  This is a higher input version of the posterous suggestion, but I think it would be fascinating.

Cure Organic Farm is a niche producer of vegetables, with a fiercely loyal CSA membership (shares almost always sell out within days of being open to the public) and proximity to Boulder, so their toolset will necessarily differ from another organization (imagine a farm just starting off, further out, with less reputation).  Hopefully some of these ideas and tools will be helpful to others thinking about strengthening offline community using online resources.

[tags]community supported agriculture, online tools, offline community, pig roast[/tags]