Winter CSA Basics: Bringing the Seasons into Balance

This will be our tenth winter running a winter CSA at the Intervale Community Farm in Burlington, VT, and every year I have been amazed at the enthusiasm our farm members have for winter crops. There is a glaring, fundamental difference between summer and winter shares: in the summer, things start light and slow—salad greens give way to hardier greens, then come zucchini and cucumbers, then the first tomatoes, and the arc of summer begins to peak with melons and sweet corn and eggplant and peppers, and then the creamy fall vegetables fill the tables: squash and carrots and potatoes. By the final summer CSA pickup in early November, I feel like our members have watched us perform in all our own varying colors of the season, watched us smile on crisp summer days, groan with humidity and mosquitoes, bend and lift boxes over, and dash around with the mania of the season. There is an intimacy that develops as each week they come to experience whatever we’ve managed to harvest from the earth.

But the winter share is a different story. For the first several weeks, many of the crops are still harvested for the shares. We pick kale, leeks, Brussels sprouts and other greens for as long as the weather allows. But by January, the weather has usually halted any fresh harvests beyond what we are growing in our high tunnels. The bulk of the share is squash, cabbage, and a wide variety of roots. And the vegetables are remarkable in quality, flavor, color, and texture. However, regardless of how well we are able to store the crops, the truth of the matter is that each week the vegetables are a little less fresh and vibrant. We can’t re-create the arc and glory of the summer share. Instead, it feels like a slow decline, a grasping at something that we want to be so vital, but we can’t fight the fundamental truth of winter in Vermont. The season ends, things die, and the cycle of life needs to pause before we sow seeds again in March. But our markets and “eat local” bellies have us pushing hard against nature, and thus we have developed a winter share that is relatively successful at staving off the winter food doldrums. Here are a few key elements to our success and the path that led us there.

Storage Quality and Crop Diversity

The core of our winter share is based on a trio of “roots choice”, winter squash, and cabbage. Our members come every other week for nine weeks, which gives them an 18 week spread of produce. We try to provide them with enough food for that two week stretch, but not so much that they can’t store it comfortably at home. The formula that has seemed to work for us is the following:

  • We offer one winter share size. Many members split it between two families.
  • Each week, they get 10-12 pounds of a “roots choice” one, sometimes two, butternut squash, one head of cabbage (choice of red, Napa, or green), and a selection of whatever greens are available, usually between ¼ to ½ pound of fresh spinach.
  • We make sure that we grow enough roots to always have carrots, onions, and potatoes available. We generally have a full season supply of the following as well: beets, rutabaga, celeriac and then partial seasons of turnips, daikon radish, kohlrabi and various other oddball roots.

The success of our winter share depends on our storage quality. We have invested heavily in storage, increasing our capacity and infrastructure significantly in the past decade. We now have two walk-in coolers that we keep at different temperatures to accommodate the storage preferences of various root crops. We also invested in insulating a large room that we heat each year for squash storage. We’ve benefited from the expertise of UVM Extension Ag Engineer Chris Callahan’s information and the work he is doing to help farmers improve storage conditions and efficiency.

We also do our best to provide as diverse a mix of foods as possible throughout the winter. Our members come to the farm and are able to select their own produce from a range of options. They can take whatever mix of roots they want to make up their total amount—it’s fine with us if they want all potatoes or all turnips. We’ve been able to accurately predict the ratios of crops that members take and are able to wholesale any extra crops we have left at the end of the winter share. If we have a failure of a crucial crop, we try to buy or trade for it from other local, organic farms.

Late Season Surprises or Value-Added Bonuses

A minor strategy that has also helped our members cheerfully withstand the long winter of root crops is to save a surprise for them towards the end of the winter share. This has taken various forms over the years—when we experimented with salsify and scorzonera (root crops also know as Oyster Root), we added them to the share in March. When we grew popcorn, we waited until February to give it out, likewise with frozen broccoli and tomatoes. These additions to the winter share came at some extra expense to the farm, but the jolly reception they received made us consider how better to integrate value-added crops more routinely into the winter share. It seems like any change from the routine is welcome to CSA members in late winter.

Fresh Greens

In the winter of 2004, we experimented with a crop of salad greens in our greenhouse and high tunnels in anticipation of offering a winter share the following season. Although we knew that the volume of greens wouldn’t make them the core of our winter share, we also didn’t want to offer a winter share without knowing that we could provide fresh greens most weeks.

We’ve hit pretty close to the mark in terms of offering some amount of greens for the bulk of the winter, but don’t promote them as essential to our winter share. We cautiously advise our members about this, and we’ve also routinely asked this as a question on our end-of-season survey. Survey says: our membership loves the fresh greens and clearly would appreciate as much as we could grow, but they also haven’t loudly complained about our limited production thus far. We’re increasing our capacity this year with the construction of more high tunnels, and are sure that our members will love the improvement.

Crop Planning

Although the next winter share season seems a long way off when you are crop planning in December and January, it’s essential to integrate it into the summer cropping plan. Root crops need to be seeded on schedule with other fall crops; just because the crops are going to be eaten in the dark of winter, they still need to be harvested along with everything else. For our farm, this has made for busier autumn harvests as well as a general increase in work all year long. When we doubled our onion production for the first year of winter share, we were surprised to see how quickly our greenhouse filled up in March. It’s also meant a shift in our crop rotations since potatoes and winter squash now occupy a large portion of our production land. We also need to plan well in advance for seeding greens, especially since it’s hard to prioritize seeding spinach in the midst of our busy September harvest. However, missing that narrow seeding window is easy to do and has big consequences on the other end.

Continued Customer Contact

One of the major benefits for our farm from the winter share has been sustained contact with a core group of members all winter long. One of our successful and simple strategies is to have the farmers staff the pickups. Many members cite this as one of their favorite things about the farm—they get to chat with us, learn strategies for storing and preparing their vegetables, and get to understand a little more about where their food comes from. For me, it’s a wonderful opportunity to get to know a subset of our membership more intimately (our summer share numbers around 550; while winter shares number around 175). It’s also a chance to share the farm with people when there is skiing or a giant snow pile for kids to clamber on.

Famer Sanity and Winter Breaks

Finally, as much as I love the winter share and the continuity it provides in my farming life, I would never do it if I were running our farm alone. Our farm has a unique ownership and management structure—we are a member-owned cooperative with two full time farmers—and this allows me to take chunks of time off.  In fact, one of our goals in creating the winter share was to provide more work for our seasonal staff in the off-season, not to create more burdens for the already-busy full time farmers. If the income generated by the winter share didn’t justify more job opportunities for staff, I would be less enthusiastic about it. One of the beautiful things about farming is the seasonal nature of it, and one of the dangers of season extension is that we are narrowing the window in which to enjoy the luxury of winter adventure or hibernating. If the winter share tied me down for the entire winter, I’d definitely reconsider its merits!

There are a lot of farms running impressive, successful winter CSA programs throughout Vermont and the region. All it takes is extra planning, careful storage, and a thoughtful approach to your audience and personal time. And, of course, a strong enthusiasm for the wealth of winter beets, squash, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage—with a handful of fresh spinach tossed on top!

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One Response to Winter CSA Basics: Bringing the Seasons into Balance

  1. Pingback: Brassicas Rule! A Fall Planting Guide | High Mowing Organic Seeds' Blog – The Seed Hopper

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