Community supported agriculture (CSA) is moving beyond the model of farmers growing vegetables for members who pay for their share in the spring and receive food in season until fall. However, the winter CSA is just getting started in the fall.
The typical winter CSA jumps in sometime in December or January, usually providing winter squashes, root vegetables, potatoes, onions and hardy greens. The Garden of Eve Organic Farm & Market
in eastern Long Island is located in a mild enough climate to keep the greens growing all winter. According to co-owner Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht, their farm in Riverhead, N.Y., lies in climate zone 7 on the edge of Long Island's wine country.
Chris and Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht start early crops of greens in winter and spring to supply members of the off-season monthly CSA program. Running from December to May, it's really a winter and spring CSA.
Farther north in the Ithaca, N.Y., region, the climate is a little hardier, but the winter CSA scene is strong. Blue Heron Farm
in Lodi, N.Y., started a winter CSA in 1997 with 25 members and is a local pioneer in organic winter vegetables. An Ithaca collective of three organic farms, the Full Plate Farm Collective
, banded together as a summer CSA in 2004 and started a winter CSA five years later.
Garden of Eve followed their chickens into the winter CSA scene a few years after their summer CSA launch in 2004. They had a few hundred laying hens, and an egg share was a big part of their summer CSA. The problem was, the chickens kept laying, and you need more than eggs to get people to your market in winter. With 1,500 Rhode Island Red chickens, they need a lot of vegetables to balance that out. Including half-shares, the Garden of Eve has 1,500 summer CSA shareholders and around 300 in winter. The CSAs provide 80 percent of the farm income.
Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht addressed the challenges of farming in an intense suburban area. "You have got to get the total food dollar," she said. "Buying direct from farms really helps. We wouldn't be here if it weren't for our customers." Through the winter they harvest spinach, broccoli, cabbage, collards and pea shoots, in addition to what could be called the pot roast mix--the standard potatoes, onions and carrots that balance out the other root crops.
Innovation and strategic efficiency are required to make it to farmers' markets in Long Island and Brooklyn, and to provide CSA drop-offs in those areas, as well as in Manhattan and Queens.
To promote the farm and establish c
ommunity feeling, Garden of Eve hosts festivals at the farm, such as Pumpkinmania; has a presence on social media, including Facebook; and member volunteers at CSA drop-offs. Just Food, a New York City-based nonprofit that works on local food issues, helped the young couple when they were starting out, providing support when they started their first New York City CSA in 2004.
Garden of Eve's winter CSA share is $300 and includes a monthly pickup (from December through May) of 15 to 20 pounds of the farm's produce, plus one to three dozen eggs.
Kaplan-Walbrecht advises new farmers near cities, "You just have to be realistic about how much time it's going to take you. Try to be realistic about price. It's not so hard if you tell your story and help people enjoy the food they're eating."
In the Ithaca area, the Full Plate Farm Collective is offering a winter CSA for its fifth season. Sara Worden manages the interactions of the three participating farms: Stick & Stone Farm in Ulysses, N.Y.; Remembrance Farm in Trumansburg, N.Y.; and Three Swallows Farm in Danby, N.Y. With a collective summer C
SA since 2004, the three farms have separate businesses marketing their own farm products as well as their cooperation in the CSA.
Full Plate also tries to provide those precious greens as often as possible to winter CSA members. Worden says, "We do offer more selections of salad greens now." Sweet potatoes are a new addition, and they are grouping soup ingredients and offering more winter squash. Garlic for the CSA is supplied by a youth farm project at Three Swallows Farm.
The collective has 450 summer shares and 300 winter shares. The weekly winter share starts in early December and takes a two-week holiday break for Christmas and New Year's. The collective has its own delivery truck, making member share and farm transportation easier for all three farms. Full Plate has a lot of pickup options for members: They can pick up at the member farms for $300 a share, pick up at group drop points in Ithaca for $315, or get home/office delivery within the city of Ithaca for $330 a share.
Picking up a share at one of the member farms can lead to temptation. In the summer, it's hard to resist the piggybacking bakery CSA, the fruit CSA and the egg CSA they offer as add-ons to support other local farm businesses. In winter, there is a fruit bowl CSA available on the side. "We just really love providing that kind of value to our membership," says Worden.
Blue Heron Farm grows vegetables in the summer, including 25 types of tomatoes, but it has also created an off-season niche. The farm's root crops and late-season vegetables are available at the Ithaca Farmers' Market and GreenStar Natural Foods Market in Ithaca. The winter CSA adds a little income in the off-season.
On Saturdays during the winter, they offer one-stop shopping with a booth at the Ithaca Farmers' Market, at the cooperative store's community space and their own CSA truck nearby.
Robin Ostfeld says, "The last couple of years, we had our CSA concurrently with the winter farmers' market as a way of saving ourselves time and driving. It gives our CSA members a lot of choices. We used to do boxes, but now it's free choice. Doing boxes is a huge amount of work, and people don't get what they want. If they want little beets, they can pick over our little beets." If the Blue Heron farmers' market booth has something special that a CSA member wants, they can trade something from their member share for it.
A Blue Heron member can check out at least 10 types of vegetables every Saturday in January, February and March. They can select potatoes, onions and carrots weekly; beets, Brussels sprouts, a variety of cabbages, celeriac, garlic, kohlrabi, leeks, parsley root, parsnips, radishes, rutabagas, a variety of winter squash and turnips appear regularly; and, weather permitting, at least once a month they can get kale, lettuce, spinach and other hardy greens.
The winter CSA, with 60 to 75 members in Ithaca and around 30 shares outsourced to a Rochester group, is a small part of Blue Heron's annual income, but an important income source in the lean winter months.
Ostfeld's advice to those who want to start a winter CSA: "Start small and make sure you know how to store things and have good facilities for storing and washing." Blue Heron produce always looks beautiful on display, and Ostfeld says it took a lot of experience to fine-tune the temperature and humidity of coolers for storage of winter vegetables. They needed a barrel washer for produce and a good heated building to make produce handling comfortable in winter.
When it comes to food, the public is "very visual, it almost doesn't matter how it tastes," Ostfeld says. "You can't get away from it. You have to bite the bullet and give them what they are used to."
The author is a freelance contributor based near Ithaca, N.Y., specializing in dairy and organics, but dabbling in all things agricultural. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.
Photo 1 courtesy of Full Plate Farm Collective.
Photos 2 and 3 courtesy of Garden of Eve.
Photo 4 courtesy of Full Plate Farm Collective.
Photos 5 and 6 courtesy of Blue Heron Farm.