December 8, 2005: For most CSA farms in
the northern temperate zone, Thanksgiving is the outer limit
of the shareholder season, an end-of-harvest riot of winter
squash and kale. But for a few hardy souls--like the three-person
farming team running the Community Supported Garden (CSG)
at Genesis Farm, in northwestern New Jersey--Thanksgiving
marks instead a turning point, a seasonal shift between two
related but distinct farmer-shareholder communities.
The CSG at Genesis Farm was founded in 1988 with about 75
shareholders. As a non-profit, community-centered enterprise—Genesis
Farm belongs to the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, New Jersey,
and is also home to a "Learning Center for Earth Studies"
operated by the Sisters—one of the CSG's primary goals
was to provide as much of its shareholders' food needs as
To meet that objective, the CSG began inching its CSA season
into the cold months almost from the get-go. In 1991, with
generous helpings of shareholder labor, they constructed a
two-story "garden house" with kitchen, office, and
workshop space on the upper level and washing, packing and
distribution areas on the lower level. Also on the lower level—built
into the side of an embankment—were two rooms, each
about 8' x 12', intended to serve as root cellars for storage
crops like potatoes, carrots, turnips and cabbages. Thus the
Genesis Farm's winter share was born.
Today, the farm has about 300 members participating in a
28-week "summer" share running from mid-May to late
November and about 140 members signing on for the 22-week
winter share from December 1 to May 1. CSG head farmer/gardener
Mike Baki, greenhouse guru and apprentice shepherd Judy Von
Handorf and membership and distribution wizard Smadar English
say that while offering a winter share is a big commitment,
it tightens their bond with the shareholders and makes a vital
contribution—about $60,000 a year, according to Baki—to
the farm's income.
Keeping it fresh
To supply its winter shareholders, Genesis Farm has one heated
greenhouse (48' x 56'), two unheated greenhouses (96' x 30'
and 22' x 48'), one portable hoophouse (15' x 100'), the two
root cellar rooms and an old grain bin converted for winter
squash and sweet potato storage.
The storage crops make up the bulk of the winter offerings,
and after a dozen years, the Genesis farmers have pretty well
got their storage system worked out, according to English.
Most root crops—including carrots, beets, parsnips,
rutabagas and turnips—keep best at 32 degrees F and
around 95 percent humidity (see table below). These go into
the farm's primary root cellar, which is outfitted with a
cooler as a safeguard against warm days in the early fall
and late spring.
Crops that tolerate somewhat higher temperatures or don't
need to be stored as long go into the secondary root cellar
room, which has no cooler. Both rooms can also be cooled with
a fan from outside once exterior temperatures are low enough.
To raise the humidity, they wet down the cellar floors or
put out pans of water or snow.
One key to root cellaring is vigilance. Because they distribute
every week (with half of the members coming one week and half
the next), Baki, Von Handorf and English are able to keep
an eye out for problems, cull, or "adjust distribution
based on how things are holding up," says English. They've
also eliminated some problem crops, like leeks and cabbages,
from their storage program altogether (they now make all their
cabbage into sauerkraut—1,000 pounds a year—and
distribute it in that form).
Maintaining adequate humidity is more challenging than managing
temperatures, Baki notes. Although the cellars' cement floors
are easy to clean and provide good protection against rodents,
if he had it to do again, he says, he'd probably go with dirt
floors, which can do a lot to regulate ambient moisture.
Sweet potatoes and winter squash (the CSG concentrates on
hardy butternuts and cheese pumpkins) are best stored at around
50 degrees and 85 percent humidity. For these, Baki lined
an old grain bin on the property with insulating spray foam
and installed a propane heater unit. They also use a humidifier
in the grain bin for a short period while the sweet potatoes
Working for winter greens
In the early weeks of the winter share, members receive hardy
late-season greens like kale, Brussels sprouts and tatsoi
from the fields in addition to storage crops. Later distributions
include cold-tolerant crops like Swiss chard, spinach, lettuces,
Claytonia and mâche from both the heated and the unheated
Greenhouse greens in the depths of winter are necessarily
limited both by space and the cost of fuel, English points
out: "They're not really seasonal, we're forcing them
to grow." "With the winter share, greens are the
perk," Von Handorf adds. "We can't promise we'll
have them every week." The CSG farmers try to give out
at least a half-pound of greens a week for the duration of
the five-month season; in a typical year they might miss two
to four weeks.
In the unheated fixed greenhouses, the focus is more on stockpiling
and getting a jump on spring than on actual winter production.
"Things just hold through the short winter days, they
don't really grow," says Von Handorf, citing a rule of
thumb from Eliot Coleman's book Four-Season Harvest: In terms
of growth, where a crop is at Thanksgiving is pretty much
where it will be in January.
To save on propane, they heat the permanent greenhouse as
little as possible—aiming for a minimum of 34-35 degrees
(a mature hedge of rosemary along the end wall motivates them
to go no lower) and using Remay row covers for additional
protection against the cold. "We'd really like to convert
to a radiant heat system under the beds so we can stop heating
the air," Von Handorf notes.
In both the heated and the unheated houses, however, growth
picks up fast as days lengthen in the early spring, she says,
leading to a burst of succulent young greens in March and
April. "If we do get a bit of frost damage, for most
of these crops we can just cut and come again."
A final strategy for winter greens involves erecting a portable
hoophouse in the fall over a young field of kale, accelerating
the plants' growth in the early winter and providing fresh
mature greens through January. The hoophouse is held down
with ten-foot, 4" x 4" timbers fixed to the ground
with three-foot lengths of rebar. When the kale is finished
in late winter, the CSG farmers renovate the beds and then
transplant early peppers and tomatoes in March or April. The
hoophouse can then be moved to a new field the following fall.
A serious commitment—on both sides
The CSG's regular summer share costs $1,110 for a 'family'
share (picking up every week) or $588 for a 'single' share
(picking up every other week). The winter share is $365, with
pickups every other week. Alternatively, members can sign
up for a discounted "full year's share," $1,608
for a family or $837 for a single.
Both share seasons have about a 75 percent retention rate,
the farmers say, with new spaces filling up rapidly from a
running waiting list. Most winter shareholders are also summer
shareholders, but some members choose to grow their own gardens
in the summer and join the CSA for the winter only.
Membership manager Smadar English, who was a CSG shareholder
herself before joining the farm team 13 years ago, says that
just as being a regular summer CSA member is a learning experience
for many people, being on the receiving end of a winter share
can take some getting used to.
"I always try to talk it down to people when they first
join," she says. "It's really delicious and it’s
wonderful, but it's also hard. It's very repetitious, it's
a lot of roots, and [they're] much dirtier than what you're
used to in the summer. I would say it takes about three years
to get to the point where you can't live without it."
For the farmers, the shift into the winter season is, well,
seasonal—profound but not unpleasant. They move from
two pickups a week to one pickup a week (members are divided
into two groups picking up alternate weeks). The farm's three
apprentices, on staff since March or April, say goodbye. In
the cold weather the farm becomes less inviting and shareholders
don't tend to linger as much. English sums up the change:
"There's just a different kind of energy in the winter."
"Sometimes I'm envious of my fellow growers [who don't
operate year-round]," Mike Baki admits. "Everything
takes longer in the winter. Just to get the doors to the greenhouse
open can be a challenge if there's been a blizzard. But once
you go down this road. . . I don't think we could give it
up," he concludes, referring both to the attraction of
seasonal work and the powerful bond that develops between
farmers and shareholders.
The education factor
Given the strength of that bond, winter CSAs may be particularly
well suited to non-profit or educational farms with year-round
staff members. Solo farmers should think seriously before
committing to a winter share, Smadar English advises. "There's
three of us [at the CSG], so if one of us wants to go away
for a couple of weeks the other two can cover."
Matt Celona, who runs a winter (and a summer) CSA at the
Massachusetts Audubon Society's Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, just
outside of Boston, agrees, noting that he can take time off
in January and leave his assistant farm manager in charge.
Like the CSG farmers, Celona says he enjoys farming year-round
and appreciates the extra income the winter share provides.
"I know a lot of farmers who 'take the time off' and
work another job" in the winter, he observes. "I'd
rather be farming."
The Drumlin Farm winter CSA costs $390 and includes seven
biweekly distributions from mid November to the end of February.
Like Genesis, Drumlin has about a third as many winter shareholders
as summer shareholders, but on a smaller scale—90 summer
shares to 35 winter shares. They have a fan-cooled root cellar,
store winter squash in an insulated box truck and grow supplemental
greens in trays on benches in a greenhouse heated to a nighttime
minimum temp of 42 degrees. (Celona says he finds that bench-grown
greens suffer from damp-related disease problems much less
than greens grown in the ground.)
"I think the percentage return is much better on a winter
share than on a summer share," Celona says, in part because
distribution is streamlined. (In the winter "we don't
do that kind of 'oh I missed my pickup' thing," he adds.)
The winter share also helps Drumlin Farm stand out in an area
with two other CSAs competing for customers and brings in
additional income in the spring, when distributions are complete
and the farm still has marketable greens in the greenhouse
and, occasionally, roots in the root cellar, which can be
sold to restaurants before the next field season begins.
"We're an educational farm, and we have tours coming
through all the time, so it's important to us to have things
growing in the greenhouse all year," notes Celona. "I
also think it's important to show people that this is how
you would eat in the winter if you weren't eating trucked
At Genesis Farm, the CSG team is currently working on a new
element for the CSA that will strengthen the farmer-shareholder
bond even further, a "grain and bean" share. Made
possible by the recent, remarkable donation to the farm by
a longtime shareholder of 80 acres of adjoining land, the
grain and bean share would run year-round, with monthly distributions,
and include a wide variety of crops including hard and soft
wheats, barley, rye, triticale, buckwheat, oats, sunflower
seeds, pumpkin seeds and several kinds of dry beans.
In 2006 Baki hopes to focus on production trials and market
informally with an eye to selling shares the following year
if all goes well. The CSG winter share already includes cornmeal
from the farm's own field corn, ground fresh the day before
each distribution. One day, perhaps, Baki says, they'll be
able to build a bakery and distribute some of the grains to
the members in the form of bread.
This is largely uncharted territory—Baki's spoken to
just one other farmer, a woman in California, who offers a
grain and bean share in conjunction with another independent
CSA. But it may just be the next logical step in the rich
evolution of community-supported farming. "Increasingly,
even the organic grains you buy at the health food shop come
from the other side of the world," Baki points out. "We
want to see how far we can go with the idea of local food."