Ultimate season extension
Winter CSAs use root cellars, hoophouses and on-farm processing to fill members' larders year-round.

By Laura Sayre

Winter CSAs
A growing trend?

It's difficult to know how many CSAs in the U.S. offer winter shares, since the major CSA directories don't always include this type of information and are only searchable by state. A 2000 CSA survey conducted by the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group found that out of about 260 CSAs responding, 95 offered some other type of share in addition to a standard seasonal vegetable share, but this included meat shares, flower shares and institutional shares as well as winter shares.

Many CSAs in California offer year-round shares, sometimes permitting members to pay by the month and join or drop any time. As a teaching farm, the Michigan State University Organic Farm runs a 48-week CSA divided into three, 16-week sessions (Jan-Apr, May-Aug, Sept-Dec) priced at $350 each and based heavily on greenhouse production.

In colder regions, a quick Google search turns up Cure Organic Farm in Boulder, Colo., offering an 8-week, $160 winter share from late October to mid-December; Denison Farm in Schaghticoke, N.Y., with a $175, 7-pickup share from November to March; and Clinton Hill CSA, serving parts of New York City, offering a new winter share with once-a-month distributions of eggs, winter vegetables, greens, apples and pears from December to March for $140.


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The Community Supported Garden at Genesis Farm

Genesis Farm

Drumlin Farm

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 possible.

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 are curing.

Working for winter greens

Swiss chard and rosemary in the heated greenhouse, a two-bay gutter-connected model. Irrigation in the house comes from captured rainwater stored in three large tanks that also serve as thermal mass.

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 greenhouses.

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 produce."

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."

Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org.