Growing Trend: The Winter CSA

Jenny Morck

Jenny Morck › Jenny Morck developed an appreciation for real food and the hard work it takes to grow ...

winter-csa-programs
 

Oh the weather outside is frightful
But the kale is so delightful
And since we’ve no place to go
Let it grow, let it grow, let it grow!

That’s what I was singing to myself a few weeks ago while packing up Real Food Farms‘ CSA shares for delivery, to take my mind off the fact that I could no longer feel my fingers. This was bizarre. No, not my song — the idea that my warm-blooded body could barely regulate its own temperature, yet somehow these vegetables made it out alive.

If you read the title of this article and thought, “Winter CSA… I didn’t know there was such a thing!” you’re not alone. Even those who have participated in summer CSAs may not know winter shares exist. I’ve had plenty of members tell me shortly after enrolling how excited they were to learn about our winter membership, because their share from another farm ended in October or November.

It makes sense — winter in middle Tennessee is cold, wet and unpredictable. Although it’s not easy to grow crops in these conditions, it is possible. And you may be surprised at the types of vegetables that can weather the storm. (Think hardy root crops like turnips, tender heirloom carrots and a staggering variety of greens.)

As for you locavores who reside further north, don’t assume your farmers can’t grow all winter too. Each year more and more farmers everywhere are deciding to brave the  elements and push the limits of the typical growing season in the name of winter shares. At the time of this writing the temperature in Burlington, Vermont is 20 degrees. Yet just outside of town in Hinesburg, Full Moon Farm is growing food for a 200-member CSA. In Milan, Minnesota, Garden Goddess CSA offers shares of sustainably grown vegetables from October through April, albeit on a much smaller scale. They outsmart the elements with a passive solar greenhouse that’s built off the back of a residential garage.

What about your city? There are over 4,000 CSAs listed on LocalHarvest.org. Click on CSA, plug your zip code into the search bar and see what you find. LocalHarvest is perhaps the best resource out there to begin your CSA search, no matter what season it is.

Start off by comparing prices and payment plans for CSAs in your area. Then make sure the farms you’re interested in have pickup locations and times that work with your schedule. And pay close attention to enrollment cutoff dates! Some CSAs only accept enrollments up until the season’s start, while others offer prorated shares throughout the season.

Most of your research can be done online, but once you narrow your list down you may find it helpful to talk directly to the farmers (Seacoast Eat Local has a great list of questions to ask). We’ve even been known to invite potential members to our farm to see it for themselves before making a commitment.

As you research your options, even if you’re a seasoned summer CSA vet, keep in mind that joining a winter CSA presents its own unique set of challenges. Hey, I’ll be the first to admit that eating with the seasons isn’t always easy!

The most obvious difference? Compared to a typical summer share, there’s less crop variety in a winter share (depending on the climate you reside in, of course). In many parts of the country there are only so many crops that are hardy enough to withstand the elements this time of year. But we all try our best! Some winter CSAs even supplement their shares with canned or frozen goods from the summer season.

So it may be a little more challenging to use your winter veggies. But perhaps more importantly, I truly believe that you have to be in it for more than just the food. Investing in a winter share is the ultimate show of support for your local farmers, when we truly need it most. At Real Food Farms, our Winter CSA members not only help us get through the winter, but also help make the summer season possible. So while you may not be ecstatic to receive yet another ration of mustard greens, you still enjoy it because you know how hard your farmers worked to keep that crop alive against all odds.

British poet and painter William Blake once said, “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”

Enjoy. Remember this the next time you’re begrudgingly tossing a bag o’ salad into your cart, or sifting through a pile of vegetable-like things at the megamart to find an edible specimen. You owe it to yourself (and your local farmers!) to do little investigation before you go into real food hibernation all winter. Sure, Mother Nature will throw us some winter curveballs. Crops will fail. And daikon radishes will haunt CSA boxes around the country. But the reward — the real enjoyment — is eating healthy, locally grown vegetables in the dead of winter, while sharing the experience with your fellow members. And trust me, when the air is cold and the landscape bleak, success tastes all the sweeter.

Do you participate in a winter CSA? What are the benefits and drawbacks in your opinion?

Photo Credit: Jenny Morck | Real Food Farms

*This post has been updated to remove mention of potatoes and squash from winter crops, as they are storage crops from the fall.