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Winter farm shares: 5 common questions & answers

Posted by Meg Stout on Jan 26, 2012
Tags: green tips

Have you considered joining a winter farm share, but hesitated because you’re not a fan of turnips? Have you wondered if farms can really provide food in the colder months?

I’m halfway through my first winter farm share, and I’ve experienced some surprises along the way. If you have ever considered participating yourself, here are some things you should know.

A farm share, also known as “community supported agriculture” (CSA), is a way to support local farmers and food systems. People buy “shares” of a farm’s produce ahead of time and then receive portions of vegetables, meat, cheese, and/or other products throughout the season. (Similar to NativeEnergy’s Help Build™ carbon offset model!) Winter farm shares usually run from mid-fall to mid-spring and consist of produce that is grown, harvested, and stored during the colder months.

These farm shares enable small-scale farmers to plan ahead, purchase seeds and cover other startup costs without loans, and focus on harvesting—rather than marketing—during the busiest season of the year. And the customer benefits too: farm shares can provide you with fresh, local, less carbon-intensive produce, not to mention a valuable connection to the people who grow your food.

But despite these perks, misconceptions about winter farm shares abound. To get a “behind-the-scenes” perspective, I spoke with David Zuckerman of Full Moon Farm, a certified organic vegetable farm in Hinesburg, Vermont. Full Moon offers both summer and winter CSA shares for the Burlington area, and I’ve been a CSA member for three seasons. We discussed the challenges of winter food storage, the importance of local food, and the winter farm share process.

Here are some commonly-asked questions:

1. What kind of food can I expect?

Eating seasonally has its constraints. If you live in a cold climate, you probably won’t see tomatoes at your January pickup. But I’ve been surprised and impressed with the variety of cool-weather vegetables that I’ve received through my winter farm share. Thanks to the lingering mild fall weather, we got lettuce greens and spinach through December. Plus the expected piles of purple, yellow, and orange carrots; the different varieties of beets; blue and red potatoes; herbs; leeks; collard greens; cabbages; rutabagas; Brussels sprouts; broccoli… I could go on.

According to David, the most popular winter share vegetables are probably the purple carrots and sweet potatoes, the “candy of the crop world.” These yummy twists on familiar vegetables are easy to enjoy, but what about their lesser-known contemporaries? “People are sometimes afraid of beets,” David noted. “But they are delicious when they are simply boiled.”

The “Most Underrated Winter Vegetable” award goes to celeriac. Its scraggly, uninviting layer yields a crunchy, nutty base to soups, casseroles, and even mashed potatoes.

2. What’s the time commitment for a farm share?

Although each farm is different, participating in a farm share always requires some time. You need to be able to pick up your weekly/bi-monthly/monthly shares at specific times and locations. And, more important, you need to have time to prepare meals with the beautiful produce that you receive.

The payoff for that extra effort is fresher, more nutritious vegetables, healthier meals, and a lowered carbon footprint. But, understandably, not everyone can use a full share. If it seems like too much, you can sometimes split a farm share with another family or purchase your produce at winter farmer’s markets instead.

3. Are winter farm shares expensive?

Full Moon Farm estimates that farm share participants save 15-40% over retail price for organic produce at farmer’s markets. Not too shabby.

One thing that has surprised me is that, in many ways, my winter share has been more plentiful than the summer one. The root vegetables lend themselves to hardy meals, and the greens enliven warming soups. In the months of October, November, and December, I barely bought any supplemental produce. Now that the chilly temperatures have ended the growing season, I am making more trips to the store.

4. How do farmers in cold regions provide food all season long?

Through the creative use of row covers, hoop houses, and crop selection, the Zuckermans are able to extend the short Vermont growing season through the end of December (depending on the weather, of course). Crops like spinach and kale can even be harvested after they go dormant, as long as they thaw a bit before being cut.

Root vegetables like carrots and potatoes are stored in a cellar-like room and a walk-in cooler. With the right temperatures, they can last for a long time. During the beginning of my first summer share, we received carrots (still sweet and crisp) that had survived the entire winter!

5. What recipes can I make with winter vegetables?

There are many great recipe ideas online. Here are a few:
Sweet Potato & Rutabaga Fries
Fall Celeriac Soup
Carrot and Parsnip Puree
Herb Leek Tart
Crispy Kale Chips
Turnip Gratin

To find a farm share near you, visit www.localharvest.org/csa/.

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