Despite All the Root Veggies, Winter CSAs Have Plenty of Perks
There’s a common joke about the tug-and-pull relationship of a winter CSA membership. “I can’t wait to get my box of organic vegetables from small local farms,” one often thinks, excitedly anticipating a CSA box filled with many different fruits and vegetables. The reality can be a box full of turnips and potatoes. And while it’s true that winter produce boxes can be less varied than their summer and fall siblings, they still present a lot of opportunity for eating seasonally and supporting the local food system. In the winter, many farms also pre-plan or team up with other local producers to provide frozen, prepared and dried goods to help bolster that box of root vegetables.
For those unfamiliar, community supported agriculture (CSA) is a model in which customers pre-purchase a seasonal share from a farm, pre-growing season. In return, they receive food from the farm — usually a weekly produce box — once the farm starts harvesting. The model gives farmers a guaranteed income, and provides the community with locally produced, fresh foods. “You aren’t just buying a product from a farm but instead are buying into the farm itself,” says Dr. Julia Skinner, a food historian who recently started her own CSA project. “What you get depends on what’s produced, and it’s much more about reciprocity and mutual support than a purely capitalist transaction.”
Continue to Eat Seasonally
Even if you live further North, CSA is not just a peak season (summer/fall) opportunity. If you’re a regular farmers’ market shopper, but your market has dwindled or closed during the winter, a membership with a farm using the community supported agriculture model can be the perfect way to continue to eat seasonally and support your local food system. If you live in warmer climates, winter CSAs may provide a wide variety of local produce. California’s Farms to Grow, which supports Black farmers in the Oakland area, offers a bounty of fresh leafy greens, plus eight to 10 seasonal items in their monthly winter CSA, which can include citrus, carrots, beets, sweet potatoes and more, along with a prepared item such as preserves. Along with kale, cucumber and other veggies, Hawaiʻi’s O.K. Farms winter CSA provides locally grown rambutan, macadamia nuts, citrus and more to members on the Big Island.
For those in colder regions, the CSA box may lean on cold-stored produce like squash, cabbages, potatoes, onions, and the like. “CSAs encourage us to be creative by exposing us to new ingredients (a CSA is how I first learned of kohlrabi years ago), but also offer us a way to create a robust local food system, supporting farmers while also feeding ourselves quality food,” says Skinner. “In winter, there are fewer options to buy local because less stuff is in season, but it’s all the more critical because farmers may not be selling as much as during peak season.”
Year Round Support of Local Farmers
When COVID-19 shut down restaurants, schools, cafeterias and other institutions across the country last spring, many small farmers lost a huge market. A good number of them either turned to direct-to-consumer sales or added additional shares to an already established community supported agriculture model. As the year progressed, customers that pre-purchased shares provided stability and assurance for these farmers, gaureenting sales of their produce in an otherwise tenuous period.
Winter CSAs are historically less popular than summer/fall CSAs, thanks to their often limited variety. But just as many farmers saw a rise in CSA subscriptions throughout the summer and fall, so too did they see a rise in winter memberships. “[We saw] a huge increase in demand,” says Molly Flerlage, the CSA coordinator for Ithaca’s Full Plate Farm Collective. “Last June, in 2019, we had about 500 members. In June 2020, we had about 650 members. For our winter share, which can be a harder sell because not everyone loves root veggies, we grew from about 200 shares in December of 2019, to 400 shares in December of 2020.”
Get Variety With Add-Ons and Specialized CSAs
And not every CSA is packed to the brim with potatoes, onions and cabbage. Farmers know that seasonal eating during the winter can be tough, and they make smart decisions early in the season to help their customers out. Many provide prepared foods in their boxes, such as pickles; others team up with nearby producers to offer add-ons like eggs, cheese, bread and meat.
In addition to the storage crops Full Plate Farm Collective offers in its winter share, the farm also grows greens all year round; some resilient varieties that grow under the snow, and others inside passive solar greenhouses. They also work with a network of local producers to provide even more items, adding in prepared foods like kimchi (made with their produce earlier in the season), locally grown sprouts and dried beans. “In the winter, even more so than the summer, we really draw on that network of local producers and all of the good things that they’re making,” says Flerlage.
Others, like Michigan’s Tantrè Farm, package their CSAs to be particularly attractive in the colder weather. Their “Immune Booster CSA” combines goods like root vegetables, mushrooms, apples, and frozen fruit, along with prepared goods like hot sauce and buckwheat pancake mix. And throughout the country, you can find meat CSAs, which can be another way to supplement your winter box. Some farms, like Oregon’s Flying Coyote Farm, raise animals alongside their vegetables (pasture-raised lamb, pork and poultry) and/or partner with local ranches to provide additional options for members. Other ranchers, like Michigan’s Ham Sweet Farm, offer a winter CSA of pastured, heritage poultry and meats.
Skinner is skipping raw produce all together for her new Herbs + Art CSA, instead turning ingredients from local farms into tinctures, teas and balms. She also plans to launch a fermentation CSA later this year, and has experimented in a test-launch with friends with recipes like masala-spiced sauerkraut, fermented seasoning blends and beet kvass. “My ultimate goal is to create something that has the same features of mutual support [as a traditional farm CSA]: my CSA folks get wonderful new things to try, and I’m able to continue growing and refining my craft,” she says. “Having a CSA model, rather than just giving away experiments for free, means I also have some extra capital to throw towards local farmers and other producers whose ingredients I use.”
While grocery store shopping certainly provides a wide variety of foods, that convenience comes at a cost, including the energy needed to grow those items out of season and transport them from elsewhere. By challenging yourself to eat locally and seasonally, you are committing to reducing your foodprint and choosing to support a more sustainable food system.
And the challenge can be fun. There are so many different ways to cook with cabbage, potatoes, beets, and other cold-stored vegetables you might find in your CSA. Most CSAs offer recipes to go along with their hauls; there are cookbooks devoted to making the most of winter produce; and the internet is rife with guides to cooking with CSA produce. Instead of being bogged down by 10 pounds of radishes, find ways to turn those radishes into new-to-you, delicious recipes.
While most winter CSAs begin in November or December, and many farms sell out of their shares before the start of the season, CSAs that have availability will generally continue to sell shares, at prorated prices, throughout the year. If you haven’t subscribed yet this year, Local Harvest is a great resource for finding a CSA near you.
Top photo by Brent Hofacker/ Adobe Stock.