It’s 28 degrees, the middle of December. Not exactly prime farming conditions. But Norwich Meadows Farm in upstate New York has no choice but to continue operations.
Farmer Zaid Kurdieh says he can’t shut down for winter because he’s got employees to pay, livestock to care for, and repairs to make. “This year wasn’t a particularly good year in terms of the weather and the economy,” he sighs. “So we need to keep going.”
Now, in the off-season, farms like Norwich Meadows are relying heavily on revenue from Community Supported Agriculture, a 20-year-old program through which consumers buy seasonal “shares” of produce directly from local farms. Farms in New York State and New Jersey have drop-off points throughout the city.
CSA is usually thought of as a summer program. Neighborhood services team up with local farms to bring members fresh weekly produce like heirloom tomatoes and watermelons. But more and more CSA programs are offering winter shares, too.
Winter shares tend to be more expensive and feature less variety. CSA groups say members continue to buy them, though, to help farmers between seasons.
“People who do winter,” explains Andrea Aldana of Washington Square CSA, “are trying to stay in touch with the farm and be more oriented toward providing start-up money or seed money.” Her program’s shares are about $37 more per shipment in the winter than in the summer. Aldana says that’s because winter shipments are slightly larger–as they arrive less frequently–and contain more expensive, processed foods, including yogurt and canned tomato sauce.
Crown Heights CSA in Brooklyn says its members want a steady stream of groceries from their farmer at Sang Lee Farms, Fred Lee. “People love his produce and don’t want to wait until the spring to get it again,” insists administrator Daniella Ponet. Crown Heights shares are only about $6 more per shipment in the winter.
Just Food, a nonprofit that connects local farms with New York City communities, says not all winter shares are created equally. Some consist of greenhouse-grown vegetables (like arugula and collard greens); some have storage crops (like onions and potatoes); some are frozen shares (with berries and mixed vegetables); and some are value-added shares (with canned sauces and pickles). Others add on eggs, meat, and dairy.
Only about 30 percent of CSA programs offer winter shares, says Just Food’s Paula Lukats. “You don’t get tomatoes and peppers and zucchini. People are a little less excited to join for rutabaga.”
To compensate for that, Alphabet City’s Sixth Street Community Center CSA turns to out-of-state produce–which costs about $100 more than its local summer produce. “If you’re getting fruit from a distance–from Florida or something–it’s going to cost more,” says executive director Howard Brandstein. “In the winter we get oranges and even plantains and bananas and avocadoes. None of that is local…” Brandstein says this share is more like food co-op–which attracts people with “hardcore” culinary interests rather than locavores. Sixth Street is also offering a local frozen share this winter.
This year, Sunnyside CSA in Queens sold out of winter shares. “[Golden Earthworm Farm] cut us off at 50, and we asked for two extra,” says Kevin Kolack, a coordinator for the program.
Some farmers would welcome that level of demand. Kurdieh of Norwich Meadows sold only 258 winter shares total. His goal was closer to 500.
Kurdieh says winter CSA supports his employees in the off-season. “When we find good people locally, we wanna keep them on. Even if they’re full-time during the summer, what do they do outside of the [growing] season?”
Still, many CSA members feel the cost of winter shares outweigh their benefit.
“I mean, it’s nice to say that everyone should be supporting the local food movement all the time,” says CSA coordinator Aldana. “But it might not work for everyone.”