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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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."