We extended the CSA season on our farm for 5 weeks beyond the regular season in 2007 and 7 weeks in 2008 for half of our main season members. This enabled our farm to earn an extra $4000 in 2007 and $7,500 in 2008. We were able to operate with fewer farm workers as the number of CSA shares was reduced, while continuing to employ 2 workers through the end of November, my husband through Christmas, and me through the winter. Very few of these CSA customers would have been buying our produce at this time of year had they not received it in the convenience of a box picked up in their neighborhood.
Our farm was also able to attend farmer’s markets through Christmas in 2008 and 2009. These ‘holiday markets’ are just beginning in our area as vendors stretch the season with value added goods, meat, cheese, floral wreaths and bulbs and produce. There was very little produce at market this time of year, so the loyal customers who faced the cold were very eager to purchase our goods. We increased our production of storage crops during the summer and fall and extended the season for winter hardy crops in the field with protection and in the greenhouse to have produce for CSA and market sales.
Sales of storage crops and winter hardy greens were made to local restaurants in January and February as well. The chefs are very eager to offer local food on their menus all season, so greet produce delivered in the ‘off-season’ with delight. They purchased some of our storage crops; sweet potatoes, winter squash, and potatoes in bulk to extend their local food season. There was limited harvest from the field of carrots, turnips, and kale grown under heavy floating row cover. Most of the winter greens harvested in the dead of winter were grown in the soil of our seedling greenhouse and in an unheated hoophouse in the field.
We did visit some hoophouse operations to learn from other farmers about their methods. There are also several good publications that have lots of details about this type of growing. Although the grant specified a visit to an operation in Goldsboro, we decided to focus on farms closer to home. As we are in the mountains of North Carolina and the climate is quite different in the piedmont, it made more sense to visit farms with similar growing conditions to ours. There are quite a few farms in the counties surrounding Buncombe that use a hoophouse as part of their farm operation.
Our customers; CSA, at market, and chefs were very supportive of our season extension endeavors. By reducing the number of shares from our regular season, the boxes sold out very quickly to those who were most eager to keep getting their subscription filled with local produce. It required very little marketing from the farm as the customers were already in place. As we technically did a ‘late season CSA’ instead of a ‘winter CSA’ we have changed the language on our website and other marketing materials.
A challenge for us filling those late season boxes was to keep the diversity happening. We strive to change up the contents of the boxes each week to keep interest peaked and all the produce used. The second season we planned for more diversity so that we were able to provide a different winter squash each week, or alternate weeks of sweet potatoes and other types of potatoes. Searching for diverse storage crops and different kinds of winter greens to grow in the winter is something our farm will continue to explore.
Selling hardy greens to restaurants in the winter is a nice balance with the market and CSA boxes. There is a lot of flexibility with chefs because they order every day. As the weather in the winter can sometimes make harvesting very unpleasant, it is nice not to have a rigid schedule in January and February. When the weather is suitable, I am able to call the chefs and secure an order, then harvest and deliver. The stress of a CSA box that must be filled each week on a certain day come rain or shine is relieved by selling to restaurants in the most unpredictable weather. I am also able to do this by myself with no additional staff these months.
Because of watering difficulties in the field hoophouse, the crops grown were not nearly as productive as they could be. We also altered our plan that involved having the hoophouse on skids and moving it at different times during the year. After moving it twice, my husband declared that it was not meant to be moved, so we set it into the ground. As we are farming family owned land, there are circumstances that require us to move the field hoophouse and rebuild in a different place on the farm to enable us to full maximize its use. This has been a hurdle in our plan that will be fully resolved in March when we get it set up in its permanent spot. The seedling greenhouse is productive in late fall and early winter until space is slowly cleared to grow spring and summer seedlings.
Our farm will continue to do this project as part of our plan to have a positive cash flow all year. The demand for quality produce during the off-season is clearly there and growing. Our farm workers are pleased with the extension of their jobs an additional two months each season, and it enables one of the primary farmers to work on the farm all year.
As we continue to explore this project on the farm we will evolve our plan to make it more successful. We will grow more varieties of winter squash, sweet potatoes, and potatoes to help make the storage crops more diverse so that the CSA boxes can change each week. We will experiment with storing other root vegetables, such as rutabagas, beets, turnips, and carrots in optimal conditions so that they will hold up better.
As soon as we get the hoophouse settled in its permanent home, we will work on maximizing it to its full potential. We plan on growing greens, root crops, herbs, and flowers in the late fall and winter for market, CSA, and restaurant sales. It would be ideal to grow some early crops for the April markets in the area where produce is so desperately needed. Many farmers sell plant starts at the early markets, but customers are really hungry for produce. There is also the lack of tomatoes in late September and October when the field tomatoes have died of disease and blight. We plan on using our regular greenhouse to grow these later season tomatoes.
The greenhouse was also used for lily production in the late fall and winter which were a big item at the late season markets. As the field flowers had been killed by frost, the lilies were the only fresh flowers available. We also forced paper white bulbs in the greenhouse to sell to customers. These accompanied both evergreen and dried flower wreaths offered at our booth as well. We will continue to extend the floral season with other forced bulbs, and more flowers dried and stored for this time of year.
There is something to be done in vegetable market farming to extend all four seasons of growing while still enjoying a little down time in the depth of winter. On a market farm with diverse enterprises there can be product for sale in varying degrees of volume twelve months a year. By combining income from CSA shares in scheduled payments, limited restaurant sales, farmer’s markets, flower sales, value added products, ‘self-serve’ roadside stand, and ‘you-pick’ we keep income coming in all year long.
We plan to continue to use these methods to market off-season produce. We will expand storage crops and greenhouse growing of winter hardy greens, eliminating the crops that were not as popular or hardy, and growing more volume of the crops that grew really well. Last season we also added some ‘value added’ goods to our product offerings for the off season. We processed excess produce that we froze during the busy months at a certified kitchen rented by the hour. This added to our diversity at market, which always helped to increase sales.
In late February I will talk to a group of farmers about extending the seasons at the Marketing Conference put on by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP). I anticipate sharing this information again at other conferences as the slides and information shall be applicable to many others growing local food. I am receiving some guidance from the staff at ASAP to make sure that the information is pertinent and easily understood.
I have also sent an article to Growing For Market which they plan to publish in the August or September issue. The concepts of extending the CSA season for some members, selling produce and other goods at holiday markets, and selling to restaurants in the winter can be reproduced by other farms.
We did not host a farm field day for various reasons including a change in our extension staff, the moving of the hoophouse, and our learning curve about this growing in the off season project.
Next season we are getting involved in a CRAFT-WNC project organized by local farmers and the Organic Growers School in which farmers are working together to educate farm workers by holding workshops and field days on each different farm participating. This will be a great opportunity to continue to share what we are learning and learn what other farms are doing. We plan to host a late season workshop in which folks can see the produce we are still harvesting during the holiday markets and winter months. Perhaps this could extend to other farms through the NC Agricultural Extension as well.
The purpose of this project was to explore the possibilities of extending the farm season with storage crops and winter hardy greens to sell to our existing CSA customers, at farmer’s markets, and to local restaurants. We grew different varieties of storage crops which are cured in different ways to see what grew, stored and sold the best. Various types of winter greens and root crops were also grown to test growing ability in cold weather with minimum protection and customer preference. Customer interest for these products was evident by their enthusiasm to receive CSA boxes for longer, come to market despite the cold weather, and for chefs to serve local food on their menus. This project proved the need for more produce in the off season provided by our farm, while clearly providing one farmer a year round job working the land.