By Andy Greder
When a late fall frost hits the carrots in the fields of Featherstone Farm, the snap only makes them sweeter.
And now more local food consumers realize you can eat that favorite food from the southern Minnesota farm—in January.
About 10 farms now offer winter CSAs (or Community-Supported Agriculture) shares in the form of routine deliveries of produce during the winter months, according to the Land Stewardship Project directory.
A few years ago, only about three farms offered CSAs, and before that, “virtually none,” said Brian Devore, communications co-ordinator for the Minneapolis-based Land Stewardship Project. “It’s an interesting little trend. Another way to keep people interested in local food year round.”
Featherstone Farm, a 250-acre certified-organic farm in Rushford, began offering a CSA in about 2009 and the number of cus-tomers has tripled in recent years to more than 360 shares this winter.
“We’ve had really good growth in the winter CSA,” said Greta Sikorski, Featherstone Farm’s business manager. “It attracts differ-ent people–other growers and people that garden and like to produce their own foods, but don’t have the storage capacity that we do.”
Featherstone bills itself as a “true winter CSA” with food they can preserve and store. That means onions, cabbage, and—of course—the delectable carrots in “pretty much every box,” Sikorski says. Also in the mix: fresh greens, broccoli, kale, squash, rutabagas, radishes, and maybe some dried peppers.
“With a winter CSA, people see that they really can eat at least a majority of their vegetables locally in the winter,” says Sikorski of the $425 investment for nine deliveries from November to the end of February. “It does also underlie consumers making a commitment to local because… it is truly what we can produce.”
Devore said new technology has contributed to the increase in winter or “frozen” CSAs by incorporating hoop houses or high tunnels. “They are a low-cost way to extend the season,” Devore says.
Besides vegetables, other Minnesota CSAs offer meats, cheese, eggs, canned goods, breads, jams, and baked goods.
“Maybe (customers) are not thinking about the farm, but this is a way to connect with local and sustainably-raised foods year round,” Devore says.
Along with the CSAs, the advent of winter farmers’ markets has the organizer of the popular Minnesota Grown directory thinking of ways to track and present the new offerings.
Jessica Miles, the agriculture marketing specialist, said 14 winter farmers are available for customers this winter, but she is unsure how many there have been in previous years.
“Not something that we started tracking until this year,” says Miles, who can rattle off that there are 163 farmers’ markets in this year’s printed directory.
Given the new presence, the number of winter markets—from Duluth to Minneapolis and St. Paul to Maple Grove—will likely continue to grow, but not to the extent of seasonal markets when the amount of produce is much higher, Miles says.
“That is one thing about why we are starting to track that number,” Miles says.
“Internally, we are saying that it’s growing. While I can give you numbers on wineries, farmers markets, and CSAs, soon I will be able to say, ‘In 2013, we had this many, and 2014, we had this many.’ It will be a great way to look back.”
The Mill City Farmers’ Market looks back to 2011 as the first year they plowed into part of that winter. the market’s vendors were successful in selling their bounty that year, so they’ve held a market on the second Saturday from November to April in the Mill City Museum.
“People were looking to continue buying local food,” says Martha Archer, the market’s executive director. “We decided to roll out a monthly market because the year before we were successful.”
Last year, the Mill City market had about 25 vendors and this winter they will have about 40, Archer says. During the traditional market, about 55 vendors partake.
“Our vendors are seeing that people are coming in and are having better sales on a Saturday once a month, in some cases, than they will in two or three or sometimes four weeks in the summer because people are really stocking up on meat and root vegetables and cheese from the vendors,” Archer says.
While Minnesota Grown and Mill City have seen growth, lack of awareness and misperceptions still exist.
“I would like to put together a write up explaining what people can expect when they go to a winter’s farmers’ market,” Miles says about what might be included in next year’s directory. “The type of product that you will find there. The atmosphere is very different.”