“I’m not sure which is colder this morning,” Larry Pletcher said on a recent frosty day as he walked into a 10-by-12-foot cooler stocked with carrots, beets, onions, parsnips and celeriac.
The cooler is housed in an insulated heated 30-by-40-foot building at The Vegetable Ranch, 443 Kearsarge Mountain Road, Warner, for Pletcher to store goods for his winter community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Still weeks away from the first pick-up, Pletcher’s storage space is already filled with daikon radishes, potatoes and a variety of squashes — carnival (sweet dumpling), acorn, buttercup, butternut and winter.
A CSA allows individuals to support farmers and local products by paying a set amount in advance to receive goods regularly throughout the season. Many farms opt to run CSAs in the summer; Pletcher and other local farmers have begun offering winter CSAs.
“When people pre-buy their vegetables, that membership money is there and spread out to farmers to get a jump on the season…,” Pletcher said. “You don’t have to make all of your money in five months. You can plan your harvest and spread out your labor.”
Keeping farm staff employed is another reason why local farmers are starting winter CSAs.
“I have employees that I like to keep working all winter because it keeps them around and from going out and finding other jobs. … It might not be full-time in the winter but enough to keep them,” said Roger Noonon, owner of Middle Branch Farm, 280 Colburn Road, New Boston, who also offers a winter CSA.
Both Noonon and Pletcher participate in the Concord-based Local Harvest CSA in the summer. Summer CSAs run from mid-June to mid-October. Concord, Derry, Salem and Weare all run winter farmers markets.
It will be the first winter CSA offered by Noonon at this farm.
“It keeps our customer base, members, engaged…. We are giving it a shot this year; hopefully it will be economically viable and sustainable for us,” Noonon said, adding that he is hoping for 100 members to join.
Noonon said he began participating in CSAs because while his products are sold to Manchester restaurants and local cooperative markets, he likes to get his food right to the user.
“This allows us to partner directly with families that are buying our food. … Members will know where their food is growing every week,” he said. “I will not have to be on the phone for four hours every morning trying to sell my goods. They will already be committed to.”
In addition to the vegetable share membership cost of $250, Noonon said, customers will be given the option to purchase other goods. Noonon also offers a meat share option (his farm produces chicken, pork, beef and lamb) that has a price tag of $255. Members must participate in his vegetable share program to enroll in the meat share, Noonon said. They will be given a poundage limit for storage crops, as well as a set amount for fresh produce (leeks, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, cabbage). For meat, members will also be given a poundage limit.
Noonon will run six pick-ups, one in December before the holiday, two in January and one in February and March. Whereas Noonon does regular pick-ups in Nashua and Manchester throughout the summer, customers will have to pick up their produce at his farm this winter because there is too much uncertainty in weather conditions for him to commit to a regular spot.
Entering his third winter CSA year, Pletcher said he has yet to have an issue with weather when doing pick-ups in Concord, but said he would change the distribution date should road conditions be too dangerous.
“If people can’t make their pick-up and they let us know, we will double up next time,” Pletcher said. “Because winter crops store pretty well we are happy to do that.”
Pletcher said he would like to see 120 customers sign up for his winter CSA and is almost halfway there. Last year, he capped membership at 100 customers. “We have a good retention rate…. That means they are happy with what they are getting and happy to support local food,” Pletcher said. “Anyone is happy to get anything green and fresh in wintertime and we’re able to do it.” For $315, members of The Vegetable Ranch winter CSA receive 10 food pick-ups, with the first in mid-December to “get everyone through the holidays.” Two pick-ups each are done in January, February, March and April, and one in early May. Pletcher offers pick-ups both at his farm in Warner and at the Wesley United Methodist Church in Concord.
The goal, Pletcher said, is for customers to receive two green items, such as spinach, lettuce, bok choy, arugula, shoots and sprouts, per pick-up, with the product depending on the month. Basic pick-ups will have a value of $30 and include seven to eight items.
Membership is limited as Pletcher is concerned about how many greens he will be able to produce this season.
“Bok choy, arugula and spinach all do quite well in the winter,” Pletcher said. “They don’t necessarily grow but they hold and stay nice.”
Hoop houses — unheated greenhouses — are used to grow and store crops in the winter.
“It is an efficient sustainable way to do it,” Pletcher said.
To protect their crops from frost in the hoop house, farmers cover them with poly-woven blankets, also known as floating row covers. On sunny days, Pletcher said, the hoop house gets “nice and toasty,” but on colder days and nights he might lay down two to three row covers, depending on the crop. Each blanket layer has four degrees of frost protection, he said.
“Even at 17 below zero, you may get a little frost on top but the root zones don’t freeze,” Pletcher said. “Everything remains healthy.”
For the months of January and February, Pletcher plans to convert his walk-in cooler into a hot area with grow lights and space heaters to grow shoots and sprouts, which can be ready in less than two weeks.
Committing to a CSA program, Noonon said, goes beyond writing a check.
“You have to commit to show up for the vegetables and to prepare the vegetables,” he said. “This is not food you just go home and throw in the microwave.”