What’s in the share?

I wrote this for this week’s Brookwood Community Farm newsletter. Thought I’d get a little extra mileage out of it by posting it here. It certainly applies to winter share contents. It feels like there are fewer surprises with fall and winter CSA shares, though perhaps the surprises are just of a different nature: walk-in coolers that go on the fitz, rodents who discover the sweet potatoes, frozen ground that makes securing row cover impossible.

“What’s in our CSA share next week?” This is a common question from shareholders excited about local vegetables, folks putting together a shopping list for the week’s menus or lining up new recipes to try out. We, your growers, ask this question, too. There is considerable anxiety behind this question for most growers. Spring and summer are the seasons when I worry the most about having grown enough vegetables and enough variety, to satisfy eaters who have a taste for really good food. The innocent question, “what’s in the share?” sets my teeth on edge early in the growing season. I have been unpleasantly surprised by the appetites of woodchuck, stunned by the quick devastation caused by plant pests, and this season, dumbstruck by late blight on our tomatoes. So, I’ve learned to not make predictions about what’s in the CSA share next week. But now, in October, with just three CSA distributions left, I’m feeling a little more confident that there’s both the quantity and variety of veggies to satisfy our discerning eaters. So I thought it time to explain how certain types and quantities of veggies come to be in the CSA share.

It all starts in October. Almost eight months before the first CSA share is distributed, the planning process begins as we evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the current season’s crops and markets. Following this assessment, a Crop Production Plan is created. This provides a “big picture” of which crops and how much of each crop we want to grow in the coming season, and how much space each particular crop will need. This plan is dependent on how many CSA shares are offered, what other markets will be served (e.g., farmers’ markets, hunger relief), the vegetable preferences of customers, what grows well on the land, the length of the growing season, the presence of soil-born diseases. The last variable I’ll mention, but certainly not least important in designing a Production Plan, is economic value.

A word about economic value. When we sell you a $375 CSA share, we want to make darn sure you get at least $375 worth of fantastic-tasting, nutritious vegetables. When we create the Production Plan, it includes way more than $375/CSA share of veggies. We know we’re going to be feeding some rabbits and woodchucks, and that a bug or a fungal disease or some other as-yet unimagined interlopers will claim their share of the harvest. So we plan for crop losses and challenges by planting more than we’ve sold. I like to choose varieties that are productive and resist diseases that are present on the farm. We limit the field space devoted to low value, low yield and/or harder-to-grow crops. We build enough wiggle room into the Production Plan that, even in a bad year, we can realistically hope to provide you with 10% more value than you paid for.

The Crop Production Plan is a vision of the perfect combination of crops. This lovely vision first meets the constraints of reality when we try to fit it onto a map of the farm fields. I have observed that farmers never, never, never have enough room to grow everything we want to grow, in the manner we want to grow it. Never. The creation of a Field Map is a complex juggling act: part intuition, part experience and part common sense, but always fueled by large amounts of caffeine. It involves making compromises and much debate: “Maybe we don’t really need carrots, beets, alliums and lettuce every single week, do we? Perhaps we could cut back on these crops and add a little more variety by planting a bed of edamame, fava beans, radicchio, kohlrabi, fennel.” “No one likes radicchio, no one knows what edamame is and fava beans are a low-value crop that gives some folks indigestion.” “Most folks didn’t really like the celery last year, let’s just cut that out.” “Celery! This land was meant to grow celery! It’s perfectly suited for it, plus celery is a heritage crop … something all the old farmers used to grow. We must have celery!” And on and on it goes until, early in January. By then the decisions have been made, fields mapped and seed and supply orders sent in. Why so early? Suppliers often offer discounts for early purchase of seeds and supplies. Plus, there’s still so much work to be done to prepare for the coming season, including a little time off for the farmer.

Greenhouse and field planting schedules are generated from the Field Map. After all that careful planning, we are now in possession of tidy spreadsheets that help to frame and guide the season’s work. The first planting of peas, carrots, cilantro and dill go into the ground the first week in April. Alliums and celeriac are the first seeds sown in the greenhouse, usually in late February.

Back to the question, “What’s in the CSA share?” The day before a harvest we walk the fields and check on the stored crops (garlic, onions, winter squash). We make a list of what’s ready for harvest. We sometimes narrow the list by asking what recipes we, and our shareholders, might enjoy cooking this week. We try to include something new in the week’s share, along with some of the standard veggies we know shareholders want to see each week. At Brookwood, we aim for an average weekly share value of $20.00.

Then we head to the field for the harvest. If we did a thorough job assessing crops ready for harvest, it’s straightforward from this point. We just follow the plan. But occasionally we’re surprised to find that the lettuce, which from a distance looked great, up close has rotted or bolted; or the carrots or turnips have been the site of a wire worm reunion and feast; or the winter squash which looked lovely sitting on a bench in the hoop house, dissolves into an unpleasant mush when we touch it. You get the picture. We don’t really know what’s going to be in the CSA share until we’ve finished the harvest.

That said, here’s what we’re hoping will be in your Brookwood CSA shares this coming week: lettuce or salad mix, escarole, spinach, winter squash, broccoli (or purple top turnips if the broccoli hasn’t headed up), onions or leeks, and a choice of one bunch of chard, kale, collards or bok choi.

Enjoy the harvest!

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