Local strawberries in winter?

Winter: the big shivering elephant in the room. Sure, it’s difficult to imagine the weeks without our many bustling tailgate markets now, but the time is approaching. Don’t panic just yet, though. Thanks to the folks at Blue Ridge Food Ventures, you can enjoy a perfect summer sun-ripened tomato come February.

How? Sign up for their Winter Sun Farms CSA, and you’ll get four months (December through March) of local fruits and veggies that were received from farmers and frozen at their peak of goodness. They offer some items fresh, too. “You don’t have to go [to the grocery] and buy from California or Argentina,” says Chris Reedy, BRFV’s farm outreach program manager, with a sense of true satisfaction. “We’re happy that we can give people a choice for local food in the wintertime.”

In his role, Reedy has always connected with area farmers to share with them information about BRFV’s resources, including their FDA-inspected kitchen where produce for the CSA is processed. But he took on the new task of finding farmers interested in growing for the winter program last year, after executive director, Mary Lou Surgi, heard about the Winter Sun Farms CSA in New York’s Hudson Valley. The New York program, started by Jim Hyland in the winter of 2006, now serves as a mentor and partner organization. “We’re not a typical franchising model, for sure,” Hyland says. “But we do think Winter Sun Farms could be in a position to grow as a national brand that’s regionally based.”

So far, the model’s been a success here. BRFV offered up 100 shares of the CSA last year and turned away at least 50 interested subscribers. They hope to sell 300 shares this winter, and are already a third of the way there.

But subscribers are, of course, only a part of the CSA equation. More than a dozen area farmers are now on board with the program.

Reedy began communicating with farmers for this year’s CSA back in February. Those that signed on received a purchase order from BRFV. In other words, a guarantee before and as they started planting that their produce would sell.
“It gives them a three-fold income stream to be able to really rely upon,” Reedy says, referencing sales to Winter Farms, area groceries and restaurants, and at tailgate markets. “If one of those doesn’t work out, you have the other two with a potential to bring income in.”

Missy Huger and Chris Sawyer, owners and operators of Jake’s Farm, sold to Winter Farms last year and will participate again this year. They also sell to area tailgate markets, grocery stores and restaurants. And, they offer a CSA of their own during the regular growing season.

The duo grow a selection that runs the vegetable gamut on their certified organic and Appalachian Grown™-certified farm in Candler, including beans, cucumbers, melons, potatoes, lettuce, eggplant, squash, figs, heirloom tomatoes, edamame, herbs, raspberries and kohlrabi — just to name a few.

Huger and Sawyer consistently grow their operation and what they offer from their farm. This year, they planted sweet potatoes for the first time and are “looking forward to a satisfying harvest.” They’ve also increased production on beans, edamame, eggplant and heirloom tomatoes especially for the winter CSA.

The majority of growers who sell to Winter Sun Farms CSA, like Jake’s, are organic growers — some are certified and others are not, but do follow organic practices. Some, like Stepp’s Plants in Hendersonville, utilize integrative pest management practices, and a few others grow using hybrid, low-spray methods.

What exactly will you receive this winter from Winter Farms? Approximately 28 to 30 portions of a wide variety of produce, including both fruits and vegetables (see a list in the sidebar). The majority are frozen; about four portions will be fresh, greenhouse-grown items. Based on requests from last year’s subscribers, a third of the total portions will be berries — strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries — which have already been processed and are, according to Reedy, “fantastic this year.” All of Winter Sun’s labels clearly identify the farm that grew the produce.

A CSA share costs $120. BRVF is hoping for four pickup points this year, including their facility on the A-B Tech Enka campus, the Grove Arcade and two sites yet to be determined. To sign up, visit www.wintersunfarmsnc.com and download a mail-in form. Representatives for the CSA will also be at area tailgate markets in the coming weeks with sign-up sheets and information.

Many Markets Still Open

While some area farmers markets have already ended for the year, including the Riceville Tailgate Market, the majority remain open with lots to offer — from winter squash to greens, apples and value-added products. Many tailgates run through the end of October, with some remaining open into November and even December for holiday events.

Continue checking ASAP’s website for details and dates as winter approaches. You can also find more information in market listings on ASAP’s online Local Food Guide, buyappalachian.org, or call your neighborhood market for more information.

— Maggie Cramer is the communications coordinator at ASAP, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help local farms thrive, link farmers to markets and supporters, and build healthy communities through connections to local food. Contact her at maggie@asapconnections.org.

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