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Green grows the bounty, even in winter

Shares of community supported agriculture bring fresh, local produce

By Aaron Kagan
Globe Correspondent / January 26, 2011

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For cooks used to supermarket produce, the rootsy offerings of a winter CSA — a community supported agriculture program in which customers buy their produce in advance — can expand one’s culinary horizons, especially when staring into a flaming-pink slice of watermelon radish.

These intensely colorful vegetables prove that the fair-weather dates of our growing season are not set in stone. In a winter CSA participants pay in the fall for vegetables they receive throughout the frigid months, thanks to simple technology such as greenhouses and climate-controlled storage space. Because cold temperatures concentrate the sweetness of vegetables such as spinach and carrots, winter CSA shares provide members with some of the most flavorful produce at a very welcome moment.

Stearns Farm in North Framingham started a winter CSA in part to provide workers with more than a seasonal job. “Our intent was to pay our employees a living wage, and this has allowed us to do that,’’ says Kathy Huckins of the nonprofit farm.

Size, frequency, and location of share distributions vary, as do offerings. Shares typically include greens such as kale, collards, and Swiss chard, as well as root vegetables such as onions, garlic, shallots, turnips, celeriac (celery root), and potatoes. Additional items such as winter squash, apples, cilantro, cider, and pickles make appearances in various shares. Some programs offer bonus options for sale, including eggs, maple syrup, cheese, or extra quantities of the usual crops.

Winter CSAs are new to Massachusetts. Many farms are in their first or second year. “At the end of our growing season, shareholders were lamenting that they had to go back to the grocery store,’’ says Huckins. Now they visit her farm’s greenhouse, which is set up like a farmers’ market in miniature during distributions of shares. “The people who come are so grateful to have these crops grown in the winter right around here and as fresh as they are.’’ Many farmers report the same reaction when walking from the snow into a field house full of greens: awe.

One farmer depends on the sun to heat a makeshift greenhouse. Mike Raymond of First Light Farm in Hamilton uses an unheated, plastic greenhouse-style structure called a field house. “You go in there and it’s bare soil and green crops. We don’t have any heat, we’re just using the sun’s energy,’’ he says.

Not all of this produce is familar to customers. “We have our veteran CSA members who have eight different recipes for what they want to do with black radish,’’ says Greg Bodine of Drumlin Farm in Lincoln. And then there are members who haven’t a clue what to cook with it. Black radishes are vegetables your mother never told you about. “They’re sort of notorious,’’ says Bodine. “People love everything else, but the black radish can be a challenge. They have a spicy, almost mustier taste, and people are used to that crisp, summery kind of thing.’’ Bodine enjoys his roasted.

Whether or not they like black radishes, customers are helping farms survive. Gretta Anderson of Shared Harvest, a winter CSA that pools from several small farms, says, “For a small family farm, it makes a really big difference that the consumer has made a commitment to see that farm through the season.’’

Shares for this year’s winter CSAs have already been sold, but learn about next year at Farm Share Fair on Feb. 3 from 5:30-8 p.m. The Democracy Center, 45 Mt. Auburn St., Cambridge; and on Feb 24 from 4:30-7:30 p.m. at Park Avenue Congregational Church, 50 Paul Revere Road, Arlington. Aaron Kagan can be reached at aaronwkagan@gmail.com.