Fall In The CSA Fields: Local Farmers Prepare For Winter Months

Farm Manager Layton Guenther at Peconic Land Trust's Quail Hill Farm. Kelly Ann Smith photo

Farmers deserve our love. They’ve had a long, hard season and are feeling the burn. They’ve made it easier for us to get food during a pandemic. If I had my way, I’d give every one of them a big hug.

Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs, typically allow farmers to buy seed or machinery needed to get through the year. This year, farmers jumped in to help the community in its time of need and the pendulum swung to agriculture supported communities.

All of the local farms started feeding the community way before the seeds were in the ground for the season. They gradually added their own produce, never coming up for a breath.

By now, they are exhausted and could probably use a hug but keep chugging along, some even offering winter CSA shares. Whereas pre-COVID-19, farms may have struggled to fulfill their CSA quota, this year, most sold out early. Winter shares will be no different.

Hurricane Hill and Birch Hill are part of Quail Hill, a little slice of heaven off Old Stone Highway in Amagansett, home to New York’s first CSA. Their winter shares start in November and go through February. Pick up is every other week.

During the summer months, however, members are a little more involved, going into the fields to pick their own produce to take home. That doesn’t mean members can’t glean from the fields or pick lettuces from two greenhouses off season.

Quail Hill Farm, a 220-acre agricultural reserve owned by Peconic Land Trust, has been growing vegetables, herbs and flowers for members for 31 years.

Its fields have yielded many farmers, thanks to the forethought of Deborah Ann Light who spent close to 30 years piecing together the acreage with the intention of agricultural purposes, not development.

Crops are grown on a total of 35 acres. Cover crops such as oats and winter peas grow up to 5 feet tall and then are cut down and allowed to decompose, adding organic matter for good soil structure, less liable to runoff.

Like a lot of the other local farms, food is grown following the Northeast Organic Farming Association, or NOFA, organic practices. No synthetic fertilizers are used, with the added component of labor practices, making it a more holistic assessment of agriculture.

Farmers are getting a small respite at Quail Hill, picking unconventional beans, like white Kenearly Yellow-Eye, orange Tiger’s Eye and the Red King of the Early from quiet fields for winter shares.

Ten varieties of beans are allowed to dry in the field and then laid out on a bench in a greenhouse to finish drying before threshing.

Fall’s starchy staples like sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, rutabaga and a lot of brassica greens like kale, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower.

Some kale and broccoli are left in the field until next spring. Leaves can freeze and thaw many times over and taste sweeter due to the development of sugar as a survival response as stored energy. Beets and chard, close cousins, are also ripe for harvesting in cooler weather.

Quail Hill has a root cellar in the basement of its “one-size-fits-all” building where 2,000 pounds of sweet potatoes and 2,000 pounds of winter squash, among other produce, is stored.

They freeze tomatoes and smoke and dry hot peppers for winter. “It’s a good spread,” said farm manager Layton Guenther, who uses kidney beans like some people use worry stones.

Because of last year’s mild winter, Quail Hill farmers were able to get into the field earlier than usual. They set up a “pay-what-you-can” plan in March and April, after the winter CSA ended in February and before the summer CSA started.

Because CSA members are very involved, reciprocity is baked into the business model, or value system of the farm. “It seemed like the only right thing to do,” Guenther said.

Membership shares sold out early this year and Guenther hopes it leads to a real shift in supporting and buying from local farms. Local food is more expensive than shopping at supermarkets.

“I hope people have found money in their budget to continue to prioritize that in 2021 and beyond,” Guenther said. “I hope we see them long term and it’s not a flash in the pan.”

Fresh fruits and vegetables at Goodale Farm. Kelly Ann Smith photo

Goodale Farms is a family run operation since the 1800’s. They offer a year-round CSA, quite different from Quail Hill because they raise their own livestock. Membership is based on a month by month subscription.

Several packages are available depending on the size of your family, starting with a $50 weekly box including a choice of three dairy products such as honey lavender cow cheese, butter, and eggs, two pasture-raised meats like pork chops and chopped beef and five to six vegetables, perfect for two people.

Members have access to a large range of add-ons that may not be available at their farmstand, 250 Main Road in Riverhead, which is open year-round, every day for self-serve. “I have people stopping and getting their eggs and milk when they get off work at midnight,” said farmer Hal Goodale.

We’ve been members on and off for years and my husband said Goodale’s stew is his favorite. Reluctantly, I had to agree, they had mine beat.

“A lot of things we make come from an effort to not waste anything,” said Goodale. For example, the main ingredients in the beef stew are all top-quality products like sirloin, not chuck. The real secret is that they can the leftover juice from their salsa and use that as the base, or broth, lending a hint of spice to the mouthwatering stew.

The only thing that does not come from the farm is the chicken, which they get from a farm in Pennsylvania that Goodale personally visits on occasion.

“In the winter we bring up produce from the South and West, again from farms that I have visited and follow similar growing practices as the ones we use,” he said.

Some other unusual items are hot sage rope sausage, whole duck, chicken-mozzarella pepper-basil patties, “Pops” cucumber salad and spicy peach salsa. Non-food items like lip balm and bath bombs are also available as fun add-ons.

The year has been challenging to say the least.

“Coupled with having a daughter miss her senior year of high school lacrosse and then worrying about her freshman year of college at Syracuse, and my twins entering their 11th grade year, there’s lots of stress all around,” said Goodale.

Finding help, delivery vehicles, and storage space was not easy but the farm was somewhat prepared for the influx of people wanting services last spring. “The way we operate, it is not easy to just ramp up quickly,” Goodale said. “Luckily I had been planning a large marketing campaign for the season so we were prepared on many levels.”

Goodale launched a new website mid-September. “Our new site will enhance our value-added products for our members and also allow us to get the general public in on some of our packages, like our Thanksgiving package where we deliver a farm fresh turkey, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots and stuffing, right to the purchasers home.”

Goodale delivers from Montauk to Manhattan and switches it up often, offering members new farm recipes throughout the year.

“Honestly we have been so busy trying to keep up,” he said, “I haven’t had a lot of time to think, but I’m sure we will come up with something.”

Over in Sagaponack at Foster Farm, Suzannah Wainhouse has her dream job, working as a year-round farmer with Marilee Foster, whose family has been farming potato fields for six generations. More recently, heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables have been seeded into the loamy soil.

“In the beginning, during March and April, people came to us, new faces and old looking for vegetables much earlier than ever before,” Wainhouse said. “Due to a very mild winter we still had crops in the field, greens that had overwintered and a lot of storage potatoes.”

People were grateful to get kale, collard greens, carrots and potatoes. So at a time of year when the farmers would be seeding in the greenhouses, they were harvesting like crazy and decided to start a spring CSA to accommodate the demand.

For most farmers the 2020 season felt like it’s been July since February. Thankfully farmers are a very adaptive bunch by nature and all jumped into the unknown and pushed very hard to deliver as much food as possible.

Fall at Foster’s will bring a large offering of winter squash, sweet potatoes and many varieties of greens from four greenhouses. Ginger is the most exciting crop that is being harvested this fall. Personally, I’m waiting for their homemade Tiger Spuds potato chips to show up at the farm stand, 698 Sagg Main St, Sagaponack.

Fosters raise over 10 varieties of soeci potatoes which will be in storage all winter. And if you’re wondering, like me, how to store your own potatoes so they last all winter and even into spring, they need to be stored at a cool temperature, 50 degrees is ideal, in a basement or a storage cellar.

Membership at Fosters is unique because it is offered on a weekly basis and doesn’t require a seasonal commitment.

“We found many of our customers travel frequently and needed that flexibility,” Wainhouse said. You also don’t have to come up with a large amount of cash all at once.

Marilee’s Farm Stand will send out an email each Monday with details as to what is available that week. Go to Marilee’s Farm Stand website to sign up for updates. The cost has been $40 and pickup is Friday between 11a.m. and 4 p.m.

“We hope COVID has shown our community how important small farms are, how important all farms are, how important it is to support agriculture in this country,” Wainhouse said. “It was nice to see people realizing there is food being grown in their backyards or at least a close proximity to their homes. That closeness became very important during the early days of COVID.”

That closeness is very important at all times, through thick and thin.