Friday, January 25, 2019

January Farm Update: What’s in store for our 2019 CSA Season and more!

Hello from Harmony Valley Farm! As I write this, the snow has blanketed our valley in bright white!  While our fields are resting peacefully, we are reminded that our growing season officially starts in about 3 weeks with our first greenhouse planting AND we’re only 15 weeks from the first CSA delivery week!  Yikes…we better keep moving! 

We’ve been hard at work preparing for the upcoming season, but wanted to take a moment to connect with you and share a little glimpse into our winter world.  We also want to tell you about some of the exciting things we’re looking forward to for the 2019 CSA season.  Before we jump into 2019, lets take a brief look back at our 2018 CSA year.

First CSA box of 2018, with 2 bunches of ramps!
Last year set the record for being the latest first planting date in the history of Harmony Valley Farm!  After getting a foot of snow on April 18th, we were relieved to watch it melt quickly allowing us to finally get into the fields to start planting just one week later on April 25th.   It took focused determination and a lot of team work to get caught up, but we were able to pull it off and get back on track pretty quickly.  One of the benefits to a late spring is that the ramp harvest season was also several weeks behind, but just in time for our first week of CSA deliveries!  We were able to pack not one but TWO bunches of ramps in each of the first three boxes of the season. We also had an awesome asparagus season that started the second week of CSA deliveries.  Our new fields produced very well and we were able to pack generous amounts of asparagus for 5 weeks!  Despite the spring challenges, Mother Nature came through for us and we were still able to deliver very nice spring boxes with good value.

Last CSA box of 2018
Every year of farming has its own set of challenges, most often related to the weather.  That’s just something you sign up for when you choose to be a farmer!  After pushing through the late spring, we reached our weather climax with two big rain events late in August/early September that proved to be our biggest weather challenge of the year.  Nonetheless, we stayed in the game and were still able to pack beautiful, plentiful CSA boxes for our full 30 weeks of deliveries!  Over the course of the season we delivered about 64 different types of vegetables, and that doesn’t include the multiple different varieties of some vegetables such as seven different varieties of winter squash, three colors of beets, etc. 

As we look back, we are also reminded of some of our 2018 farming victories including a delicious 4-week strawberry season, 9 weeks of potatoes, and 7 weeks of sweet & beautiful sweet potatoes!  We try to include some of the more staple vegetables more frequently over the course of our 30 week season.  Last year we delivered some type of onion & garlic in EVERY CSA box ranging from chives, overwintered onions and green garlic in the spring to delicious white Spanish onions mid-summer and a plentiful supply of red & yellow storage onions as well as shallots and red cipollini onions to wrap up the season.  Two-thirds of the boxes included carrots and about one-third of the boxes included broccoli.  We also had a nice 10-week run on tomatoes starting late July and running through the end of September!  All in all, I’d have to say it was a pretty amazing season!

Black Futsu Pumpkin
photo from High Mowing Organic Seeds
So what’s in store for 2019?  First, we have a pretty new radish called “Diana.”  Diana is a fresh radish that’s round and has purple shoulders and a white bottom.  They are described to be “crunchy and sweet with just the right amount of spicy.”   I’m also excited to try the “Black Futsu” winter squash (also referred to as a pumpkin) which is a Japanese vegetable with “unique black, warty skin and nutty, fresh flavor.”  One source describes it to have “very smooth, fine grained flesh and a fruity flavor at harvest that lends itself to thinly sliced raw or pickled preparations…With its very edible thin skin, it doesn’t require peeling.”  We have a few more new winter squash varieties to trial including two new personal-sized butternuts called “Butterbaby” and “Brulee,” thought to be as delicious as our beloved Honeynut Butternut, but with better yields and longer storage potential.  We are also interested in trying “Tetsukabuto” which is described to be “the squash of choice for the Apocalypse!”  The word means “steel helmet” in Japanese.  With a name like that, it sparked our interest and I guess whomever is left after the Apocalypse can enjoy this “sweet and nutty” squash that is “versatile in the kitchen” and has “exceptionally long storage.”

Last June's celtuce harvest
We’re also looking forward to refining our techniques for growing some crops we’re less familiar with or would like to improve upon.  Last year was our second attempt at growing celtuce.  It was a lot of fun, but we learned a few things and think we can do a better this year.  Even after 40 plus years of growing sweet corn, Farmer Richard continues to set his standards high for growing the most delicious sweet corn.  We’ve secured our preferred varieties and Richard and the crew have refined their strategy to protect the crop from pests.  Last year was a pretty good year of sweet corn, but we hope this year will be even better!

Of course we continue to consider more ways we can develop greater resilience to the erratic weather patterns we fear are our new norm.  We have watched our soil and fertility end up in the creek bottom or road ditches after heavy downpours of rain that come too fast for the moisture to be absorbed.  We think about this a lot—what else can we do to keep our soil in place and prevent erosion?  We have tried a new approach of planting permanent short grass and clover in between beds of vegetables and pathways around and within fields where water drains off the fields.  We had some success with this last year and are planning to expand this practice this year.

Farmer Richard & CSA kids at the Harvest Party 2018
While we realize CSA may not be for everyone, we believe it can be a good fit for many and is intended to be a different model that goes beyond the act of just buying food.  Rather, the whole point of CSA is to connect an eater to the source of their food and a greater community.  This can become a much deeper and more meaningful experience for both the consumer and the farmer with values and benefits that far exceed that of a simple dollar.   We are excited to have the opportunity to continue growing for our CSA members as it really is the most meaningful part of our business.  We know there are values and benefits associated with participating in CSA that are hard to measure, but include health benefits of having a wide variety of plant foods in your diet, learning more about how and where your food is grown, visiting the farm and connecting with both the place and people, participating in the act of preparing your own food and doing so as a family.  These are just a few of the additional benefits CSA members have shared with us about their experiences, but I’m sure there are more. 

We are curious how our CSA boxes compare to shopping at a retail grocery store.  Every year we ask a CSA member to be our “Secret Shopper.”  Each week this individual compares the contents of the vegetable box we deliver to three different types of retail grocery stores which include a local food co-op, a larger natural foods grocery and a traditional grocery store.  We took a look at these reports as well as our own data from last year and wanted to share some of the results with you.

CSA box #19 from 2018 included 3 items not found in
grocery stores: fresh edamame, broccoli Romanesco, and
orange Italian frying peppers
Lets talk about dollar value first.  Our weekly CSA vegetable share costs $1050 and includes all 30 weeks of deliveries.  The average cost of a box is $35, although some boxes may have a value a little less than that while others might have much greater value.  If you were to have purchased everything that was delivered over the course of the season at one of these other retail outlets, you would have paid approximately $1300 at the food co-op and traditional grocery store or about $1200 at the larger natural foods grocery store.  Additionally, if you had purchased all of the box contents at our market stand you would’ve paid $1315.  The take home message here?  CSA members receive a value of 14-25% above the actual dollars paid for the share and would have to pay the higher price if they were to make the same purchases at a retail store.  

Sun Jewel Melons ready to be packed in CSA boxes
We also found that 13% of all items sourced at the large natural foods store were not organic and at the traditional grocery store 28% of the items were not available organic.  The food co-op was the only store where someone would be able to purchase all organic.   There were also items included in our CSA shares that were not available at any of the comparison stores.  This rate was lowest at the food co-op, but we still found that 22% of the items were not available.  At the other two locations about 30% of the items were not available at all.  Some of these items include some of our seasonal favorites like green garlic, sweetheart cabbage, sun jewel melons, French Orange melons, fresh edamame, purple beans, orange Italian frying peppers, broccoli Romanesco and colored cauliflower. We strive to provide a wide variety of vegetables over the course of the season to keep things interesting and fun, but also because it’s important to eat a wide variety of foods for their nutrients.

As the first month of this new year comes to a close, we thank you for being part of our community.  If you have already made the decision to sign up for a CSA share for this year, thank you!  If you are still in the contemplative stage, we want to remind you that we have an Early Bird Sign Up offer available until February 14.  

We also have two new sites in the Twin Cities area and are still working on refining our new Thursday route into Madison.  Some of our new sites for this route have been confirmed, so check out our sign-up form for these locations.  Be well and enjoy this winter season!---Farmers Richard and Andrea