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End of Season Letter, October 2018

Stormy Weather

Another season is drawing to a close. Out in the fields, the conditions were more challenging than many in recent memory. We’ve become fairly adept at navigating difficult springtime weather, but normally we can count on summers to be mellow. The plant-water-weed-harvest sequence is predictable if not monotonous, and as long as we keep up a good pace, we can expect a bountiful return. This summer, however, heavy rainfall and persistent humidity challenged us at every turn, from planting, to weeding, to curing the storage crops. Far from mellow, the summer was flat-out exhausting. The worst of it appears to be behind us—we’ve accounted for the losses, and they’re not terrible—and I’d like to believe next summer will be better. Unfortunately, extreme weather patterns are likely to be the new norm, and our only option, if we plan to remain in this business, is to plan accordingly.

New Schedule

This season was also notable in that we enacted our first major schedule change in years. From 2012–2017, CSA pickup and the farm stand operated on different days, so that five days a week, we were distributing food at the Tin House. By the end of last year, the intensity of our schedule was wearing me down, and I was ripe for persuasion when a friend described how he operates his CSA pickup and farm stand side by side. So this

End of Season Dates

Nov. 9

Renewal deadline for Thanksgiving pickup & turkey orders

Nov. 17

Thanksgiving pickup, 9am-2pm

Nov. 20

Thanksgiving pickup, 2–6pm

Jan. 4

CSA shares go on sale

to general public

year we merged the two, effectively freeing up Wednesdays for fieldwork and Sundays for family time. For me, the change has been overwhelmingly positive—I don’t know how I would have survived this summer without an extra day off. But the change was not without its downsides. For one, we lost some customers in the shuffle. Secondly, results from our CSA member survey showed that while the overwhelming majority of members either liked or had no opinion about the change, a handful were dismayed by a perceived priority given to the farm stand. This touches upon a sensitive issue among CSA growers. I don’t doubt that there are unscrupulous growers who dump their Grade B produce on their CSAs while saving the best for market, but it’s hard to get away with that if you run the two side by side. Impressions are important, and I strive to present the CSA produce with as much love as I do the farm stand, but it’s inevitable that during the course of a pickup, produce will get jostled and bins will empty out before they’re restocked. We do our best, but it’s unrealistic to expect that in every instance, every CSA member will get the best of everything. Instead, we strive to provide enough value throughout the course of the season to justify the cost of the share. If a member doesn’t feel he or she is getting that value, we accept that the CSA probably isn’t a good fit.

Community Building

Another survey question that’s given us much food for thought was What would enhance your CSA experience? The answers were as varied as our members themselves, but many could be categorized as requests for more communal events, from cooking demos, to potlucks, to concerts. Given that CSA stands for community supported agriculture, this came as no surprise. Newer members may be surprised to learn that at one point or another, we did, in fact, host many of the requested events. Unfortunately, we set our ambitions too high and went overboard. In recent years, Dan and I have pursued less demanding but more sustainable methods of cultivating community. Playing music and serving flavored water at pickup were little gestures that made a big impression. Field picking opportunities were another. And several times this season, Dan procured bass and oysters from his Bay Shore fishing buddies to resell at pickup. These small efforts required minimal time without generating waste, and they further distinguished us from the supermarket, i.e. they are a natural complement to the work we’re already doing. Of course, our focus on simplicity doesn’t mean we’ll never host another concert or dinner again. Believe it or not, we had planned on hosting a mid-season potluck, but weather-induced burnout put the kabosh on that. Dan and I debate fiercely about whether to enlist event planning help, as some other farms do, or whether to go it alone. Our debates have no clear winner yet, but the fact that we’re still debating means we’re open to influence.  At a minimum, we can agree that plans solidified in winter stand the best chance of coming to fruition in the summer.

CSA Renewals

Submit your renewal by

Nov. 9 to qualify for the bonus Thanksgiving pickup.

Cash & check payments receive 3% discount.

Pack-Up Option (a.k.a Pickup Insurance)

What else was new this year? We launched the “Pack-Up Option,” soon to be renamed “Pickup Insurance.” This was in response to last year’s survey, in which members requested greater pickup flexibility. Admittedly, it was a difficult concept to explain—for a one-time fee, the option guaranteed that your share would be packed up if you hadn’t arrived by 30 minutes prior to closing. Early in the season, as I struggled to explain the concept to a particular member, she was quick to note, Oh, it’s like pickup insurance. Precisely! I believe many members were skeptical because they didn’t understand that the fee is only paid once for the entire season—$30 for half shares, $60 for full. But for the handful of members who utilized the option, the added peace of mind appeared well worth the price.

Flower Caretaker

I’m also on the lookout for someone to be the caretaker of the flower beds, and to keep the Tin House filled with fresh bouquets. Flower maintenance was a job previously assigned to Sundays, which meant the field crew had to pick up the slack this year. They managed to keep the beds weeded and trellised, but bouquets fell by the wayside, much to my regret. I will issue a formal job posting this winter.         

Recipes

Recipe sharing is a topic that’s often pops up among members. It would certainly be wonderful if we could always provide the perfect recipe for that new and intimidating vegetable. The problem is that maintaining a suitable collection is no small undertaking. There are several farms that do this well (Golden Earthworm in Jamesport and Early Bird Farm in upstate NY, for example), but they clearly have an office person devoted to the task. If there is a way for the Restoration Farm folks to collect and share recipes online, without adding to the administrative load, I’d love to hear it! If nothing else, I’ll probably be printing a new batch of recipes for next season.

Curing Shed

What do we anticipate for next year? I’m toying with the idea of building a curing shed for our storage crops. The onion drying rack that Steve built last winter is a real feat of engineering—we’ve been able to store an entire barn’s worth of onions and garlic in an 8’x15” space behind the Tin House. Despite this, we’re still cramped, with food constantly needing to be shifted to make way for more. A proper shed would enable us to set food down once and leave it until we’re ready to distribute it.

Welcoming Winter   

Speaking of winter, it’s almost here! After a tough season, I’m more than ready...I think my kids are, too. But we’ve still got a few weeks left, and they happen to be among my favorite. From the Thanksgiving pickup, to the winter share pickups, to the Solstice Soup, the end of the season offers a special opportunity to reflect on the year's challenges and victories, both with members and with staff. Farming is full of headache and heartache, but it is also full of inspiration. When you can celebrate that inspiration with others, you've got it pretty good.                

                                                                                                      —Caroline

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