It’s not easy, but it’s possible!

When you think of CSA you are likely to picture the sun high in the sky and a basket filled with the best field fresh produce that the summer has to offer. As growers we all know what goes into filling a summer CSA basket week after week from June to October, but servicing a weekly CSA through the winter, particularly in a climate like Ottawa where there is often snow on the ground for five months of the year, requires a whole new set of skills. After two years of running a Winter CSA here at Ottawa Farm Fresh we have learned how to adapt our skills and infrastructure to provide organic vegetables to our community for an extra two months a year.

Who are we?

Ottawa Farm Fresh is a pre-certified organic farm located on NCC property on the outskirts of Ottawa, Ontario. It is run by us, Jonathan Bruderlein and Jolianne Demers, a couple with more than a decade of farming experience under our belts, first in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, and now here in Ottawa. Helping us along the way is our seven-year-old son, Milo, as well as about eight employees throughout the year, a mixture of full time, part time, and seasonal help. Along with extensive farming and business experience, we both hold agricultural qualifications from McGill University, and we believe that it is this unique background that has provided us with the skills necessary to confront the challenges that a winter CSA can present. 

Our CSA program

On December 28th we completed our final Winter CSA pick-up of the season, which also marked the end to our first full season on this NCC property. (Editor’s note: While Winter CSA is used throughout this text, it could also be referred to as an ‘Early Winter’ CSA since it presently operates only during November and December. Most of the production principles described here would be valid for a longer period, but the heating/growing costs would be substantially higher).

In our first full season in Ottawa, we opened our Farm Store for the season on May 20th, with the first Summer CSA pick-up on June 3rd and the Winter CSA on November 3rd. We operate a free-choice CSA, which means that we provide suggested contents for our CSA, but members are free to swap items as they choose, so long as they adhere to the total value of their basket size. This is true of both the Summer and Winter CSAs, which is one of the factors that sets us apart from other CSA farms in the area.

Our Summer and Winter CSA’s function quite similarly, the major difference being the produce offered over the winter season. Necessarily the variety offered over the winter is somewhat limited in comparison to the summer, though we work hard throughout the growing season to ensure that we can offer more than just basic root vegetables over the winter. One of the major selling points of the winter program for our clients is that we offer freshly harvested greens, herbs, and microgreens throughout the winter period, and not just kale! We grow a selection of cold-tolerant greens (arugula, spinach, mixed greens, full size and baby kale), as well as sunflower, buckwheat, and pea shoot microgreens, and we offer a selection of these at each pick up. We find that our customers really value being able to access these fresh items weekly.

The Summer CSA market in Ottawa is relatively competitive, but most of these programs end early or late October. We knew that offering an option later into the season would set us apart from these other well-established farms, allowing us to access new members, as well as offering an additional product for our current members. The majority of our winter members are also summer members and we find that because our customers are very dedicated to both our farm and local eating, the Winter CSA is a relatively easy sell to these current members. As we currently have limited cold room storage space, we knew that there would need to be stricter limits on membership for the winter season, so little advertising outside of our newsletter and social media channels was necessary to meet our membership goals.

One issue we encountered regarding customer satisfaction was the decision we made to offer only a single five hour pick-up window over the winter. In the summer clients can come any time that the Farm Store is open (three days/week), making our Summer CSA incredibly accessible. This decreased access was a barrier for some customers, but it was a necessary decision from both a personal and business perspective. The set up and tear down process is considerable, and it is simply not viable to do this multiple times per week. We hope to be able to keep our Farm Store open for longer hours in the coming season and therefore address this particular issue.

Logistics and Infrastructure

So, how does this all work, I’m sure you’re asking! Well, I’m not going to lie, it takes quite a lot of planning and infrastructure, as well as a little bit of luck, to pull the whole thing off.

Our Winter CSA Infrastructure:

  • 1 x 100ft caterpillar tunnel planted early august to chard, green onions, cilantro, 
  • 4x 100 ft caterpillar tunnels for spinach, arugula, and kale planted mid august (with no tunnel). Caterpillar tunnels are moved from tomatoes on to winter greens for harvest in November and December (depending on weather)
  • 35×100 ft greenhouse
    • Spinach planted after the early greenhouse cucumber bed.
    • Spinach and arugula seeded in 128 cell seedling trays in early September and transplanted into empty tomato and cucumber beds in early November.
    • Parsley planted mid July for harvest Nov-Dec … super delicious in winter!!

In 2021 we got our greens planted late and so propane heat was used to maintain a minimum of 0 degrees. 

  • 100 sq ft microgreens grow-room with triple high shelves with lots of light.  (4 or 5 t5 fluorescent grow lamps per shelf)
  • 12’x14’ cold room
  • 14’x14’ heated work space 

Our Winter CSA produce

For our Winter CSA in particular, we have decided to focus on growing fewer crops ourselves and to partner with other farms in our area to supply crops we choose not to grow. We focus on growing high income crops, with an aim to hit 100$/100ft bed per cropping week, i.e. a crop that is in the field for 10 weeks needs to gross at least $1000. This means that we aren’t fully self-sustainable for winter products. But this allows us to focus on the crops that we like to grow and are good at growing, and also supports other local farms – a win-win in our books!



So, what’s in the box?

  • The regular storage crops 
    • Grown or bought from other farms: carrots, potatoes, beets, onions, garlic, daikon radish, parsnip, celeriac, various winter squash.
  • Specialty storage crops
    • Celery: Did you know branch celery can be stored until January? The later you go the more you’ll have to prune off outer branches that tend to go hollow inside in storage. By Dec-Jan, we’re having to discard so much that we’re bunching two units to make one portion. It’s a lot of work, but clients like having it as an option.
    • Radicchio: 2021 was a crop failure here but the intention is to have sugar loaf and radicchio into December from the cold room.
  • Fall greens
    • Kale, lettuce, spinach, salanova, chard, green onions, cilantro, bok choi, tokyo bekana, arugula, Tournesol Farm Winter Brassica Mix.

Here is a summary of our growing strategy:

  • Oct-Nov in the field with wire hoops 12-18 inches tall and p19 or p40 row cover Note: p40 row cover is only used to cover greens in late fall (November), otherwise we use p19, which allows more light to pass.
  • Nov-Dec in caterpillar tunnels with p19 or p40 row cover. (kale, spinach, arugula, Ferme Tourneson winter brassica mix only)
  • December-January : Minimally heated or unheated greenhouse.
  • In terms of lettuces, we find Lovelock and Red Sweet Salanova to be best for late fall harvests. Planted early August, harvested as late as possible depending on weather – as late as December sometimes. 
  • Spinach: Space and Kohlibri varieties used this year. They were OK, but we are trialling nine spinach varieties next fall to dial in on that aspect.
  • We tried green onions in the greenhouse and they were a huge disappointment. They grew all floppy and wiggly and we were unable to use them.
  • Microgreens:
    • Pea shoots, sunflowers, and buckwheat

Advice for new Winter CSA farmers

As mentioned above, in our experience a Winter CSA is both more complicated and less profitable than a summer one. 

  1. Perfect your Summer CSA before embarking on this new adventure for you and your members. 
  2. Make sure that you have backup suppliers, as well as funds put aside, should you need to purchase extra produce due to storage losses or crop failures. We work with Ferme Pleine Saveur, Coop la Rosée, and Ferme Chapeau Melon, to name a few.
  3. Perfect your storage: Make sure you have a COLD cold room (ideally 0-2C) as a couple degrees makes a huge difference for long term storage. Also don’t forget to add a small space heater on a thermostat in the cold room in the fall to make sure it doesn’t freeze when the temperature drops.
  4. Staffing: Adding a Winter CSA has helped us to provide work for a full-season staff member, which has also meant we don’t have to personally oversee every pick-up.
  5. Work space: You need somewhere to work during winter that can be kept frost free and heated to 10C. Do not underestimate the pain in the ass of freezing water lines!
  6. Pick-up logistics: Is your site suitable for winter pick-up? Will customers need to wait outside in the cold? Will your parking area become a skating rink? We use Calendly for members to schedule pick-up times to limit the number of people on the farm at one time and how long they will need to wait outside. 
  7. Delivery logistics: If you are driving to a drop-off location make sure that produce won’t freeze enroute (crank up that heat!) and that there are no stairs to negotiate – you want to be able to just roll straight in and out!

Conclusion: Our Winter CSA is undeniably less profitable than the Summer CSA and it’s a bit of a logistical nightmare! We’re working in the cold, harvest and storage is difficult, and distribution is complicated by the weather. You want to make sure that you are really good at running a Summer CSA before jumping into a winter model.

For us, the Winter CSA is an act of service to our current membership, who are dedicated to both our farm and local eating, and it allows us to stay connected to our community for more months of the year. It can be challenging, but we have found that it is a product that our clients value, making it well worth the effort.

Check out these informative Ottawa Farm Fresh videos:

Tour of the winter root veg –

Covering a caterpillar tunnel –

How we grow late autumn greens –

For more information on Ottawa Farm Fresh:;;;

You Want to Grow Local Veggies in the Winter?