Winter in PEI, With a Side of Local, Organic Vegetables Please!

With the winter months stretching out ahead, you’re likely bracing yourself for eight dollar heads of cauliflower and tomatoes that have trekked thousands of miles. Thanks to our innovative Island farmers, however, options for fresh fare throughout the frigid months are cropping up. Soleil Hutchinson, began offering a winter CSA (community supported agriculture) share in 2015 for those that want to support local farmers and enjoy a myriad of organic vegetables throughout the winter.

I recently caught up with Soleil on her farm in South Melville to get the scoop on her winter CSA and learn a bit more about the farmer herself.

How long have you been farming and what drew you to this profession in the first place?
I’ve been farming on PEI for the past eight years and I’m a first generation farmer. After high school, I traveled for four years and learned a lot about international trade, inequalities and environmental issues. After doing my undergrad in Environmental Studies, I decided to try WOOFing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) and really enjoyed it. I ended up doing a 2 year apprenticeship on a farm in Portland, Oregon and afterwards I moved home to try farm on PEI, as I’m very close to my family and they are all here.

What challenges and triumphs did you experience in those early years of farming on the Island?
The biggest challenges related to learning how to grow in PEI’s climate and with the soil here. As a new farmer it was really encouraging that there was so much demand for local and organic produce on the Island that I never had to worry about having customers.

 

Soleil on Tractor

Soleil Hutchinson farms organic mixed vegetables on her farm in South Melville.

What kind of customers did you attract?
I started supplying local restaurants with produce – the chefs wanted the freshest possible produce. What I came to realize in those first years was that I was better at growing some crops than others and the soil on my land was more suited to certain ones too. I saw an opportunity to work with other farmers on the Island to better serve the restaurant market and make our own operations more sustainable. If we each focused on growing certain vegetables really well, together we could provide a more reliable service to the chefs and focus on more enhancing the quality of our specialized crops.

And that’s where Plate It came into being, right?
Yes, my partner, Lee, and I created Plate It to act as the delivery service for the farmers I was collaborating with on this initiative. We now have about 10 organic farms that supply Plate It and its restaurant clientele during the summer months, including Atlantic Grown Organics (Kensington), Jen & Derek’s Farm (Bedeque), Heartbeet Organics (Darlington), and Soleil’s Farm (Bonshaw).

It’s been a win-win for everyone involved – we (the farmers) are able to focus on growing the crops we know best and chefs no longer have to place multiple produce orders through individual farms, which saves them time and stress.

How did your latest venture, the winter CSA, evolve?
Well, it was a natural evolution really. I didn’t want to be entirely dependent on revenues from the summer restaurant sales, and I had purchased land in South Melville, so I had the capacity to increase my output. I also wanted to be interacting more with individuals and families, rather than solely with chefs. I was already busy in the summer supplying restaurants and didn’t want to compete with existing summer CSAs in any case, so I started developing a plan to trial a winter veggie CSA in 2015 .

Plate It already had all of the contacts I needed, so I talked to the other farmers to see if there was interest, and five of them came on board. In the planning stage, I also got advice from Jen Campbell on how to set up the CSA for my customers, since she’s a well-established CSA farmer. Jen was also one of the five farmers that agreed to help supply the winter CSA.

I ended up creating a 20-week CSA that ran from early November to late March. Customers had the option of a weekly or biweekly share. I was able to attract enough members through word of mouth and social media.

Crops being grown in preparation for the winter CSA.

Crops being grown in preparation for the winter CSA.

What challenges did you face in the first year of your winter CSA?

Well, actually things went pretty smoothly.  I started small, with just 50 CSA members, and had one pick-up location at the Farm Centre in Charlottetown. I wanted to make sure I didn’t go too big, so that whatever bumps we encountered were manageable. There were hiccups, of course, like the freezer door blowing open one night and freezing half of the crops for that week, but nothing we weren’t able to deal with. Of course, it was a pretty easy winter too, weather-wise.

What did the CSA vegetabel box include? 

I tried to offer a lot of variety. Everything was organic and the box included greens such as kale and swiss chard, sprouts, and greenhouse goodies such as cherry tomatoes and peppers from Atlantic Organics. Root vegetable like carrots, turnips, squash and potatoes were also included, of course.

I also teamed up with other food producers to provide a basket of food options to incoming members. At the beginning, members could choose to sign up for one or all of the options, which included Soleil’s veggie share, an egg share from Barnyard Organics, a cheese share from Glasgow Glen and a prepared meal share from YouMeal.

You’re getting ready to launch your second winter CSA this year – what has changed?

Well, I’ve invested more in storage facilities and will also be offering an additional pick-up location in Summerside this year. I’m excited about the increased variety of crops members can look forward to. For example, even just with one crop, there will be a lot more variety. Last year the box included green cabbage, but this year it will include various types of cabbage, including red, napa and pak choi.

I’m also hoping to offer bulk items as an optional add-on, including locally-sourced cooking oil, oats, nuts/seeds, cheeses and prepared meals.

What surprised you about your experience running a winter CSA?

Well, I was kind of surprised by how much I enjoyed interacting with customers at pick-up. As the farmer, I’m not typically the one interacting with the customer, it’s Lee that delivers produce to our summer customers, the chefs. I wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy pick-up, but I really loved it and looked forward to seeing my members every Tuesday.  They were so supportive and there was lots of information and recipe-sharing going on both ways.

For more information and to sign-up for Soleil’s winter CSA visit www.justplateit.com and subscribe to her newsletter.

Soleil's Farm

Soleil’s Farm

About Shannon Courtney

Shannon oversees all content creation for Salty and may be ‘slightly’ obsessed with proper apostrophe usage. When she’s not writing about food, she’s either cooking, eating, talking, or thinking about it. Her food adventures have included milking a Jersey cow in Australia, almost overdosing on maple syrup in Prince Edward County, and studying local food systems in Vermont as part of her Master’s thesis research. Shannon is also a holistic-nutritionist-in-training and strongly believes you CAN make friends with salad.

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