Pete's Good Eaters
The Story of a Visionary Year-Round CSA
Written onDecember 01 , 2007
In the garage-sized farm stand where summer customers palmed pudgy tomatoes and grabbed up bunches of basil, the red manure spreader was parked for the winter. It was mid-November, and the plumes of celosias and sprawling nasturtiums that had been growing on the farm stand’s eye-catching “living roof” were a black, tangled thatch. But despite these concessions to the season at Peter Johnson’s farm in Craftsbury Village, there was lettuce growing in the greenhouse, workers making sauerkraut in the barn, and purple sacks on a cart, waiting to be picked up by local CSA members on their commute home.
In June of 2006, Pete–who owns and operates Pete's Greens, a wholesale and retail farm specializing in mixed salad greens–launched Good Eats: A Four Season CSA. It quite possibly is Vermont’s only year-round certified organic CSA that concentrates on vegetables rather than meat. Whereas many CSAs provide their members with fresh produce only during the growing season, Pete offers produce year-round, largely because of his extensive root crops, storage facility, and half-acre heated greenhouse. Members can sign up for shares at three different times during the course of the year and commit to four months at a time. The initial membership of 65 in 2006 has since expanded to 170 members who pick up their shares at various drop-off sites in northern Vermont, including Burlington, South Burlington, Richmond, Montpelier, Morrisville, and Craftsbury. This winter, members could opt to purchase either a "Root Share," consisting of a bi-monthly delivery of root crops, or the more diverse "Vegetable/Localvore Share."
I interviewed Pete in the kitchen of his apartment two days before Thanksgiving. I perched on the edge of the counter while Pete ricocheted from sink to fridge to stove assembling a casserole to take to neighbors who just had a baby. Pete, 35, has a compelling demeanor and possesses some of the physical characteristics of a disheveled farmer: his round face has weather-burnished cheeks, his short blond hair is tousled, and his broad shoulders and lean physique are clad in grubby clothing. As he quartered potatoes and peeled parsnips, he spoke about his astonishment at the vitality of the Localvore movement and his interest in helping satisfy the demand for locally grown food.
I began by asking Pete, who sells produce to restaurants, co-ops, and food stores from Burlington to Boston, as well as at farmers’ markets and at his farm stand, about his experience of selling through a CSA. His immediate response: “I love it. We're gonna do more and more. For a farm like ours, it's one of the easiest ways to sell food. I've sold it every other way and I still do, and almost all of them seem like they have more drawbacks than the CSA. The advantages of a CSA mean less guess-work, because what's picked is what's sold.” In other words, Pete knows that each broccoli he harvests is destined for a dinner plate, whereas the harvests for the farmers’ markets and farm stand are more speculative. And instead of "chasing money," the thrice-yearly infusions of share payments have helped stabilize his cash flow. Furthermore, Pete can use his weekly newsletter, e-mailed to all the CSA members, to seduce his eaters into appreciating certain foods they might not otherwise buy.
“This time last year we were sort of wandering our fields making bouquets of all the different greens we could scrounge, and they were these gorgeous things,” he recalled. “We tried to wholesale them to a few of our store customers but the produce managers didn't know what to do with them. And then we realized we could just sell them to our CSA people and they loved it! But they loved it partially because we wrote about it in the newsletter and told them how cool it was.”
Pete's potatoes were boiling away, and he asked me if I knew how to make muffins without a recipe. Instead, I offered my observation that consumers are now realizing that food begins with a farmer and a piece of soil. I've been wondering, though: are farmers having revelations about where consumers come from? I put the question to Pete.
“I think one thing I’ve learned is that there’s a pretty good group in this state of pretty sophisticated eaters who are eager for anything different you can produce,” he said. What this means is that a Good Eater in northern Vermont, who until recently had never heard of a ‘salad turnip,’ is standing in the kitchen beside the purple sack of this week’s farm-grown booty, pinching the salad turnip by the leaf fringe and finishing the crisp, white flesh in three brisk bites. “Something we hear CSA members say is, ‘Um, I joined your CSA and it was a little bit uncomfortable to get this different stuff every week, a lot of which I was unfamiliar with and which I would never buy. And I’m now rejoining because you give me the stuff every week that I would never buy. It forces me to explore and to eat a diverse diet, and as long as you give me recipes, I can do it.’”
Pete broke off the conversation to skip down a flight of stairs. He returned moments later with his hands clamped around a snowball of flour. “Do you think this is two cups?” Yes. But what’s a Vegetable/Localvore share? The bulk of Pete’s CSA members purchase the $45 per week share, which contains a sampling of all the vegetables Pete can produce in his half-acre greenhouse and extensive field rows, plus a selection of locally produced foods. Those foods run the gamut from tofu, miso, and apple cider vinegar to bread, apple pies, cheeses, and yogurt. So Pete, in addition to “farmer,” can hang “middleman” on his hat rack. But is brokering Vermont food as satisfying as growing it?
He loves it, he says. He’s formed a number of relationships with many other local producers (for things like cranberries and goat cheese), as well as with producers across the border (for Canadian oats and sunflower oil). For him, the mounting enthusiasm for eating locally nourishes fun and creative collaborations. “For instance, Champlain Orchards has been selling us apples and cider but I knew they made pies, so I said, ’Bill can you make us a Localvore pie?’ He said, ‘Sure.’” Which means that when folks picked up their purple sacks one Wednesday after work, they found a local-flour-and-Cabot-butter-crusted, maple sweetened apple pie. If the CSA keeps growing as expected, Pete’s Good Eats will be able to help new producers get a leg up by guaranteeing a market for a specific amount of their product. ”Maybe we’ll be able to even loan money to people at some point,” he said. “I’d like to be a catalyst for more production and more businesses.”
Another way that Pete is planning to satisfy demand for local food is by creating a new, 850–sq. ft. commercial kitchen on the first floor of the farmhouse. This will enable him and his crew of five year-round staff to preserve and process vegetables that come directly from the farm and sell them to CSA members. He plans to make fermented foods such as kim chee and beet kvass, produce a soup base made from vegetable seconds simmered in new steam kettles, process surplus tomatoes and basil into salsa and pesto to freeze in the 8’ x 40’ walk-in freezer, and even tackle specialty sausages. Other products he’d like to make include pie crusts and pizza dough featuring local flours. “I think it’s important to make this [Localvore movement] accessible to people who feel like they don’t have a lot of time to spend cooking. There’s another crowd out there that’s captivated by these ideas but would appreciate more things that are ready to go.” Already Pete’s been getting inquiries from people interested in renting the kitchen. “So there might be some cool potentials there for someone who wants to do a Localvore product for us and it’s something they can do in our kitchen and store in our freezer.”
On our way down two flights of stairs, through the commercial kitchen construction zone and out into the cold night, Pete talked about a new group of greenhouses he’s building. The sky was huge over the farm, like a prairie vast with potential. With these new greenhouses, Pete said he will be able to offer fresh greens almost all year, which he sees as a key factor in signing up more Good Eaters. “There’s a need that we’re in a position to help fill, and that’s what really motivates me,” he said. “There are just more people to feed like this and that’s just fun and exciting. I think this time next year it’s going to be kind of ‘sky’s the limit.’”
Photo of Pete by Ethan H. Darling