It's not too early to start thinking about spring and summer vegetables -- especially if you're signing up for a farm share this year.
The programs -- formally called community supported agriculture or CSA -- are offered by more than two dozen local farms. Members pay an upfront price (most cost $450 to $650) that allows them to pick up a weekly share of whatever produce is growing on the farm between late spring and early fall.
While CSA programs have been thriving for years on Long Island, here's a look at some new trends this year:
1. CREATIVE ADD-ONS
Tomatoes and vegetables are the stars of most CSAs -- members can expect to get a variety of greens and root vegetables, such as onions and potatoes. A handful of farms have been offering fruit, egg or fresh-picked flower options for an extra cost.
This year, Garden of Eve in Riverhead is offering add-ons ($180 to $200 each) for a monthly share of organic meat; bi-weekly pickups of cheeses and milk products from North Fork Dairies, and seafood from Blue Moon Fish for members who pickup at the farm in Riverhead. "We think that members are looking to get more of their food from the farm," says Garden of Eve's Chris Walbrecht. "I think they like knowing where their food is coming from."
Sang Lee Farms, meanwhile, is adding on an oyster share from Noank Cooperative ($300 for a monthly 50-count bag); weekly options for dairy milk, yogurt and butter from Goodale Farm ($150 to $175 each) and an 18-week cheese share ($185).
2. HEIRLOOM VEGETABLES
CSA members say part of the farm share experience is the surprise of the unusual vegetables (kohlrabi, anyone?) that show up from week to week. This year, some farms say they plan to grow more heirloom vegetables and fruit, as in unusual varieties that have been cultivated for decades.
"Our customers are interested in the weird, funky vegetables that taste really good," says Hamlet Organic Garden's manager Jill Pilger. The Brookhaven farm grows nearly all heirloom varieties in its fields.
For Stephanie Gaylor, owner of Invincible Summer Farms in Southold, it's all about flavor.
"No matter what you're growing, hands down, heirlooms are going to taste better than hybrids," says Gaylor, who grows 350 varieties of tomatoes -- that's enough, she says, for her to offer a tomato-only share ($400, 100 pounds during the season).
3. WORKING ON THE FARM
Since most CSA farms avoid using chemicals to control weeds and pests, the growing process is much more labor intensive, so farmers invite share members to get their hands dirty. A few make it mandatory.
If you're willing to log a few hours' work on the farm planting, weeding, harvesting or facilitating at the pickup sites, it can lead to a discount on the cost of your share for the season. This year, farms are upping the ante.
Michael Massino, owner of Organics Today Farms in East Islip says he'll forgo the $500 share price for anyone willing to work 100 hours during the season. "I need the extra help," says Massino, who has been farming for 10 years. The biggest chore: weeding the 5 acres by hand.
Biophilia Organic Farm in Jamesport has a work component ranging from 2 to 4 hours a week in exchange for a free share. "It is hard work," warns owner Phil Barbato. "It isn't for everyone."
WHEN|WHERE 10 a.m.-1 p.m. March 31, Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington
INFO 585-271-1979, ext. 514, nofany.org
Visit with many of Long Island's nearly 30 CSAs. Learn the basics such as share price, growing season and varieties of vegetables. Sign-ups will be accepted on-site. There will also be booths on food preservation, food co-ops and sustainable farming.