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Winter squash: In their prime

Brown and brittle, the lifeless fields at Medford's Dunbar Orchards belie its plump and colorful fruits for sale just down the road.

Buttercup, acorn, butternut, delicata, blue ballet and sugar pumpkins — these are winter's prime vegetables, particularly for cooks who value local produce. It's Dunbar's last harvest until spring, when a new crop of clients for its community-supported agriculture is expected to come in, says the farm's manager David Mostue.

"Winter squash are really your bridge between seasons."

Copius quantities of squash crowded apples and pears last week at Hillcrest Orchards, which, in addition to its own fruit, sells Dunbar vegetables at a farm stand open daily outside the RoxyAnn Winery tasting room. The two entities collaborated this year on the first local CSA to pair weekly allotments of fresh produce with local wine.

The project likely will expand this year to serve about 100 clients, says RoxyAnn Managing Director Michael Donovan, adding that new subscriptions are being accepted. Call 776-2315.

CSA shareholders contribute to a farm's yearly operating budget by purchasing a portion of the season's harvest in advance, thus assuming part of the costs, risks and rewards. Mostue, 24, started Dunbar's CSA to revitalize his family's century-old farm, which after removing decrepit pear trees, needed alternative crops with "added value." The farm uses organic practices but has not yet obtained organic certification.

From June through October, shareholders received vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers for a cost of $25 to $35 per week, depending on quantity. For extra fees, CSA boxes contained fresh bread and artisan cheese or RoxyAnn wine. Mostue says he expects to offer his family's new wine label — Rocky Knoll — in next year's boxes. The goal, he said, is to "promote a total culinary experience from one soil."

While CSAs aren't new, the concept took root in the Rogue Valley about a decade ago. Dunbar's operation increased the number of CSAs in Jackson County to six, which also include Blue Fox Farm, Eagle Mill Farm, Elk Creek Gardens, Fry Family Farm and Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative.

Because winter squash outlast the season for CSAs and growers markets, farms like Fry Family wholesale much of it to local stores, says co-owner Suzi Fry, adding that local squash should be available through February.

"By that time, people are kind of done with it."

Blame winter squash's long storage capacity. Provided the skin isn't pierced, they'll last for as long as a year, Fry says, recalling a neighbor who kept butternuts in her basement — edible — until the following September.

That hardiness, Mostue says, makes winter squash a good choice for consumers looking to save energy used in refrigeration throughout the country's food system. Buying local squash conserves fuel involved with transporting produce long distances.

"It's one of the few vegetables you can grow that's just ready to store," Mostue says.

Creamy butternut soup made in large batches and frozen until it's needed is Mostue's wintertime mainstay. Try the following recipes using winter squash.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

Winter squash tip the scales at Hillcrest Orchard's farm stand in Medford. - Bob Pennell