Grow, Baby, Grow
Some head south; others bring out the skis. But what do local farmers do in the winter? Many continue farming, using surprisingly low-tech ingredients such as compost and sunlight.
The northeast has always challenged farmers, even in summer. So how do area farmers keep conditions warm enough to grow plants even during the fiercest depths of winter? They do it through greenhouses and the judicious use of heat generated by the sun and composting.
This winter, Waldingfield Farm, a certified organic vegetable farm in Washington, will for the first time try something similar. “We put in a high tunnel, which will be used to grow hearty winter greens such as mash, chards, and kale,” says Waldingfield’s Patrick Horan. A high tunnel is a greenhouse built on field soil made from rounded, steel hoops covered with plastic. Roll-up side curtains allow passive ventilation. The high tunnel is heated by retained solar energy. “The goal is to extend the season to allow a 12-month growing operation,” Horan says. “Like many growers in the area, we hope to take our operation to new levels in the coming year.” It’s the rule of enterprise: change and grow or wither and die.
Winter produce includes root crops, cauliflower, leaf spinach, lettuce, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, chard, cilantro, fava beans, garlic, kale, parsley, turnips, broccoli, mustard, beets, radishes, and chives.
How does one handle snow? On a greenhouse, snow tends to “police” itself. The pitched design sheds snow quickly. The remainder melts in sunlight. For unusual accumulations, there is the snow rake. At the foundations, snow can actually insulate and is generally not a problem, as long as entrances are kept clear.
This year, Holbrook Farm in Bethel will do less farming than last year, when it kept its retail farm stand open on a six-day schedule. Says Lynn Holbook, “The plan is to continue to sell but only to restaurant and caterer customers.”
“The expenses of electricity, heat, and labor were too high last year for the sales level,” she says. “In the view of most of the public, New England farms aren’t supposed to be open in December, January, and February.”
Nonetheless, Holbrook says, the farm will supply area chefs with organic fresh greens, scallions, claytonia, spinach, mustard, parsley, arugula, and turnips. “The biggest challenge is the weather, but what’s new about that in farming? Snow, ice, wind, and loss of power increase risks. Our older, unheated hoop houses have 55-gallon plastic drums of water in them for solar warmth.” The water absorbs sunlight by day and releases heat at night.
Holbrook Farms’ largest greenhouse is heated, John Holbrook says, “and provides enough harvest to cost-effectively serve our professional customers.”
Jim Wood, president of the Bedford (New York) Farmers Club, says fertilizer and mulch combined with raised beds also can produce a surprising amount of heat inside a greenhouse. Bricks and tin foil also can be placed in the greenhouses to absorb and radiate warmth. The goal is to always have temperatures above freezing inside both greenhouses, ideally at no less than 40 degrees.
While manure and composting provide a relatively low-cost method to generate warmth and sweeten soil, Wood says farmers must take extra care to control fungal and bacterial microorganisms associated with manure. Older mulch works best. Growers can mulch with bark, leaves, peat moss, and even sawdust.
For more than half a century, Taft Farms in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, has specialized in pesticide-free, sustainable farming. Major planting occurs February through May, with harvests carrying into November. In winter, Taft employs greenhouses to continue the growing season. “Life goes on here in winter,” says greenhouse manager Sue Hayden. “We start pepper seeds for the winter season. We also grow flowers, salable houseplants, lettuce, and greens. We heat minimally, to about 50 degrees for flowers and 60 degrees for houseplants. When the sun is out, the greenhouses in winter can reach 80 to 90 degrees.”
Winter will never replace summer for farming in the area, but increasingly, as the white stuff falls, thoughts will turn to growing, and hands will be digging the dirt.