Vermont growers use innovative structures and methods to feed us during the coldest months.
Written onNovember 26 , 2013
It is almost winter in Vermont. The familiar crunch accompanies the early riser’s first steps onto the frosted tips of grass. Where the garden once teemed with large leaves of Swiss chard and the sweetest of cherry tomatoes, there remain only a few flattened beet leaves and carrot tops left behind from the fall harvest.
Still, all over the state, winter farmers’ markets are preparing to offer an abundance of Vermont-grown products. How do our farmers keep the locally grown markets going all winter? They’re using innovation to stretch Vermont’s short natural growing season to meet the demand for local produce year-round.
“A lot of growers are pushing the envelope,” says Joe Buley of Screamin’ Ridge Farm, a 3-acre farm on the outskirts of Montpelier. “We’re cutting greens 12 months a year here.”
On his farm, Joe plants spinach in three 30 x 96-foot-high tunnels that rely entirely on sunlight. The tunnels look a lot like traditional “greenhouses” but don’t use expensive wood or propane heat, making the growing of greens year-round more economical. The structures have the traditional steel frame and greenhouse plastic, but are oriented east to west to optimize winter growth. That means the end walls, where the doors are, are on the east and west sides, and the vegetable beds inside are parallel with the long, domed surface of clear plastic.
“It’s the exact opposite of traditional tunnels,” explains Joe, who says that most high tunnels are oriented north to south to allow Vermont farmers to grow more high-value summer crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. “I sacrifice a little of the summer growth and grow cultivars that do well in the cold instead of forcing something to grow.”
Growing greens through the winter lets members of Joe’s CSA enjoy fresh greens when there is no green to be found outside their windows. His winter CSA is uniquely structured, providing members with produce from the farm, products from other local food producers (such as cheese and baked goods), and foods prepared by Joe, who is also a trained chef.
Inside each of the high tunnels—also called passive solar greenhouses—are five four-foot raised beds. In addition to the protection from the exterior plastic, the beds are protected with row cover fabric. They will each yield 50 to 60 pounds of spinach per cutting, according to Joe. The number of cuttings varies per season.
At Screamin’ Ridge, all of the seed propagation is done in the “seedling shack” between March and May 1, using propane heat. The farm also uses the structure as a wash station to achieve more economic benefit. “I got tired of running around in the basement,” jokes Joe, who says that he used to start seed trays in the house, sometimes using energy-consuming grow lights.
A little farther north, at Tamarack Hollow Farm in Burlington, farmer Amanda Andrews talks about the benefits of using lumber from the farm to fuel two small heated greenhouses through the winter. The two greenhouses are not much bigger than a backyard tool shed, so they can be kept warm using less heat.
Amanda runs the 88-acre farm with her husband, Mike Betit. The couple is able to use wood from their parcel to heat the greenhouses through January and February to grow high-value shoot and sprout crops. “It probably takes two to three cords of wood for those two months,” Amanda says, “but there’s no outside cost. It’s just our labor.” The trees also are cleared to reclaim the fertile soil, where they now plant spring, summer, and fall vegetable crops. The greenhouses are also used for seeding trays of crops destined for the field.
In addition to the heated greenhouses, Amanda and Mike use two season-extension structures. They erected a 12 x 96 caterpillar low tunnel this spring, both for summer crops and over-wintered greens. A low tunnel is shorter than typical hoophouse structures like the ones at Joe Buley’s, but is made of the same steel tubing and plastic and is large enough for an average person to stand up in. “We’ve tried to use PVC,” Amanda says of the heavy-duty plastic piping sometimes used for low tunnels. “It always collapsed. It couldn’t stand up to the snow load.”
The farm also has a 30 x 96-foot north-to-south high tunnel. The tunnel was financed by a federal grant from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which runs a high-tunnel initiative to support winter growers. Tamarack Hollow’s tunnel allows them to get a jump on spring greens. “We plant in September and see a lot of growth by December,” says Amanda. “They’ll start regrowth in February and are ready for harvest earlier than anything we have out in the fields.”
This year the Tamarack tunnels are planted with kale, chard, collard greens, and lettuce. Amanda looks forward to experimenting with smaller low tunnels in the future. “The low tunnels are more portable,” she says. “You can cover established crops and extend the growing season using a layer of row cover and an additional layer of plastic.” The current fields leased by the farm are mostly located in the Winooksi River flood plain, so the farmers have been unable to use the portable structures efficiently due to spring flooding. All of the current structures are on the few acres located on higher ground. Amanda and Mike are currently searching for farmland and look forward to growing vegetables away from the unpredictable flood plain.
Down in the Mad River Valley, Aaron Locker is harvesting the benefits of four unheated high tunnels, with a twist. “Our structures are somewhat unique in that they are built on angle iron skids which enable us to move them on and off already-growing crops,” Aaron says. He is the farmer at the 7-acre Kingsbury Market Garden in Warren. He goes on to explain that the mobility of the structures allows the farm to grow lower-value spring crops that would not be financially justifiable if the high tunnels were permanent because they would not be ready to harvest before it was time to plant the higher-value summer crops.
“With our system, the tunnels are simply moved off of the spring crop and onto the summer crop. In the fall, this allows us to start growing our early winter crops in the open air and to use the structures to protect against the first few frosts. Then, they’re moved over the winter crops before the temperatures get cold enough to damage them.”
Aaron is also innovative with his crop choice. This spring, he planted three houses in carrots and one in potatoes. The idea was to avoid the rush to have the first spring greens at market and instead have early carrots, extra sweet from their exposure to the cold.
In the fall, it’s also marketing that sets Kingsbury Market Garden apart. The houses are host to an eclectic mix of winter greens, but Aaron doesn’t try to push production too far into the winter. “Instead, I focus on selling larger volume for less money and sell out fast. This is the opposite of what most folks seem to be trying to do and provides me with a nice niche in the wholesale market for such a small operation.”
To achieve all of this winter bounty, Vermont farmers learn from each other through many avenues, including the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Grower Listserv, an e-mail list for farmers. There are also conferences and workshops, like those put on by the Vermont chapter of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA-VT) and the New England Vegetable and Berry Growers Association (NEV & BGA). Screamin’ Ridge farmer Joe Buley will be talking this December at the New England Vegetable and Fruit Conference in Manchester, NH. The subject? Winter production.
While some folks prefer not to eat summer-type vegetables in the middle of winter, the demand for them is strong, and farmers throughout Vermont are employing many different methods to supply us with locally grown produce year-round. It’s safe to say they’ve got us covered.