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If you really want to eat local, you ought to eat local 12 months of the year.
But that’s easier said than done.
While there’s no problem finding vegetables and fruit in the summer and fall, it’s not so simple getting local produce during the cold months of winter and early spring.
Like many other farmers, at Blue Mountain Farm we’ve pushed the growing season later into the year by using high tunnels, or “hoop houses,” to provide a good growing environment for plants that normally wouldn’t produce in November and December. If all goes well, our tunnels provide decent chilly weather harvests of tomatoes, cucumbers and beans, and very good crops of cold-hardy crops like spinach, kale, lettuce, chard, carrots and beets.
But January, February and March still end up as “food drought” months because fall-planted crops, even the cold-tolerant ones that will freeze and thaw and survive, are often played out by Christmas.
Vegetable farmers anywhere north of Florida really can’t plant after Oct. 15 or so — soil and air temperatures are far too cold for seeds to germinate, and day length is far too short for plants to mature. Artificial light and supplemental heat would help, but “inputs” like that are prohibitively expensive unless you’re producing only high-value crops like microgreens.
So at Blue Mountain Farm we’ve been trying to push the plant-grow-harvest cycle deeper into the winter using other techniques. Some of our efforts have succeeded, some have failed.
We’ve found that we can nurse some cold-tolerant greens into January and February using a second set of small hoops to support a clear plastic “roof” directly over them. In addition to these “low tunnels,” we sometimes lay a thin blanket of polypropylene “row cover” right on top of the crop to add still another layer of protection.
Growing in raised beds helps, too. Research has shown that keeping a plant’s roots toasty is as important as keeping its foliage warm. The temperature of the soil in raised beds can be several degrees higher than that of the ground soil below because it’s heated by the warmer air inside the tunnel. And raised beds function as “heat sinks,” absorbing heat during the day and releasing it at night.
We’re also experimenting with “bench growing,” producing some of the high-value greens mentioned earlier. We’re growing salad mixes, micro-greens, arugula and pea shoots in boxes, trays and troughs on raised wooden platforms inside the high tunnels. The platforms, a “sandwich” of plywood and insulation panels, insulate the growing containers from below. Clear plastic tents above trap and conserve heat.
The growing containers used on the platforms are seeded and germinated under banks of fluorescent lights in a separate, heated “grow room” where we also produce transplants for our open-field plants. We keep the emerging high-value greens under lights for several days to maximize their growth and chance of survival when they’re eventually moved into the harsher temperature fluctuations of the platform tents.
The whole set-up is a costly undertaking, so we’re using it only for quick-growth crops that can be planted and harvested all within the winter season.
In addition to the inside growing, we’re trying to build more raised bed low tunnels outside in open fields to enlarge the area we have for super-hardy crops like spinach and kale. Every year we try to add more covered rows to increase our cold weather harvest.
Crops need water, of course, even in winter when growth is slower. But irrigation is tricky because water lines freeze and sometimes stay frozen for days. When we get a break in the weather and find the water flowing, we jump on the opportunity to irrigate.
Despite our best efforts, we’re not always successful in growing winter crops. During early January’s extremely cold weather our mature kale crop was severely damaged, our ready-to-harvest lettuce was killed and our chard was wiped out. Baby spinach and immature stands of kale and lettuce survived, however, probably because they were closer to the ground and their smaller foliage mass not as exposed to damaging frigid air temperatures.
Successful or not, all this is fairly expensive because of the added capital and labor costs required by “out-of-season” growing. As a result, our prices are sometimes higher than those at big box supermarkets. But we can guarantee that our produce is a lot fresher than theirs, and will taste better and last longer than anything imported from south of the border or across the seas.
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