by Garland Mason
February may be one of the hardest months of the year to eat locally. Only the hardiest of the winter squashes are still for sale, and cabbages and beets are becoming scarce. It begins to look like we’ll have to revert to the diet of our early colonists: turnips, white potatoes, maybe some local meats. The outlook is generally bland, consisting of pale starches whose various uses and creative recipes you’ve exhausted.
But wait! What’s that? Bagged baby kale? Young spinach? No, that couldn’t possibly be grown locally while Vermont is covered in a deep blanket of snow (we wish). But indeed, winter greens are increasing in their availability as a phenomenon called “season extension” becomes more commonplace.
Wondering what some of your favorite vegetable growers do all winter? Well you just might be surprised. Instead of taking that trip to Aruba, in fact, they’re still growing! Yes, it’s true, in the deep, dark doldrums of winter there’s a hint of green, in the high tunnel that is.
High tunnels are an increasingly popular option for farmers who want to extend their growing season into the winter. In February, as the days begin to lengthen, we’ll begin to see more and more farmers markets and grocery stores boasting a variety of greens from local farms. High tunnels, with some similarity to greenhouses, are simple structures with thick sheets of plastic pulled over steel hoops creating a tunnel shape. The structures are especially simple because they require only sunlight to warm the soil and air. High tunnels are the preferred option for many farmers because of their simplicity and lower cost, both in infrastructure and inputs.
The major difference between a greenhouse and a high tunnel is that in greenhouses crops are usually grown in flats or pots on tables; in a high tunnel crops are grown directly in the soil. Other key distinctions are that greenhouses have supplemental heating and cooling systems. High tunnels are passively heated by the sun and cooled through vents which are opened and closed depending on the weather.
Green Mountain College has been actively researching these distinctions since 2009. With funding from the Windham Foundation, Green Mountain College built two high tunnels; one traditional with only passive heating and cooling, the other with a solar hot water system that warms the soil within the tunnel.
As of February 2013, the College had found that the heated tunnel had produced 60% more kale and spinach but it was still unclear whether the increase was significant enough to make up for the additional cost of the heating system. With ever decreasing costs of installing solar hot water and sub-soil heating systems we may see more farms adopting this technology in the near future, further increasing our region’s bounty of winter greens.
In Middletown Springs, Morgan Mountain Organic Gardeners has been specializing in winter production since the winter of 2008. Paul & Meredith Morgan grow a cornucopia of vegetables throughout the winter. In their heated greenhouse and minimally-heated high tunnel you will find not only the extra-hardy kale but also vast variety of salad greens. In addition, they grow broccoli, beets, carrots, green onions, and herbs within the protective plastic walls of their greenhouse and tunnel.
Winter growing is challenge. “By growing in the winter in, greenhouses and high tunnels, we are less susceptible to the vagaries of traditional farming. However we are constantly challenged by temperature fluctuations and low light levels,” the Morgans explained.
According to the Morgans, despite significant heating costs, “the rewards of providing local fresh vegetables to schools, families and local caterers are terrific.” For the Morgans, winter growing also fits well into their business plan which includes a busy organic landscaping service in the summer months.
Cooking with the increasingly available fresh, local greens can provide great respite from the short dreary days of February. My absolute favorite go-to winter soup is Kale-Chorizo. “Caldo verde” or literally, “green broth,” as it is known in Portugal, its country of origin; will warm you from the inside-out. I always use this recipe from Boston.com:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ pound chorizo, cut into rounds
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1½ teaspoons sweet paprika
- 1½ teaspoons hot paprika
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 can (15 ounces) chickpeas, drained but not rinsed
- 8 cups chicken stock
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 bunch kale, stemmed and cut in half lengthwise
In a large pot over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil. Cook the chorizo, stirring often, for 2 minutes or until the oil turns red. Add the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring often, for 8 minutes. Stir in sweet and hot paprika, and cumin. Cook, stirring, 1 minute more. Add chickpeas, chicken stock, and salt. Bring the soup to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Skim off and discard the fat. Stir in the kale. Cook for 5 minutes or until tender. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, and pepper, if you like.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.