By Amanda Landry
Along with our cold, short days in northern New England, comes a strong desire to eat fresh, leafy greens. But, with the lack of sun, fresh, local greens are hard to come by during the cold winter months in Vermont. It is no surprise that the demand for greens is high during the winter season and that in spite of the environmental challenges to growing greens, more and more local farmers are producing beyond the typical Vermont outdoor growing season (May-October) every year. By practicing “season extension” in Vermont, a collection of various methods to simulate the conditions necessary so that greens can grow in the middle of winter, local farmers are creating a year-round product to meet a year-round demand.
Having a year-round product also means vegetable growers can earn an income year-round. Season extension allows vegetable farmers to produce their product beyond the normal growing season. It also makes local, high quality greens available year-round to the Vermont community. This year- round access to local greens and year round full-time work for farmers boosts the Vermont economy and strengthens our local food system.
Not only are there economic reasons but there are social reasons why some Vermont growers are adopting season extension. Kara Fitzgerald from Evening Song Farm says, “We believe in establishing a strong regional food system. To encourage people to shift their eating practices to be more regionally based, we feel like it is our responsibility as professional growers to provide year round green items.”
So how are Vermont vegetable growers able to produce year- round? The combination of growing cold hardy varieties, using solar-heated hoophouses, crop covers, and additional maintenance and care makes season extension possible here in Vermont. To grow greens in the winter, producers often use a greenhouse which is heated with fossil fuels or, like Kara, who is “passionate about season extension without burning fossil fuels” grows in a hoop house which is heated only by the accumulated heat of the sun through the plastic. Although significantly cheaper and more environmentally friendly, growing in a hoop house requires a lot more intensive time management.
The extra maintenance in the winter is not easy and Kara admits that, "growing greens in the winter isn’t fun.” The hoop house growers use row cover which is an expensive, difficult to move, and can easily damage material to add extra protection from frost. It is essentially like a vegetable blanket. Growers cover their greens every night, and every morning they uncover them to allow sunlight and airflow and begin their harvests. If they forget to cover their greens, and it is a cold night, they could lose their entire planting. Harvesting happens with bare hands because it is easier to handle the greens. One can imagine how difficult is to work outside with no gloves and Kara says her crew will takes frequent breaks to warm their hands. Once harvested, growers wash their produce using an outdoor water source. During typical Vermont winters they also have to worry about snow crushing their hoop structures, but not so much this year.
Increased management demands and higher production costs are disadvantages to growing during the winter months, but Vermont growers are looking to overcome these challenges to feed their communities year round. Although it is difficult to grow greens outside of the natural growing season, Kara and other growers are still doing what they love best, producing food for their community. Kara adds that, “the joys of winter growing are getting to work in the dirt with bright green things in the darkest parts of winter! And being able to produce a product with bottomless demand is also exciting.”
Amanda Landry is Rutland Area Farm and Food Link’s Farm Fresh Connect Manager. Along with her passion for community development and agriculture, Amanda also enjoys yoga, Irish Step Dancing, and drawing. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald on February 23, 2016.