Growing greens, all winter long
Grants help farms meet an all-year demand for local produce
By CRAIG IDLEBROOK
Unlike many crop farmers in New England, Lisa MacDougall doesn’t hibernate.
Even when the weather turned bitterly cold for a week in January, she was still busy picking spinach and kale for her community-supported-agriculture program and for farmers markets in Dorset and Bennington.
MacDougall grows the winter crops at Mighty Food Farm in high tunnels, also called “hoop houses,” simple structures covered with plastic that act as a windbreak to keep the worst of the cold out while still letting in the winter sun.
At this time of year, the greens don’t grow as much as stay fresh in the ground, she said.
“They kind of grow through the fall, and you stockpile them for the winter,” MacDougall explained.
She uses the high tunnels to extend the summer growing season and to get a jump on spring planting. Once the greens are harvested, she fills the hoop houses with tomato plants, which enjoy extra heat in the early part of the growing season.
Although some farmers charge more for their winter produce, MacDougall said she generally keeps her summer and winter prices constant. The main benefit of having greens in the winter, she said, is to build a loyal customer base.
“It kind of keeps your customers’ attention all year long so they don’t forget about you,” she said.
This strategy has paid off and created a welcome problem, as MacDougall found in recent years that her farm needed more hoop houses to keep up with demand.
Hundreds of ‘hoop houses’
Like dozens of other farmers in the region, MacDougall applied for grant money from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She received about $7,000 to help build a new 30-foot-by-96-foot structure.
“I was going to need to expand production to meet demand, and it was a free house, basically,” she said.
In the last four years, the federal agency has overseen a cost-sharing program that provides vegetable and fruit farmers with funds to begin or expand high-tunnel growing. Only farmers who sell their produce to local markets are eligible.
The program has helped boost local food production in the Northeast and has been a major factor behind an explosive growth of winter vegetable production – and a proliferation of winter farmers markets -- in New England.
Since 2009, for example, the program has provided $1.24 million for 180 high-tunnel projects in Vermont – and $1.5 million for 169 projects in Massachusetts. The New York office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service did not respond to inquiries for this report, but other sources involved in agriculture in the state say lots of New York farmers have taken advantage of the program.
Laura McDermott, a horticulture specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Hudson Falls, said winter vegetable growing has gone mainstream in eastern New York partly because of the federal financing for hoop houses. She estimated hoop houses are used on at least 30 percent of farms in the 17 counties she oversees.
“Once you’ve grown in a high tunnel, it’s awesome,” McDermott said. “It’s hard to go back.”
The Natural Resources Conservation Service differs from the rest of the USDA in that it focuses less on increasing agricultural business and more on lessening the impact of farming and other human development on soil and water quality, said Diane Baedeker Petit, a spokeswoman at the agency’s Massachusetts office.
One of the ideas of the cost-sharing program, she explained, was to see if hoop houses would allow farmers to grow more intensively with less input, thereby reducing pollution. Because hoop houses also might provide a longer grower season and more year-round revenue, Petit said, the program offered the prospect of a win-win for farmers and conservationists.
“Not only are you extending the season, but it also allows you to control your inputs -- things like water, energy and fertilizer,” Petit said.
In exchange for the funding, farmers agree to keep records of how they farm and what they earn with the hoop houses, so agriculture officials should be able to see if the hoop houses pay off as they had hoped.
The hoop house project was set up at first as a three-year pilot program, but it proved so popular that it was extended into the 2012-2013 fiscal year. It’s unclear whether the program’s funding will be further extended in the multi-year farm bill now under consideration in Congress.
Demand drives a trend
The federal program might yield the best-kept records so far of hoop-house growing practices, but it won’t give a complete picture of the trend. The USDA’s agricultural census doesn’t ask about winter growing, so there’s no way to know exactly how widespread the practice is, McDermott said.
But people involved with agriculture around the region say winter vegetable production has been expanding rapidly in the past few years.
Gregg Stevens, an organic certification specialist at Vermont Organic Farmers, said the federal grant program is just one factor in this growth.
“I think it certainly helps that the grant is there,” Stevens said. “But there’s just more and more people looking to grow food, and they’re eyeing this as an attractive market.”
One big attraction is the price winter produce can command. Although MacDougall of Mighty Food Farm said she doesn’t increase the price she charges her customers for greens in the winter, other growers report that consumers will pay a premium for fresh, locally grown greens available in the winter. In some cases, the winter price can be almost double what one would pay in the summer, when there’s a lot more fresh produce available.
Of course, growing produce in the winter involves added costs. But growers generally come out ahead if they don’t need to burn any fuel to keep their crops from freezing. And hoop houses typically involve using only passive solar heat to do the job.
Agricultural experts say the growth of winter farming in the past few years can be seen in the proliferation of winter farmers markets in the region. Just a few years ago, for example, there wasn’t a single winter farmers market in Massachusetts. Now there are 42, including one in Lanesborough, said Jeff Cole, executive director of the Massachusetts Federation of Farmers Markets.
Although New York has long had a handful of winter markets, the state has experienced a similar rate of growth, according to the Farmers Market Federation of New York.
Cole said the two states are following Vermont’s lead in creating a favorable environment for winter markets.
“We got into the game, compared to some other states, a few years late,” Cole said. “Vermont started the winter market industry at least three to four years before us.”
The rise of winter markets is satisfying an intense consumer demand for winter produce. Customers became so accustomed to eating local produce in the summer that they didn’t want to stop, and farmers are figuring out how to keep up with that demand, Cole said.
“The demand for local food year-round got to the point that farmers saw an opportunity, and market managers wanted to help them with that opportunity,” he said.
Farmers are finding buyers at more than farmers markets, however. Community-supported-agriculture programs with winter greens have proven popular, and the winter CSA field is attractive because it has less competition than summer CSA programs. (In the CSA model, customers buy shares of a farm’s harvest in advance.)
Restaurants also have become a proven market in the region for winter greens, said Angela Cardinali, founder of Berkshire Farm & Table, an organization that advocates for strengthening the local food economy.
“There’s definitely demand to put greens on the menu, and customers are interested in it,” Cardinali said.
Growers are responding to the new demand for winter produce in record time, Cole said. Some farmers are even beginning to switch their business model to grow more in the winter than in the summer, he said.
“We didn’t think the growers would have been able to respond as quickly as they had,” Cole said.
Ted Dobson said he has noticed the attitude shift among area growers. He’s been using four-season hoop house and greenhouse farming techniques for more than three decades at his Equinox Farm in Sheffield, Mass., and he also distributes winter greens from a farm in Hillsdale, N.Y. When he got started, he was on the fringe of the agricultural community.
“It was pretty lonely in 1983,” Dobson said. “Not many folks to talk to.”
But that’s changed in recent years. Dobson gathered with many other farmers in December for a high-tunnel conference in Fairlee, Vt. There, he was struck by how young farmers are taking the idea of four-season growing and running with it, creating and sharing many innovative techniques – some of which he had learned only from hard experience.
“There’s a lot of information now that people are passing around at the speed of light,” Dobson said. “I learned everything the hard way, often over years of time.”
Dobson, McDermott and Cole all said the market for winter produce still has plenty of room to grow, as consumer demand for local vegetables in winter outstrips supply by a wide margin.
But Dobson also stressed that there’s plenty of room to ramp up the scale of winter growing in the region to meet that demand. Currently, he said, most winter growers are producing for niche markets, while supermarkets continue to import winter produce from California. He is one of the few farmers and local produce distributors that sell to local supermarket chains like Price Chopper.
With four-season growing, he said, New England’s farmers have the opportunity to grow enough to feed many more people in the winter.
“We’re still in a juvenile stage,” Dobson said. “We’re not feeding cities. We’re not feeding whole regions. Who is supplying the 160 Price Choppers or the 32 Whole Foods throughout the Northeast?”
Others may heed Dobson’s call as the demand for local produce continues to grow.
McDermott said farmers are beginning to have conversations about ways to break into larger wholesale markets, including supplying the new Healthy Living supermarket that’s preparing to open just outside Saratoga Springs.
Some say more farmers will gravitate toward hoop houses as they wrestle with the implications of climate change.
For her part, MacDougall began eyeing further expansion of her hoop-house operation after losing an acre of tomatoes to blight last summer. She might try to apply again for federal funds because, she said, infrastructure is all that’s holding her back from selling more of what she grows in the winter.
“If I had another tunnel or two, I’d definitely wholesale it,” she said.