Article published Oct 20, 2013
Weekly Planet column
Eating Well into Winter
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak to a group of visitors from Fargo, North Dakota. While my joke about their city-named movie bombed, they all gasped in surprise when I told them that Rutland had a 52-week-a-year Farmers’ Market. After assuring them that winter fare was not simply turnips and potatoes (not that there is anything wrong with turnips and potatoes), they were fascinated with the idea that Vermont winters could truly bring forth fresh greens.
Due to limited time, I begged off the technical explanation to the group as a whole, although a few curious souls stuck around to ask specifics. And while I very much doubt this column will end up anywhere near Fargo, it struck me that Vermonters may also be interested in the very same question: How is it possible to have local greens in the winter?
Let’s start off with a common misconception. Farmers (and ambitious home gardeners) are not actually “growing” greens in the winter months; more accurately we are “harvesting” greens throughout the winter. Plants (well most of them anyway) require at least 10 hours of sunlight in order to grow, anything less and they go dormant, no longer producing new growth. Therefore, the key to having fresh greens in the winter is growing the plants to maturity, in a protected environment, and harvesting them when desired.
Here’s a typical scenario. Most farms these days have high tunnels (also known as hoop houses), which are greenhouse-like structures that are unheated, save for the passive warmth of the sun. Many of us have tunnels thanks, in part, to the federal Department of Agriculture cost-sharing program prompted and promoted by Michelle Obama (I jokingly refer to one of our tunnels as “the First Lady”). This program supports small farmers to construct high tunnels with the goal of increasing overall local food production.
The high tunnel is erected on fertile land and plants are grown directly in the soil inside the tunnel. Cold hardy greens, such as kale, spinach, bok choy, chard, tatsoi, and the like are seeded or transplanted into the tunnel in September or early October, making sure there are enough days and daylight hours for the seedlings to develop into full grown plants. While the high tunnel itself offers some frost and weather protection, row covers (spun polyester fabric called remay) are used to further protect the plants from the realities of the cold Vermont winters. It is not unusual to peek into a farmer’s high tunnel in the winter and see nothing but long lengths of white cloth seemingly floating over beds of hidden greens.
And what about those greens? Yes they do freeze in the dead of winter, and no they cannot be harvested when in that state. But thanks to the power of the sun (magnified by the tunnel’s plastic skin), thawing occurs on sunny days and the farmer can harvest gorgeous, delicious, virtually perfect greens to meet our community’s growing appetite.
The first time you taste winter greens you are sure to be hooked by the sweetness and the majesty of nature’s bounty.
Needless to say my explanation is short on details but, in a nutshell, it describes how we can have an abundance of fresh greens all winter long, in Vermont or North Dakota. That even means you folks in Fargo.
Carol Tashie, co-owner of Radical Roots Farm, lives in Rutland City and tries hard to find a balance between what is possible and what is impossible to ignore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org