Living Off-Grid: How To Farm During The Winter


Snow. Oh no! Not so fast.

“Why not grow?” is the emergent thinking of more than one Cape Cod farmer. Though small in scale, a bit of all-season growing does exist right here in our neck of New England, with more in the planning stages.

Farmer Julie Winslow’s first try at successful winter harvesting was a complete fluke. According to Julie, during the winter of 2008-2009, “I had seeded a field with what I had thought was Eastham turnips. Turns out we had been given the seeds of an heirloom Cape Cod kale instead. We were counting on those turnips to sell wholesale.” When the cold weather arrived, Julie, along with her partner Betsy and son Uli, put on their woolens. “As long as we had our gloves on we kept picking.” Together the three were able to harvest cases and cases of that kale, which was well received by local buyers.

“Right on through the snow we were okay,” says Winslow. “The freezing, thawing, and re-freezing that happened later that winter in February and March caused the kale to be too brittle. That was what stopped the picking, but only for about a month and a half.”

“Even during that period I developed a taste for the tender tiny leaves the plants continued to send out,” remembers Betsy. “I loved them in my salads.”

“It’s getting out of the wind that you want,” according to Julie. “If you can access some room in a hoop house or high tunnel, kale can almost be a twelve-month crop.”

Come fall, veteran farmer and Orleans Farmers’ Market Manager Gretel Norgeot of Checkerberry Farm lets all of her fields lay fallow except for one. During an October tour of her property she pointed to a field, noting, “This will soon be our garlic bed.”

Gretel and husband Jeff had recently turned the soil over and tilled and prepped it for fall planting. “We’ll start about six thousand plants from the seed we gathered ourselves and we’ll harvest them in June. Garlic loves this fall weather now, the cool nights and warm days,” says Norgeot. “It’s fourth generation, real Cape Cod garlic.”

People really should avert their gaze from the modern survival thinking for just a bit and also look at how the guys who wandered the west 150 or so years ago did it.

The Best Survival Skills Of Older Generations Used On A Daily Basis

Heralded by the beloved organic farmer and educator Eliot Coleman in his recent book The Winter Harvest Handbook, there are many reasons to consider at least a minimal amount of winter growing. It’s eminently doable, as Coleman and his wife, the noted gardener, author and columnist Barbara Damrosch can attest. The two have grown winter crops successfully for sixteen years in Harborside, Maine, at their property aptly named Four Season Farm. Presently, with the help of a few employees, Damrosch and Coleman raise eighteen winter crops for commercial sale in unheated greenhouses.

Europeans, notably in France and Italy, are devoted to locally grown quality produce, and farmers have supplied that passion year round for decades, if not centuries. Sown in greenhouses, covered by cloches or row covers or grown under cold frames, certain varieties of vegetables can thrive in cold weather. In his books, Coleman is quick to point out that the latitude of Maine is the same as that of Southern France.

Fascinating, too, is the ongoing horticultural research about the nutrient value of some of the crops that can be grown in winter. The deep rich pigments that some of these plants produce to help them survive the cold are rich in some of the most powerful antioxidants, called anthocyanins, that we can eat. So spiking your veggie soup with kale really does pack quite a punch for your health.

At the recently purchased homestead in Brewster that he named Halcyon Farm, Lucas Dinwiddie can commiserate with others attempting cold-weather planting. “Because it’s my first time growing in the winter environment, I’ll stick to reliable hardy greens.”

Working in a 15’x35’ hoop house he constructed himself, Dinwiddie will grow crops using in-ground beds and investigate some renewable passive energy methods to keep the space as warm as possible. In the hoop house in October, four varieties of basil plants were still going strong. Dinwiddie plans to keep on harvesting as long as he can. “I’ll see how long into the fall they can stay productive.”

“Come winter, one huge hurdle will be the watering,” acknowledges Dinwiddie. “My drip irrigation system will have been turned off by then, and so I guess I will be hand watering.” He also plans to continue mulching all of his plants heavily. “Even in the heat of the summer I was amazed at how intensive mulching lessened the need to water.”

As for the specific varieties that he will grow, Dinwiddie mentions two of his favorites: arugula and tatsoi, an Asian green. He’s already planted rows of a super hardy braising mix too, containing mustard, Russian Red Kale and other greens. A braising or sauté mix contains salad greens that can be eaten raw in salads when young, or cooked quickly in a liquid, stir-fried or wilted when more mature. “This is a spicy mix, but nothing out-competes anything else,” says Dinwiddie.

He cautions that his investigation of winter harvesting is by no means a companion to what was his first successful summer CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. “I’ll be extending my fall season, getting an early jump on spring and experimenting on a small scale to see what may be down the road for me. Hopefully,” he says, “I’ll at least be eating well all through the winter.”

Eldredge Farm owner Jeff Eldredge and his farm manager Steve Coleman planned their winter seeding, growing and harvesting very purposefully. Talking in the fall, Coleman said, “Chard and lettuce are still in the ground and we’ll pick them as long as we can.” Spinach and two kale varieties, Winter Bor and Russian Red, will go in the beds soon. New Swiss chard seedlings, carrots, beets and turnips will follow, and, he adds, should over-winter nicely.

Eldredge farms a 17-acre parcel of land straddling the border of Brewster and Harwich. His mixed agricultural uses include vegetable production, fifty thousand perennial plants, nursery stock, cranberries, blueberries and raising both chickens and ducks.

Growing through the winter will hopefully extend the length of the popular Eldredge Farm CSA and offer members more vegetables than the leafy types generally out in springtime. “We’re looking for produce that is more robust, and hope next year to run our CSA from late April/early May instead of mid-June,” says Coleman. “We’d like to round out our first baskets of the season with carrots, turnips and root-type produce so that it’s a more enjoyable experience for our members.”

Winter growing will allow the farm to increase production both for its farmers’ market business and to add to the number of CSA memberships they can support. In the summer of 2010, memberships totaled fifty families, “but I think we can add to that number,” says Eldredge. “We’re also constructing a few more hoop houses.” One of those will be designated for winter planting.

By covering their plants with several layers of polyethylene row cover, Eldredge says, “it acts like a greenhouse within a greenhouse.” Coupled with their own compost created onsite, Eldredge is optimistic about their prospects. “I’ll be experimenting with some potatoes and onions in there, too.”

Come first frost, most, but not all, Cape farmers will be well into their fall clean-ups. After serving up truckloads of the produce he’s grown at his Cape Cod Organic Farm to passionate customers Cape-wide, organic food champion Tim Friary will do some much deserved winter traveling to visit his daughters in San Diego and Scotland.

Other growers, like Ed and Betty Osmun of E&T Farms, see little change in their business as winter arrives. The Osmuns grow hydroponic vegetables in a greenhouse using fish in a recirculating system. The fish, which are Japanese koi, produce waste in the form of ammonia that is then converted by bacteria into nitrates, which in turn nourish the plants. “The shorter length of day slows up plant growth a bit, but we grow the same vegetable and greens varieties year round and demand is very good,” says Ed Osmun. Produce grown includes gourmet salad mixes with edible flowers, an Asian blend of greens, and several basils. For the future, the Osmuns are still in R&D mode, but note they’d love to grow strawberries aquaponically someday.

Whether by happenstance, or studied effort, a few local farmers just can’t bear to put every last bed to rest for the winter. Lucky us!

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