Vermont farms find greens can thrive in Northern winters

Slideshow: Jericho Settlers Farm and Footprint Farm help keep local greens on the shelf during winter.

Consumers today expect to find local spinach, lettuce and other leafy greens in the store, even in winter. And they should, says Christa Alexander of Jericho Settlers Farm in Jericho, Vt.

“We went into winter greens because we thought we shouldn’t have to stop eating locally just because it was wintertime. It makes a difference in taste and quality if it’s local,” Alexander says.

Growing greens in the North Country winter isn’t easy. But after 15 years, Alexander and her husband, Mark Fasching, have gotten it down. Well-timed seeding, maintaining the right temperature and ventilation under plastic, and good sanitation are all critical. Winter greens also must fit into their year’s schedule of crop production in hoophouses.

The couple plant greens between Sept. 25 and Oct. 5, right after pulling tomatoes out of two of their 18 hoophouses, to mature for their winter vegetable Community Supported Agriculture business. They wholesale greens, too.

Weather variations can make fall a difficult time to plant.

“You never know what you’re going to get. If you get delayed in fall, that can set you back for the whole winter,” she says. On the other hand, winter greens are hardier than greens grown in other seasons, and slow growth means they also break down more slowly.

After steaming the soil to kill weed seeds, they direct-seed with a mechanical seeder. They also seed some kale, spinach and bok choy in August for transplanting.

Ventilation is even more crucial than temperature, she says, because fungal diseases thrive in houses that are shut tight.

One house is heated with a biomass wood pellet/corn furnace keeping the plants at near 30 degrees F, though the soil stores heat from daytime sunlight and is a little warmer. The plants freeze, Christa says, but are not killed. 

In the two unheated hoophouses, greens survive under one or two layers of spunbond polyester (Reemay) until early January. “By then we’ve cut it two or three times, and except for baby spinach they just don’t produce or look great,” she says. “So, we reseed them in February or January to produce through May.”

Greens are harvested about once a week with a walk-behind mechanical harvester that cuts a bed cleanly and quickly. Although greens can easily survive below-freezing temperatures, they must be harvested above freezing to give plant cells time to rehydrate; otherwise they immediately wilt.

The greens are washed, dried and packed in a washline that includes an industrial-scale spinner. If the greens are in good shape, two people can process between 100 and 200 pounds in an hour.

The farm sells between 600 to 700 pounds a week in summer, less in winter.

Finding a year-round market

Washing and drying are keys to producing high-quality greens. Drying greens thoroughly can more than double storage life, to as much as a month for a hardy green like spinach, according to Taylor and Jake Mendell of Footprint Farm in Starksboro, Vt.

The Mendells are part of a project with University of Vermont Extension to test the efficacy of a commercial washing machine converted into a greens spinner, at a cost of about $1,200. The spinner, which can dry 4 to 5 pounds of greens in one minute, meets Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requirements in Vermont. The Mendells use plastic mesh baskets and fishermen’s nets to transfer greens carefully through wash tubs before they go into the spinner.

“I’ve been very impressed how it works, right out of the box,” Taylor says.

Footprint Farm harvests 75 pounds of greens twice a week during summer peak season. Washing, drying and packing takes about two hours.

They began growing greens in winter to continue getting use of their high tunnels.

“It felt silly to maintain them without using them in winter,” she says. “And we realized that our land base is so small that we couldn’t increase production in summer. Also, we’re trying to balance work and cash flow throughout the year. Winter greens seemed a great way to do that.”

The farm sells greens and other produce through its CSA, which runs until Christmas, and a summer farmers market. They also wholesale to caterers and restaurants year-round, growing a mesclun mix, four kinds of kale, several kinds of spinach, Asian greens and mini-head lettuce.

They begin planting winter greens in August. Growth relies on day length and temperature.

“Especially as the climate is changing, we’re finding we have to do many more succession plantings because of the cold snaps,” she says. “So, we try to hedge our bets. Our goal is to get it to a harvestable size by Nov. 7, which is when we start to lose our light and then growth stops. But it’s very tricky.”

Doubling production

Last year Taylor and Jake doubled their production space to four 30-foot-by-96-foot high tunnels and a heated 26-foot-by-57-foot house for propagation. The tunnels are covered with a double layer of inflatable plastic.

They blanket greens with Reemay, uncovered when the sun heats the tunnel. Wrestling the Reemay on and off is a challenge.

“We put covers directly on the plants, which works great except if you have only one person, so we put on very low hoops, which makes it easier to uncover,” she says.

For Jericho Settlers Farm and Footprint Farm, winter greens have become an essential part of their crop rotations.

“It’s important for us to offer the opportunity to eat locally,” says Christa, who also offers many root crops in the winter CSA. “Greens keep them happy and the roots keep them fed.”

The University of Vermont has extensive information on growing and processing winter greens:

Harlow writes from Vermont.

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