Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Let them eat snow

Winter farming in Rochester

Posted by on Wed, Dec 29, 2010 at 4:00 AM

On the Sunday before Christmas, the stalls at the Long Season Market in Brighton are heaped with fresh produce and the aisles are crowded with self-described locavores who are eager to take it home with them. There are beets that are still icy cold and wet to the touch, alongside parsnips, turnips, a few radishes, potatoes, and lots of winter squash. You can also find cold hardy greens in abundance: broccoli rabe, baby bokchoi, black and curly leafed kale. But there is also what appears to be a bumper crop of lettuce -- bright green against a background of earth tones. Outside, there is a foot of snow on the ground, temperatures flirt with the teens at night, and dusk begins to gather at 4:30 in the afternoon. Yet, here it is: fresh lettuce, grown within an hour of the market and picked only hours before it is to be sold -- in December.

            Some of it, like the delicate green heads of baby Boston lettuce that farmer John Bolton is setting out on his stand amid the cilantro, arugula, and other lettuces, is grown hydroponically in heated greenhouses that produce product year-round. But an increasing share of it, like the bags and bins of baby greens brought into the market by Brian Beh, owner of Raindance Harvest in Ontario, are grown in the ground in unheated greenhouses commonly referred to as hoophouses. At 8 a.m. on this particular Sunday, the lettuces and greens that Beh was selling a few hours later were still in the ground.

            These greens are the answer to the dilemma of what someone who is determined to eat fresh, local produce is going to eat during winter in upstate New York. They also represent both an opportunity and a challenge to both established supermarket chains and to local farmers looking to expand the market for their products, and make those products more reliably profitable to grow and harvest.

            These greens may be the start of a revolution in the way people think about winter vegetables and winter farming. But they may also be a manifestation of the emergence of a class of produce available to the fortunate few but beyond more than the occasional reach of those who are forced to stretch every nickel in a fragile economy.

Until very recently, if you were talking about winter farming in Western New York, you were talking about hydroponic farming: growing plants without soil in heated greenhouses. For more than a decade, hydroponic farms -- vast greenhouses whose sides are fogged over with condensation from October through May -- have proliferated in our area and across the border in Canada where rows and rows of greenhouses line the QEW. Among the largest of these is Intergrow in Albion. Started on 15 acres of land in 1998, Intergrow now has 30 acres of hydroponically grown tomato plants under glass, and has plans to add an additional 18 acres of greenhouse in the near future. Intergrow harvests in excess of 77,000 pounds (about 7000 11-pound boxes) of tomatoes every week, shipping them as far west as Chicago, south to the Carolinas, and all through New England. Of that produce, 60 percent to 70 percent goes to a single grocery store chain WHICH CHAIN? [Wegmans, of course].

            Everything at Intergrow is huge. The two biomass furnaces that heat the greenhouses consume three to four tractor-trailer loads of wood chips each day to keep them at a steady 60 degrees. The tanks where water and nutrients are mixed and stored are at least 12' tall. The staff uses an assortment of old single-gear bicycles to travel around the greenhouses. To stand in the middle of Greenhouse 1 and look down any of the rows of plants is to get a good idea of what infinity might look like: there is a dim glimmer of light at the other end of the row, but for as far as the eye can see there is nothing but perfect, red tomatoes and carefully supported and trellised horizontal-growing tomato vines. The vines themselves are two fingers thick in some places, and snake along the plastic channel supports for distances up to 40 feet. The plants are eased into horizontal growth after they climb beyond the reach of the cherrypickers that Intergrow's employees use to harvest much of their crop.

            Hydroponics are expensive. In this area, in order to keep the greenhouses warm through the winter, a greenhouse owner has to make a substantial investment in fuel. Water is plentiful and cheap, but the liquid fertilizers necessary to nourish the plants are not and they have to be constantly replenished. And labor is a consideration that cannot be discounted. Hydroponic farming is a labor-intensive undertaking. Intergrow employs about one person per acre during the winter, and twice that during the summer.

            To make a profit, hydroponic growers have to sell enough product to achieve economies of scale and grow their operations in ways that are impractical for smaller farmers with limited space, capital, and time. And that is part of the dilemma that T.J. Tyler, the manager of Freshwise Farms in Penfield, has wrestled with since he arrived in July 2009.

            Freshwise opened in 2002 as a "social enterprise" of the Rochester-based food bank Foodlink. Unlike other divisions of Foodlink, Freshwise was intended to grow pesticide-free hydroponic greens and vegetables for sale to the general public, rather than distributed to Foodlink's partner agencies. The profits on the venture were to be passed on to Foodlink to support its larger mission of eradicating hunger in the 10 counties that it serves here in Western New York. Freshwise was, in part, a successful enterprise. It produced almost an acre of hydroponic greens year-round in its greenhouse, offering retailers, restaurants, and consumers access to some of the freshest salad greens imaginable.

            The problem, according Tyler, was that the use of chemical fertilizers in hydroponic growing at Freshwise was environmentally (and, by extension, economically) unsustainable. In conjunction with the board and leadership of Foodlink, Tyler participated in the creation of a new vision for Freshwise, and the development of a three-year plan that would, among other things, phase out hydroponics in favor of cold-hardy crops grown in the ground in unheated greenhouses. The first step in that process was to rip out the hydroponic growing apparatus that filled the majority of the main greenhouse (while maintaining a smaller hydroponic greenhouse to fulfill contracts with local restaurants and schools) and begin enriching the soil for the planting of Freshwise's first winter crop of spinach in February 2011.

            The first time I spoke to Tyler on the phone in early December requesting a visit to Freshwise, he warned me that things were "a bit of a mess" and that the farm was undergoing big changes, so there might not be much to see. Just after the first big snow of the season, I paid a visit to the farm and immediately saw what he meant. About half of the main greenhouse was still producing hydroponic greens. Another portion of it, maybe an eighth, was devoted to growing microgreens -- tiny beet greens, arugula, mustard, and other plants -- on beds of wet, cotton-like fiber. The remaining part of the greenhouse looked like it had been intentionally bombed. Hydroponic trays and tubing, as well as the steel supports on which they had rested, had been removed and the soil underneath them roughly spaded up in order to prepare it for its new life as Freshwise's primary growing medium.

            Looking proudly at the destruction, Tyler informed me that by January 1 the entire greenhouse would look like this. At that point, he said, the heat would be turned off and the place would be allowed to "freeze out" in order to kill off any lingering pests in the soil. In early February, after the soil had been enriched with some of the 3000 pounds of compostable material Freshwise takes from the Penfield and Holt Road Wegmans stores each week, spinach seedlings would be transplanted into the unheated greenhouse for harvest some time in March.

            The new business model at Freshwise is derived, at least in part, from the writings and research of Eliot Coleman, owner of Four Season Farm in Maine. In organic farming circles, Coleman is a rock star, a guru whose books make it sound so practical and so easy to undertake winter farming that you might find yourself at Home Depot purchasing PVC pipe and plastic sheeting material before you've finished reading the first couple of chapters of "The Winter Harvest Handbook." Coleman's argument for winter farming is simple: it has precedent. More than a century ago, French market gardeners were growing and harvesting most of the food that was sold in Paris' markets during the winter months in glass-topped, manure-heated, wooden cold frames (it's worth noting that farmers in Irondequoit were doing similar things around the same time in order to get a jump on the area's short growing season). Coleman reasons that what was possible then is possible now, and on a larger scale.

            Winter farming, as Coleman explains it, requires an understanding of the practicalities and timing of winter planting and harvesting. Winter crops must be sown well before the first killing frost so that the plants are mature enough to withstand short, cold days by going "dormant" -- overwintering -- until the sun returns in late February. As Brian Beh of Raindance Harvest in Ontario, New York puts it, "From December through February your greenhouse is essentially a refrigerator," where your crops wait for spring.

            Coleman advocates the use of rounded or peaked greenhouse frames covered with as little as a single layer of heavy-duty plastic sheeting to protect vegetables from the worst of the cold and all of the wind. Used properly these hoophouses can help farmers achieve near-miraculous results: baby greens grown in the ground and harvested almost year-round; the sweetest carrots you've ever tasted harvested in March; spinach, chard, kale, and other frost hardy greens harvested until Christmas, and then overwintered for a second crop in early March as the days get longer.

It sounds like a fairy tale that organic farmers read to their children at night to inspire them, but this model of cheap, sustainable, and profitable winter farming has caught on -- not only at Freshwise, but also with local organic growers like Raindance'sBeh and Fred Forsburg of Livonia, with the Rochester-based supermarket chain Wegmans, and with the federal government, which launched a pilot program late in 2009 to encourage farmers to invest in high-tunnel hoophouses and give extended season farming a try.

            According to Ivy Allen, Public Affairs Specialist for the New York office of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, hundreds of farmers applied for grants that would potentially reimburse them at a rate of $2 per square foot for the purchase and installation of one or more hoophouses on their land. Forty-one of the grants were awarded statewide, and already her agency is getting requests for applications for next year's grant cycle.

            Robert Hadad, a regional specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service, says the robust interest in winter farming is a function of the burgeoning interest in winter vegetables on the part of savvy locavores. Demand, Hadad says, "is greater than supply, and I don't think we've come close to meeting the demand that is potentially there" for winter crops. Pointing to the success of late-season markets like the one in Brighton and the newly initiated Highland Park winter market, Hadad sees programs like the NRCS hoophouse project as a way to "encourage farmers to move up and make an investment in the next step" to invest in extended season farming with at least some of the risk taken off of the table.

            Hadad speculates that a hoophouse can pay for itself in three years or less. Still, finding the money, the time, and the labor can be a real challenge to growers who are already stretched to the limit and may not have the resources to invest in something that even the most successful of local practitioners admit is still largely an experimental enterprise.

            Fred Forsburg, the only recipient of an NRCS grant in Livingston County, says that he is "still in the experimental stage" of winter farming. Until now, he used the four hoophouses on his Honeyhill Farm to control the environment in which he grows organic heirloom tomatoes. This winter, he hopes to harvest a crop of leeks from his fifth, and newest, hoophouse, and looks forward to pulling overwintered scallions in March. Even veteran winter farmers describe their efforts as a work in progress. Brian Beh, who has been producing winter crops of lettuces and greens in four hoophouses in Ontario for the past four years, still claims that "this is still in the development phase. We are all just trying to work it through" to find the right balance between cost and profit that will make winter farming economically sustainable. "At the moment," he says, "no one is getting rich."

In Eliot Coleman's estimation, a good measure of the point at which winter farming is paying off is when the return on the investment in each square foot of cultivated ground amounts to $1.50. This is a number that kept coming up time and time again over the course of several weeks of visits and interviews with farmers both large and small -- a notional number, a holy grail that everyone is looking for. But few are the small to mid-sized farming operations that can afford to undertake the investment necessary to experiment with winter farming long enough to find it.

            T.J. Tyler of Freshwise suggested that without the support of Foodlink it would have been impossible to transition his greenhouse to winter farming without undertaking what he describes as "major loanage." Other farmers I spoke to are interested in extended season farming, but don't want to take on the additional debt that they would have to incur to do it.

            Enter the Wegmans Organic Research Farm in Canandaigua. On a snowy December morning, I'm standing on a windswept hillside overlooking Canandaigua Lake with StencyWegman and farm manager Jamie Robinson. We are brushing several inches of snow away from yellow-green heads of Romanesco, a broccoli that has some of the characteristics of cauliflower. Robinson looks at the heads and announces that they will need to be taken in before they freeze again: vegetables like this can stand to be frozen once or twice, but a long, hard freeze will ruin them.

            Up on the hill above the Romanesco bed stand two unheated hoophouses. Over near the treeline stands another. Inside them, it's not quite summer, but it feels and smells like early spring. In the houses closest to the Romanesco patch, densely packed rows of rainbow chard, arugula, and carrots are growing directly in the soil underneath cloth-like row covers that keep in the heat and most of the moisture. The chard and the arugula look like they will be ready to harvest in a few weeks, the carrots are the length of my pinky and intensely sweet because freezing temperatures cause carrots and other root vegetables to concentrate their sugars. All of these vegetables are slated to be harvested and on sale at the Wegmans flagship store in Pittsford before Christmas.

            In the next 30 by 40'/ 1,440 square foot hoophouse, tiny spinach plants stand dormant, strong enough to withstand the cold, but not to grow in any appreciable way until February. In another structure, row upon row of perfect spinach grows under the cover of a double-layer hoophouse (the gap between the sheets of plastic inflated to create an insulating pocket of air). The space is so well sealed that moisture rising from the ground condenses on the steel roof supports and "rains" back down on the deep green leaves that grow most densely beneath the drips. In the nearby barn, several dozen trays of microgreens sit under grow-lamps awaiting harvest and shipment in one-ounce containers to Pittsford, where they will sell for $4.99 each.

            What the team at the farm has accomplished in its first season of winter farming is stunning, and even more impressive is what it plans to do over the next year or so. StencyWegman tells me that while it currently produces some vegetables that are sold in the Pittsford store, the Organic Research Farm isn't intended to supplant the local growers with whom the grocery chain has developed a working relationship over the years. Particularly in regard to winter farming and extended-season production, the farm is intended to act as a research laboratory, and its findings will be shared with the 540 local producers who are part of the Wegmans farming "family."

            Wegmans Organic Research Farm began operation in 2007, but it was not until April 2010 that Danny and StencyWegman consulted with Eliot Coleman about a winter-farming project. Now in its first winter of production, farm manager Jamie Robinson describes the farm as a potential scale model of everything that a producer would need in order to produce organic winter vegetables according to the chain's exacting standards, and says that the company intends to start bringing local growers to the farm in time for the 2012 growing season to share what it has learned.

In the final analysis, winter farming, like all farming, is ultimately about matching supply with demand to make a profit. As both Robert Hadad and Fred Forsburg, who is also on the board of the Brighton Long Season Market, have observed, the success of winter markets, even during these tough economic times, suggests that while fresh and local produce is certainly more expensive than produce grown elsewhere and shipped in, that there is a "perceived value" in local produce.

            According to Walter Nelson, the agriculture program leader for the Monroe County branch of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, "People want to know who grew [their food] and where it came from," and they are "willing to pay extra to look the producer in the eye and say, 'How did you grow this?'"

            In a time when every penny counts, Hadadsays, "when people are spending money on vegetables they want to buy the best," not necessarily the cheapest -- although for some shoppers who struggle to feed their families that is certainly a prime consideration.

            When a bag of salad greens tops $5, even the most ardent locavore is likely to at least hesitate before pulling out his or her wallet. Brian Beh of Raindance Farms worries that he cannot compete with produce, even organic produce, trucked in from across the country: his $4 bags of lettuce sometimes approach twice the price of the out-of-state competition. At the point at which the cost of his lettuce is double that of the competition, he says, he begins to lose customers -- even "savvy, educated consumers...who are interested in nutrition, in minimizing their carbon footprint, and eating fresh, local food."

            Fred Forsburg is less concerned. While his customers demand quality, most of them "drive Chevys, not Mercedes," and see buying his produce as a judicious use of their food dollars. People who know and appreciate good food, in Forsburg's estimation, will always pay for quality over quantity.

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