Farming operations moving inside for winter
Brian Bruno has winterized his irrigation and put away many of his outdoor produce farming tools.
Wood for heating his greenhouse and a bakery oven aside, the Saylorsburg, Pa., grower has transitioned to an indoor operation.
Bruno is one of several Mid-Atlantic farmers who have extended their farming operations into sometimes blistery winter months.
The shorter, less productive days that would otherwise render down-time allow for providing jobs and keeping their products in front of customers near yearlong, they say.
“I don’t think every farmer would want to do this,” Jess Neiderer of Pennington, N.J, admitted. “But at this point we have some skill … and the finances make sense. Plus, the appreciation we get from our customers for the fresh vegetables year-round adds cache to our business that is worth something to us.”
Niederer reduces his staff of 10 by around half.
As with Bruno, he plants root storage crops during August and September and grows in unheated hoophouse high tunnels crops such as kale, cabbage, bok choy and spinach that he says can survive freezing and thawing.
Bruno harvests hoophouse crops monthly as the winter days grow shorter and the growing season for lack of light slows, he said.
Each week, he said, he plants fast-growing hydroponic lettuce and microgreens in the wood-heated hydroponic greenhouse.
He also spends winter days baking fresh pumpkins into pumpkin pie and adding surplus vegetables that he grew in season and froze to chicken soups and chicken pot pies, he said.
Where Bruno sells greens and value-added products at an on-farm market and at Strausberg, Easton and Wrightstown Pa., and Morristown, N.J. farmers markets, Adam Taylor of Craig County, Va., markets his products also through a small CSA, a herdshare and a mobile hub whereby a non-profit organization buys wholesale and drives to areas where SNAP recipients can purchase them, he said.
The season adds an income of “maybe just a couple of thousand dollars,” Taylor said. “It keeps our customer base and allows us to get a winter income where we otherwise wouldn’t have any.”
Niederer admitted that winter farming doesn’t provide “knock-it-out-of-the-park money.”
The 16 percent or so of his annual sales that occur between December and April through farm memberships and at Morris, Denville, Metuchen, Princeton, Rutgers and West Windsor markets cover payroll for the months where the farm is staffed for special projects and for a non-optional spring start-up, he said.
“If there were more indoor venues, the customer hype would increase,” Niederer said.
The Floyd Farmers Market in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains is apparently enjoying enough customer hype enough that the number of its producer participants has more than tripled since 2018.
The Floyd Farmers Market at the demand of SNAP users and to help provide a source of revenue for farmers that year extended the season by moving to an indoor Floyd Center for the Arts location from the weekend before Thanksgiving into the first weekend in February, Market Manager Melissa Branks said. The number of farming participants has since grown from four to 15, she said.
“When the market started, it was sort of a balance between farmers and craftsmen and artisans,” Branks said. This past season, all of our full-time vendors were farmers.”
Tobie Blankenship is one of them.
“We originally started doing this. … to fill the winter food hole with fresh produce and to further utilize the expensive ‘real estate’ in the greenhouse,” he said of his 11-year winter farming effort in the unlit, unheated structure.
The vegetables taste sweeter and crisper than those grown during warmer times of the year, Blankenship said.
As people became used to the idea of fresh winter produce and the Floyd County Farmers Market began extending its season, production and sales “gradually increased” by around some 20 percent, he said.
He covers his vegetables in cloche and increases prices during winter to make up for product loss and added labor, he said.
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