I really dislike returning to Standard Time. For the next four months, until we get back to Daylight Savings Time, it’s going to be getting dark really early around here. Sunset last night was 4:45. By the Winter Solstice, it’s 4:19 PM. Being in a valley, with hills to the east and west, shortens the hours of daylight even further. Add to that the ubiquitous fog and it can feel pretty bleak.
For us, though, perhaps the most difficult part about the winter months is the lack of income. Farming in a floodplain and in a climate that usually produces at least one prolonged freeze each winter, killing off most of the vegetables in the field, means we had always assumed we wouldn’t make any income between November 1 (the start of flood-season) and March 1 (the earliest we might expect to harvest greens from a hoop house). Most years, we’ve managed to keep harvesting and selling veggies through Thanksgiving, at least, but a few years that early-November stop date has come true due to freeze or flood. This year, however, we’ve invested in infrastructure that will (we hope) allow us to keep selling produce well into 2014, and perhaps year-round. The two big purchases we made were an insulated shipping container for storing winter squash and a second walk-in cooler for storing crops that want it cold (i.e. carrots, parsnips, cabbage, etc).
Storing winter squash had always presented a challenge for us. It stores best at 50 degrees with 50% humidity. The problem is that it’s bulky, heavy, and takes up lots of space. The only place big enough was our seedling greenhouse, which is both too warm during sunny days, too cold at night, and too humid. Not to mention, it isn’t rodent-proof. By January, most of our winter squash would have succumbed to mold, vermin, or freezing.
This year, we doubled the amount of winter squash we planted, and then took most of the summer to figure out how we were going to deal with the many tons of squash we had to store. After much research and deliberation, we decided to buy an insulated shipping container that we’d run a dehumidifier in to keep the humidity down. It’s currently filled with somewhere between 10- and 20-thousand pounds of squash, and our greenhouse is still full of the bigger squash that don’t fit as easily in boxes that can be moved around on pallets. The only issue I haven’t figured out how to deal with yet (or how big of an issue it will be) is keeping the temperature at 50 in the shipping container. The dehumidifier puts off heat, and the container is very well insulated. I’d guess it’s closer to 70 degrees in there, and I’m concerned the squash will not keep as well because it’s too hot, rather than too humid and cold.
The second walk-in cooler we bought is more straightforward. For the past two years, we’ve gotten by with a 10×10′ walk-in cooler and a supplemental 5×4′ “reach-in” cooler for overflow. However, this year the 225 CSA boxes we pack every week leaves very little extra room for storage crops. Add to that, the fact that our CSA is continuing through November 19th and we had left ourselves no extra room for winter storage crops. Last year we experimented with a bunch of storage crops that could be harvested before flood season and stored through the winter; which carrot varieties store best in the fridge? How long will daikon and watermelon radishes keep? When is the best date for planting rutabaga and storage turnips?
This year, we felt we had the knowledge to comfortably extend our CSA well into November, and we planted enough storage crops that we could fill four weeks of boxes entirely out of the coolers if it came to it. Well, the first November box is being packed right now, and the mild October we had means there are fresh greens in it too. Nevertheless, in our second walk-in cooler we are storing thousands of pounds of carrots, parsnips, daikon, celery root, beets, and more, ready for the next November CSA box and for sale at the now year-round Broadway Farmers Market and to restaurants through the winter.
For us, the best part about trying to grow and sell year-round is that it will (with luck) generate enough income to pay more employees year-round as well. Vegetable farming in the Northwest is predominantly seasonal work, with the vast majority of the labor and income happening between June and October – five very intense months. What we’ve struggled with each year is losing workers every November for lack of work and cash-flow, only to replace them with new inexperienced people again each spring. For the past three years, we’ve managed to keep at least two veteran employees with us through the following season. And next year, two employees (Sam and Kyli) will return for their third season. Siri deserves a lot of credit for writing a budget and planting plan that has enabled us to generate enough income from June through October that we can continue to pay a few employees through the winter months. Nevertheless, one of our biggest goals for our farm is for it to be a place where people can find meaningful, year-round work and make a living wage doing so. For this to happen, I believe we need to keep investing in winter-storage facilities and to continue to experimenting with crops that can survive in the field through the winter we well as crop varieties that store best. I also want to keep building more hoop-houses so we can extend the season on less cold-tolerant crops like lettuce, salad greens, turnips, radishes, and more.
Every year we try to add another piece to that puzzle. This year, it was an investment in winter-storage. Next year, who knows….