Season Extension at Divide Creek Farm
By Lynn Byczynski
Cold, snowy winters don’t stop the harvest at Divide Creek Farm in the Rocky Mountains near Silt, Colorado. Owners Clara Coleman and Robbie George are practitioners of the Winter Harvest system devised by Clara’s dad, Eliot Coleman. Like growers all over North America, they have discovered that vegetables can survive the coldest winter weather in a high tunnel with low tunnels directly above the crops.
Clara and Robbie have three high tunnels, all of them are the movable Rolling Thunder model designed by Eliot Coleman and built by Rimol Greenhouses. The ability to move the tunnels creates a wide range of possibilities for crop scheduling. They also use Quick Hoops™ low tunnels both in the field and inside the high tunnels. We asked Clara for more details about her winter harvest system.
Q. Tell us about your climate: How long is your frost-free season? How cold does it get?
A. My farm is located in Zone 4 at 6,200 feet. Our average last frost date is May 25th and our average first frost date is September 20th. We can receive very cold temperatures with lows of -18°F on occasion, and snow covers the ground from late November until late March.
Q. In the photo in the catalog, you’re holding a basket of carrots you harvested during a snowstorm. Can you tell us the crop sequence for those carrots, as an example of how you use the movable high tunnels?
A. I direct seed carrots (Napoli, Nelson, and Mokum) outside the tunnel the first two weeks of August. This year I succession seeded six beds - two on August 4th, three on August 9th and one on August 11th. I am curious to see how late I can seed and still get a marketable crop by winter. The tunnel is moved over the carrots by the last week of October but the carrots have already been covered with Quick Hoops™ and row cover since around the end of September. I begin harvesting the carrots for my first indoor winter farmer's market the weekend after Thanksgiving and continue to harvest until the last week of January. By February, the tops have enough regrowth to affect flavor so I prefer to get them all out of the ground by late January. I leave the beds fallow until I transplant tomatoes on April 1st, so the tunnel only gets moved once a year.
Q. Do you think the winter harvest system could be practiced anywhere in colder latitudes? How does your experience differ from your father’s in Maine?
A. I believe season extension and the winter harvest should be viable anywhere in colder latitudes; it is a matter of having the right protection and accurate planting dates. Planting dates would most likely be the biggest challenge for the inexperienced but that simply takes trial and error. I like to say my father and I are dealing with two radically different climates (his climate is moist, humid with moderate temps, and he's at sea level; my climate is arid, hot/cold with more extremes in temperature range, and I am at altitude,) but the fundamental principles still apply, so we make a great example that this can be done anywhere.
Q. How important are the high tunnels to your business? Would you recommend winter production wholeheartedly to other growers?
A. My tunnels are extremely important to my business and I am very grateful to be able to use them. Even without the resources to construct a high tunnel, someone can use Quick Hoops™, row cover, and plastic to protect spinach, kale, carrots, etc. for 1/20th the cost (per my dad) of a high tunnel. I am the only farmer in my area selling fresh greens throughout the winter season, and this is only my second year of winter production. I wholeheartedly recommend winter production to other growers for the reasons of fostering local food production as well as the benefit of a farming income during the winter months.
Q. Where do you sell in winter?
A. In my area, the winter farmer's market begins November 27th and continues every Saturday until the end of February. The summer markets begin late June and continue through the end of September. I sell fresh winter greens (spinach, mache, claytonia, kale, Swiss chard, lettuces, arugula, mustard greens, bull's blood beet greens, etc.), the famous “candy carrots,” as well as potatoes, winter squash, onions, and garlic from the root cellar during the winter farmer's market.
Q. Anything else you would like to express about four-season growing?
A. Four-season growing is still fairly new and slow to catch on in the colder growing zones, but it is relatively simple and extremely necessary to supporting our local foodsheds.
For more information about Clara Coleman, visit the Divide Creek Farm website.
By Lynn Byczynski
In a busy residential neighborhood in the heart of Boston, teenagers wearing forest green t-shirts pick beans on a half-acre garden. A few blocks away, other teens in green shirts tend 6,000 sq.ft. of vegetables growing on the roof of the Boston Medical Center. Fifteen miles outside the city, dozens of young people (again in those green t-shirts) fan out across a 27-acre field of vegetables to plant, weed, and harvest.
These three gardens are among the 10 plots of land farmed by The Food Project, one of the earliest and most successful youth and urban farming projects in the country. Started in 1991, The Food Project undertook its first summer of farm work in 1992 with 18 teenagers. Today, the program provides farm jobs for hundreds of young people throughout Boston and its suburbs. Producing more than 250,000 lb. of fresh produce each year, The Food Project sells at farmers' markets, offers Community Supported Agriculture programs, and donates to hunger relief organizations.
This thriving organization provides a model for community food groups nationwide. Many of its resources are available free to others who want to emulate The Food Project’s programs. Here are some of the many facets of its work:
Nearly 100 youth, ages 14-17, are hired to grow and distribute organic produce during the summer for people in need. Teenagers come from city and suburbs, low income and high income areas. They work on both urban and rural land, sell at farmers’ markets, and prepare lunch at homeless shelters. They learn about sustainable agriculture, hunger and homelessness, and diversity awareness. The summer program lasts 61/2 weeks.
Students who complete the summer program can apply for the Academic Year Program, in which they continue to work in the gardens and food kitchens plus speak to younger students and lead volunteers.
Internships are available to graduates of the Summer Youth Program so they can take on more responsibility and learn greater skills. Fellowships are available for young adults, 18-24, to continue their work on sustainable food systems.
Build-a-Garden is a program to help backyard gardeners learn about the danger of lead in urban soils, do soil tests for it, and remedy the situation by building raised beds and amending with compost, which The Food Project donates from its own composting facility.
Other community programs include a city farm festival, urban learning farm, neighborhood tours, and more.
The Food Project has abundant resources to help other community groups develop similar programs. Many are available for free on their website. The site contains videos of the teens in action, plus handbooks and other practical guides about working with young people and revitalizing food systems in the city and beyond.
Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, wrote his famous essay "Toward a Sustainable Agriculture" in 1978 to propose a solution to the problem of soil erosion caused by conventional farming practices. In the decades since, the term sustainable agriculture has been much discussed and debated. There is even an effort, somewhat controversial, to create sustainable agriculture standards, similar to organic standards, that can be used to prove sustainability. Unlike the organic standards, however, sustainable agriculture is not about a prescribed set of farming practices. Rather, it's an approach to farming that can be applied to many farming systems. Most people would agree that sustainable agriculture encompasses at least these principles:
- Growing in harmony with ecological systems
- Conserving soil, water, and other resources
- Reducing off-farm inputs
- Providing fair economic compensation for farmers and workers
- Building local food systems and relationships among farmers and consumers
- Striving for diversity in crops and markets.
Growers have developed many practical strategies for applying these principles to produce farming. Following is a list of some practices and resources that are especially useful in moving a produce and flower farm toward greater sustainability.
Ecological pest management relies on preventive rather than reactive strategies to controlling pests. It begins with an understanding of the insects and disease organisms that can damage crops. It means identifying them and learning their life cycles. With experience, the grower learns the threshold for damage by a particular pest. The first line of defense against pests is passive; for example, scheduling plantings to avoid particular pests, and protecting crops with barriers such as row covers and insect netting. The second line of defense is biological: introducing live beneficial insects or organisms that will prey on the pests. If these strategies fail, the last defense is killing the pests with biopesticides that have low environmental impact.
<> Sustainable weed management is aimed at preventing or limiting weeds that compete with vegetable crops. Some strategies employed in sustainable weed management include cutting weeds before they go to seed; cover cropping to out-compete them; rotating to interrupt re-growth; using plastic or biodegradable mulch to prevent weed seed germination; and cultivating or flame weeding at the weeds' most susceptible stage. Read article "Organic and Sustainable Weed Control".
Farmscaping is a new term for an integrated, whole-farm approach to biological control of pests. It involves laying out the farm to include hedgerows, insectary plantings, cover crops, water, and other features to attract and sustain beneficial organisms.
Insectary plantings provide food and shelter for beneficial insects and increase the likelihood that predators and parasitoids will hang around and help with pest management. Certain plants are especially attractive to beneficials.
Cover cropping provides numerous benefits on a vegetable farm. They can be used to increase soil fertility and tilth, discourage weeds, and prevent soil erosion. They can be an important part of crop rotations, breaking up pest and disease cycles that affect vegetable crops. See Johnny's Farm Seed Comparison Chart to learn the best cover crops for specific problems and seasons.
Growing hay is one way to reduce purchased inputs. But the grower needs to consider the pros and cons before jumping into hay production.
Community Supported Agriculture is a system wherein consumers contract for a share of a farm's harvest. By providing a guaranteed market and, in some cases even paying in advance, CSA can help stabilize a farm's income. Thousands of CSA programs are operating around the United States. USDA's National Agriculture Library maintains a list of CSA resources for farmers to learn more about the system.
Diversity is a key concept in sustainable agriculture. It can be applied across all aspects of a direct-market farm, from the number of crops grown to the number of places they are marketed. Diversity insulates a farm from failures. For example, by planting numerous successions of a crop, if one gets damaged by hail, another will be coming along behind. Marketing diversity is equally important. Having multiple outlets for production protects farm income if one of those outlets underperforms. ATTRA has an excellent publication on risk management strategies that center on market diversity.
Lynn Byczynski is the editor of Growing for Market and the author of The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower's Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers