BRATTLEBORO—For farmers in temperate climes with great seasonal weather fluctuation, a few crucial keys to surviving the winter are diversification and good planning.
Some figure out ways to continue growing and harvesting, even in the coldest months.
Some take advantage of opportunities for small breaks — a rare treat mostly unseen in spring, summer, and autumn, when agricultural activity is busiest.
Justin Nye of Guilford’s Circle Mountain Farm says that in the winter, other than selling at the Winter Farmers’ Market in Brattleboro, he and his partner, Amy Frost, take short vacations to see family and friends.
At the farmers’ market they sell value-added items such as hot pepper jelly, dilly beans, fruit preserves, herb-infused vinegars, dried tea herbs and blends, and dried culinary herbs such as thyme, oregano, parsley, cutting celery, basil, dill, cilantro, and chives.
During times of harvest throughout the warmer and cooler months, Nye and Frost prepare these items — also known as “putting food by” — preserving their farm’s bounty for later sale, when the days are cold.
Nye and Frost say learning about medicinal herbs is an interest and passion. They grow common and not-so-common herbs with nourishing and powerful properties, among them astragalus, calendula, elecampane, horehound, licorice, mint, motherwort, nettle, Saint-John’s-wort, and yarrow.
The couple say they harvest their herbs to sell fresh, to dry for later use, and to make medicines.
Asked how he survives as a farmer in the winter, John Miller of the Old Schoolhouse Plantery on Hinesburg Road in Brattleboro immediately replied, “I have a full-time job” other than farming. He added, “I have a winter greenhouse and I grow storage crops.”
Miller’s inventory consists of a variety of houseplants, including a robust selection of succulents and unusual versions of familiar storage crops.
Instead of the more common acorn squash, Miller grows its cousin, Yugoslavian finger fruit squash, which looks sort of like a cross between a starfish and a straw-yellow gourd.
Miller also offers Doran butternut squash, a shorter, rounder version of the more familiar gourd. His is non-GMO and hails from the Netherlands.
Kalettes, in vibrant green and purple, are a new, non-GMO crop resulting from crossing kale and Brussels sprouts. Miller sells them in little boxes called punnets.
One of his specialties is the Yacon, or Peruvian ground apple, which he calls “the tuber you eat like a fruit” because, unlike many other tubers, it can be consumed raw.
According to the informational handout Miller provides in his farmers’ market display, “Yacon has a crisp texture, a startling sweetness, wonderful flavor (it’s been compared to celery and apples and pears and melon and watermelon) and a refreshing fluidity.”
Miller says he prefers more esoteric crops because “you have to pick and choose. You can’t grow everything.”
His choices are based on flavor as a priority.
“I grow a lot of heirloom crops. In modern hybrids, flavor is not a prime goal for breeders,” he explains. Miller adds he prefers growing (and eating) European potato varieties for that reason, and says for his palate, common domestic potatoes do not have enough flavor.
Miller says he sources his unusual crops from the Internet and seed companies. When asked about the risk of investing in seeds for crops he has not tasted, Miller replies, “Well, the seed companies want to keep their reputation, so the things really do taste good as advertised.”
Cory Walker, who launched Guerrilla Grown Produce in Westminster in 2006, says he works a few farmers’ markets every week during the winter, post-Thanksgiving. “If someone came today and bought me out of everything, I could be done,” he adds.
To help bring in income, Walker says he hires himself out to other farms in need of logging, maple tapping, and apple-pruning.
“I grow a lot of storage crops to sell until the next growing season,” he says, standing in front of his colorful display of carrots, turnips, celeriac, potatoes, and other winter vegetables.
Walker reports he is still harvesting, even into the first week of January.
“I’m still picking kale, collards, and cabbage. With storage vegetables, they stand in the field until just before the threat of damaging frost or before they become frozen in the ground,” he says.
Picking this late is atypical for the area. “Most farmers want to be done by now because of access,” Walker says. “I’m picking in the snow.”
Instead, he says he’s been experimenting with varieties of vegetables that can withstand colder temperatures.
For his storage vegetables, Walker reports he harvests them in “ideal conditions,” when the ground is not muddy.
“We keep them dirty until the day before market. We don’t wash them before we put them in storage. The dirt protects the vegetables and regulates their humidity,” he explains.
Walker stores his harvest in 25-bushel apple boxes in a walk-in refrigerated unit, which regulates the humidity and temperature.
Michael Fuller, owner and chef at Brattleboro’s T.J. Buckley’s Uptown Dining, is a year-round Farmers’ Market patron, and winter is no exception. On a recent Saturday, he filled a big bag with Walker’s purple-top turnips.
When a bystander pressed him for menu details, Fuller offered his plan for using the turnips: “First I simmer them in duck fat, to make almost a vegetable confit. I cover and cook them, then allow them to cool. I then grill them as a side with a nug of short ribs.”