New England Is Cracking the Code to Farming — All Year Long
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because fresh veggies, winter frost or not? Count us in.
When Seth and Tyler Yentes bought their farm just 3 miles from the Maine homestead where they grew up, the brothers were determined to be a success story. It was no sure thing, considering the obstacles new farmers face when branching out on their own.
Key to the Yentes’ plan: diversifying. So while other New Englanders picked and sold vegetables at farmers markets in the busy summer months, the owners of North Branch Farm were milking cows to make cheese and grafting McIntosh apple trees to sell wholesale to Fedco nurseries. In the autumn, long after most produce had come and gone from local markets, the Yentes brothers started picking winter squash, onions, potatoes and carrots. They stored those hardy vegetables and, when there was less competition, sold them — in many cases, directly — to customers who had purchased “shares” like a Costco membership. It was something special in New England — boxes of fresh produce twice a month from October to February.
Season extension is an obvious next step: What can we provide in the winter?
Sophie Courser, Alprilla Farm
The brothers, along with Tyler’s wife, Anne, have been selling direct from their Monroe farm for six years, and the winter operation has grown to include 55 customers and a third of their annual farm revenue. And while such membership schemes — called community-supported agriculture, or CSAs — aren’t new, they have grown significantly as moneymakers in the typically quiet cold season. Technological advances have also opened up New England to four-season cultivation. Plus, increased interest in not just organic but also local produce has spurred demand for year-round options. Says Sophie Courser, whose Alprilla Farm in Exeter, New Hampshire, shifted from a summer to an autumn CSA this year: “Just as the local food movement … builds its systems, more season extension is an obvious next step: What can we provide in the winter?”
For many, off-season marketing provides a respite from cutthroat summers. “Markets are oversaturated,” says Daniel MacPhee, education programs director for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. The organization used to track the number of CSAs in the state, though currently it does not. “If you’re going to have a farmers market, you have to have a beautiful, abundant stand that has a ton of diversity,” MacPhee says. “[You’re] racing to have the first tomatoes on the stand. A tomato in June is worth 10 times more than a tomato in August or September.”
That’s a tough timetable for many farmers. Instead, they are adding winter CSAs to their offerings. Others are teaming up with neighbors to craft one-stop packages for delivery. A popular plan from Wolf Pine Farm includes vegetables from its location in Alfred, Maine, grains from Borealis Breads in Wells, Maine, and grass-fed beef from Vermont. “There’s definitely more interest in the full-diet CSA,” says Tyler. And these winter sales have spread revenue more evenly throughout the year, reducing risk.
The community-focused process is especially fruitful in pastoral New England, which has a higher proportion of small operators and family farms than anywhere else in the country. The region doesn’t have a single representative in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s top 10 agriculture-producing states. “You’re never going to convince really large farmers to get away from the monoculture of planting 1,000 acres of corn,” says Greg Noden, USDA farm operations manager in Geneva, New York. But for a midsize or beginning farmer, it’s a viable shift. And that class of farmer, Noden adds, is “more prevalent in the Northeast than anywhere else.”
There are financial benefits for those who change up the typical farming equation. “If you can get people greens in December, not only will you have plenty of demand but you will be able to charge a premium,” says Jim Hafner, executive director of the Keene, New Hampshire–based nonprofit Land for Good. “That’s why you also see people moving into non-land-based farming, such as hydroponics.”
Advances in vertical farming have made hydroponics — farming without soil — even more effective. One study published in Food and Energy Security last year showed that vertical farms could produce almost 14 times as much lettuce per acre as conventional farms. Growers adopting high tunneling, in which crops are encased in semicircular plastic mini-greenhouses, can prolong the growing season. And some high-tunneling setups are designed to collect rainfall and irrigate the crops within. Bonus points: They are 40 to 60 percent cheaper per square foot than greenhouses and are passively heated, which means lower energy costs.
There are certainly obstacles for those looking to brave the harsh winters. Those CSAs are often limited to hardier crops, such as mushrooms, herbs and root vegetables. Such crops need to stay dry, and storage or packing can be difficult: The Yentes’ products sometimes freeze on the coldest of days. And some attempted CSAs have been scuttled by complications from the nontraditional season, according to a report from the Portland Press Herald: In one case, a bacon-and-sausage deal from a Durham ranch fell victim to “equipment and labeling issues,” while a Rockland-area winery’s marketing attempt was felled by liquor laws when it tried to start a meat, cheese, bread and wine delivery service using a horse-drawn wagon.
Still, interest in winter crops remains high, and farmers are capitalizing. In September, as Alprilla Farm’s Courser walks out of the Common Ground Country Fair — a massive weekend farming festival that annually attracts thousands to rural central Maine — a friend approaches and asks if her new CSA has any shares left. Nope, all 85 slots are filled. Demand is sky-high, Courser later says: “We’re even getting a lot of other gardeners and farmers signing up, because they don’t have storage themselves.”