Season Extension

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 Looking out my window, I catch the last of the lavender and peachy-pink stripes of an early winter sunset. I feel a twinge of loss, knowing that we are entering Minnesota’s darkest season. The cold doesn’t bother me as much as the lack of light. So I look to those fading beams of color, appreciating my window view before I draw the drapes and turn on the lamps.

Darkness plunges local farms into hibernation this time of year. Lack of sunlight equates to a lack of growing season. It’s dark, it’s cold, it’s over. When the sunlight does return in April, frost endangers fragile seedlings as late as June. Even during Minnesota’s optimum growing season, inclement weather, sometimes harsh and severe, can trouble farmers up until the point we are at now: darkness.

Understanding the unpredictability of growing food in a northern climate makes me appreciate locally grown strawberries all the more. But what if I were able to find local, sweet Minnesota strawberries on the store shelves by Memorial Day? Or what if I could watch the beginning of early sunsets still nibbling on fresh local raspberries?

That’s just one exciting possibility of Minnesota’s hottest development: season extension. Barth Anderson, Manager of Research and Development for the
Wedge Community Co-op understands the implications of a longer berry season. He says, "Crops would open up that might bring more dollar value, like berries." As he points out, who would balk at price if you could buy local berries earlier or longer?

Local farmers could use such an economic infusion to help propel sustainable food systems. The Wedge, in partnership with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, initiated a new Sow the Seeds campaign this year called "Local Longer." Funds are directly invested into farmer education through training and pilot programs.

The idea of season extension is not new to Minnesota. We’ve all yearned for fresh local food year-round, and farmers have long pondered how to get the most out of their crops.  Maize Diffley, Produce Supervisor at Valley Natural Foods grew up on the Gardens of Eagan farm now owned by the Wedge. He recalls his parents using cold cases to get an early start on planting. A cold case is essentially a wooden frame covered by a window. It is basically a mobile, makeshift greenhouse.

Greenhouses are another way Minnesota farmers have extended the growing season for tomatoes, bell peppers, and even lettuce. Steve Klingbeil of Living Water Gardens grows 7,000 tomato plants per year in three greenhouses that he has farmed for nearly 18 years. Klingbeil can grow tomatoes April through December with the added heat of three kilns fueled by recycled scrap wood.

The hottest topic on the wintry horizon for Minnesota’s season extension is the high tunnel. High tunnels look like traditional greenhouses, but are more like cold cases in that they are not permanent. They have no electrical source, no automated ventilation, and no heating system. High tunnels are also called, "hoop houses." They are temporary structures covered with clear plastic that can protect crops from the weather, and can be rolled up to allow for natural ventilation.

Also, high tunnels cost significantly less per square foot than greenhouses. According to JoAnne Berkenkamp, Director of the Local Foods Program for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, "It is very easy to sink a quarter of a million dollars into a greenhouse. A hoop house costs $5,000 and can go up in a weekend." The low capital and the technology are appropriate for growers at many levels and the University of Minnesota Extension estimates that 200 Minnesota growers are using high tunnels.

While full of exciting possibilities like a longer berry season, high tunnel season extension is still experimental in Minnesota. The University of Minnesota Extension has no fewer than seven ongoing research programs across the state. Berkenkamp says that the Local Longer campaign is meant to support farmer education. Funds will help compile and tie in relevant research about the system that has been successful in other countries with similar climates. Local Longer will also sponsor field trips and training events, as well as introduce season extension workshops at major conferences.

In spite of the progress, season extension is not enough for one local CSA member turned grower. Carol Ford, owner of Garden Goddess CSA, reflects on how hard it is to come to the end of the season in a small town where the only winter choices for produce are conventional imports.

"It’s ironic," Ford points out, "to live in a food desert surrounded by farms." Motivated by Canada’s successful winter growing, she asked, "Why can’t we do it here?" Her question led her to enter the Land Stewardship’s Farm Beginnings Program.

Ford had read Eliot Coleman’s Winter Harvest Manual. She recognized the advantage of the low cost and efficient high tunnels, but envisioned a year-round system like a permanent greenhouse. She sought a hybrid of sorts. Ford and her then-boyfriend-now-husband, Chuck Waibel, researched and ultimately designed a passive solar greenhouse that cost $18,000. They poured all their funds into the structure, then sought plants that do best with short days: cold-hardy greens.

When Ford contacted a Twin Cities restaurateur to ask about preparing an unusual root crop she was growing, he said he wished she were closer to his restaurant. She replied, "You don’t need me, you need the idea." In fact, Ford now champions her winter greenhouse as a green model. "We can do this in Minnesota," she encourages.

Ford has a waiting list four times longer than her winter CSA can produce. While it is nice not to have competition and be able to set her own price, Ford would rather be a model for others.

"What’s wrong with having one of these in every neighborhood?" Ford asks. She considers herself a "citizen scientist," learning from doing. For her, the circle has come around: she is now teaching classes for Farm Beginnings. She and Waibel will also release a how-to book in May for others interested in their unique, low-impact system.

Spring may be far away, but the thought of winter baby bok choy or early strawberries has me feeling hopeful for the future of fresh local food. Ford’s greenhouse, humid and green in the dead of winter, sounds as pleasant as rays of sunshine.  


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