Let me start out by saying I am a California girl. Everything I learned about agriculture was in the setting of a grower’s paradise – mild summers and winters that rarely drop below freezing. I grew up thinking that winter farming was only a West Coast possibility. I’m not really sure what I thought most farmers did during winter on the East Coast – I suppose I thought they stayed inside to plan for the spring while the land lay fallow, resting. I really couldn’t imagine that anything nourishing could grow in the earth’s freezing soil, which this winter, has so often been covered in snow.
With this mentality, I went out to visit one of our farmers, Zach Lester, from Tree and Leaf Farm. For those of you that don’t know Zach from our Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market, he’s the kind of farmer that always teaches you something new about the produce you pick out at market. Visiting Zach at his farm was no less of a learning experience than shopping at his market stand.
As I drove up to Tree and Leaf Farm on Friday morning, I was careful to turn into the driveway slowly. It had snowed about eight inches the night before and the roads were still a little icy. I pulled on my boots and walked down the road to meet Zach. Talking, we walked past the first set of many tunnels scattered across his fields. These tunnels, Zach explained, were the smallest of the tunnels he employs. They were four feet wide and made by Zach himself with repurposed rebar bent into half-moon shapes. An opaque plastic was stretched across the top of them and buried where they meet the ground. Zach told me how these little tunnels took their inspiration from an old technique in France in which glass bells, or cloches, were placed overtop plants to protect them from the cold. You could then prop up the glass bells with a stick, or in his case, lift up the plastic walls to ventilate the plants. These rows of low tunnels were currently empty, solarizing, he told me. The sun would heat up the soil killing off any bad pathogens and the warmth would help to more readily break down organic material, filling the soil with nutrients. Zach is planning to build more of these low tunnels with a zero interest KIVA loan he is working to get. The smaller tunnels are easier to move, which he said is important for healthy soil rotation, and even better, they are easy to take care of, so he can focus on his crops instead of infrastructure maintenance.
The next tunnels that we walked to are a little bigger, six feet across and just tall enough to stand in at the very center. They are built like their smaller cousins, but these have an intricate weaving of ropes tying them down for stability. Inside are two rows of plants, mixed lettuce on the left and carrots on the right. Zach pulls a few slender carrots up as he tells me that this variety of winter carrot is like gold, other spring and fall carrots really don’t compare, but he still grows them for the demand. As we step into the tunnels I am immediately blown away by how warm it is inside. I couldn’t tell you what temperature it actually was, but I swear it felt like 80 degrees. I ask Zach how he heats the tunnels to which he simply answers, “the sun”. He goes on to tell me that for him, using fossil fuels just doesn’t make sense, from a philosophical and monetary standpoint. As we walked down to the end of the row where two of his staff members in t-shirts were harvesting greens, I could actually see the humidity rising up from the soil. I had left DC, I had left the East Coast, and I had left winter.
As I reluctantly leave the tunnel, Zach tells me how he worries about his soil getting flooded as the snow melts and how he had already lost three to four weeks of greens and 4,000 full grown heads of cabbage to this winter cold. I ask if the snow is the issue and he explains to me that the snow is actually insulating–the issue is when it repeatedly freezes causing the cells of plants to rupture and literally explode. Zach shows me inside his last set of tunnels, his high tunnels, which stand about as tall as a small barn, with three or four rows of crops inside. He shows me the garlic he is growing for a friend. Zach has pretty much stopped growing garlic to sell at farmers markets because it seems like he can never make a profit. We both muse over how garlic can be so cheap to buy in stores, but so expensive to grow. He tells me he is planting tomatoes in this high tunnel next week and I realize just how amazing these tunnels truly are. It’s the dead of winter, literally a foot of snow on the ground, but these sun-warmed paradises mean that Zach can not only bring winter roots and greens to market, but that he can also bring tomatoes to market in the spring before the majority of other farmers can – a precious leg up on the competition. Zach reflects that he thinks part of the reason that he loves farming in winter so much is because he actually hates winter. I totally understand the charm – the tunnels get you outside and keep you warm and active, all things I struggle with during the winter.
As we head back toward the house, Zach points to the snow covered fields, mentioning that he has a lot planted out there too. Now I’m really confused, planted under a foot of snow? He tells me that it’s all well insulated underneath a layer of plastic, beneath all that snow, keeping the soil from freezing. I figure he must be using the snow like a refrigerator for storage, but again, he says no. He tells me that what is planted out there is still growing, that if we walked out there and dug down into the snow and lifted up that black plastic, we would be able to dig up a turnip. At this point, I am baffled. I understand the idea of the tunnels and how you can create an environment that is more hospitable to growing tender plants, but I really can’t fathom how anything can grow outside, under a foot of snow, beneath a sheet of plastic. Zach laughs, walks me out through the field, gets down on his knees and begins digging in the snow. At this point, I am as mesmerized as a child watching a magician pull a rabbit from a hat. Zach plunges his hand under the snow, beneath the layer of plastic and miraculously pulls up a bunch of beautiful turnips. He hands them to me like a prize and I can hardly believe that these gorgeous turnips with their bright green tops and their roots picturesquely covered in soil were grown in what I originally thought of as a barren landscape.
As we walk back to the house to meet with his wife Georgia O’Neal, we laugh about how farming in winter is kind of like any other extreme activity. People don’t realize how hard it is – he was up every two hours last night to brush the snow off the top of his tunnels. He and Georgia tell me about how in the early days of their farm, they used to sleep out in the tunnels between the rows of crops on really stormy nights to make sure their tunnels didn’t collapse under the weight of the snow. And it’s not just growing the produce that’s hard in the winter. You have to keep it from freezing when you store it, you have to have a truck that is insulated enough to get it to market, and then once you get it to market, you have to keep all that produce that you painstakingly kept warm in the fields from freezing before the customer buys it. That’s why winter produce is a little more expensive, a ‘suffering tax’ he calls it. We laugh that there should be a Deadliest Catch or Ice Road Truckers show for winter farmers. Sitting inside with our tea, Zach and Georgia smile — farming in winter they tell me, really is an entirely different ball game.
Written by FRESHFARM Market Manager Genna Lipari.