If you farm vegetables for a living in California or Florida, you have the advantage of being able to grow and market fresh produce year-round. When winter arrives in the Northeast, there’s not much to be had from frozen, snow-covered fields.
For this reason, Hudson Valley growers, especially those who sell at farmers’ markets, farm stands, or CSAs, have traditionally planned on making the lion’s share of their income in summer and fall with the sale of tomatoes, lettuces, sweet corn, green beans, and the like. But this is changing, with a cornucopia of weighty and nutritious storage crops entering the picture.
In my earliest days of farming, I sold my fresh vegetables and herbs at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan from early June until Halloween. A few years later, with the help of a small crew, I was able to make it through to the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which I discovered was the biggest food-buying day of the year.
Another few years and we were lasting until the end of December and profiting from strong pre-Christmas markets. At that point, it was evident that I had a business model with a future. Now, with warmer winters and a growing public enthusiasm for local food, going to outdoor markets even in the heart of winter can be worthwhile.
Winter markets, at least for our farm, remain a selective undertaking — meaning we select the ones we want to go to, unlike the rest of the year when we show up at Union Square every Wednesday and Saturday, come fair weather or foul. Since our New York City markets naturally shrink in size in winter, the managers are willing to accept growers on what is termed “a call-in basis.”
From January to March, if temperatures are forecast to drop below 35° Fahrenheit, we take a pass. The chance of a blizzard is a non-starter. So are days with rain and low temperatures. There are limits to our endurance and our willingness to deal with hazardous driving conditions. Some winters we might attend only a half-dozen markets; others 10 or 15. Earnings from these markets are modest but welcome nonetheless, especially when there’s little, if any, other farm income to be had.
All that’s needed to attend winter markets, besides a strong constitution and a tolerance for chilly outdoor temperatures, is a menu of storage crops that maintain their nutritional and culinary qualities. The best one for us is our hardneck Rocambole garlic, which we have cultivated (and, cultivated a reputation for) over the past 30 years. When properly cured, this garlic will store for eight or nine months and continue to delight the palates of our customers throughout that time.
Cooking onions and shallots also store well and are popular in the winter but the growing of them requires a lot of tedious hand weeding. Since time for hand weeding is in short supply, we plant limited amounts of these crops and are usually sold out before year’s end.
Winter squash is a natural cold-weather crop. Our preferred variety is butternut because it’s a good producer and less vulnerable to plant pests and diseases than some other varieties. This past September, we harvested around 5,000 pounds from a half-acre patch, which was pleasantly surprising, given the dry growing conditions and depredations of deer and groundhogs. When stored in a dry, cool, and ventilated environment, a butternut squash can remain taste-worthy and attractive to our customers for up to five months. The striped green-and-white delicata and sweet dumpling squash are a bit sweeter than butternut and therefore in high demand, but they don’t produce as well for us, so we grow less of them. Spaghetti squash is another popular item in late summer and fall, but its storage life is shorter — unlikely to last beyond December.
When stored in a dry, cool, and ventilated environment, a butternut squash can remain tasteworthy and attractive to our customers for up to five months.
Carrots and potatoes are staples that are always in demand. We grow mostly Danvers carrots and Kennebec potatoes. Carrots taste better after a frost; it seems to sweeten them up. Both these crops last through the winter if stored in a cold (not freezing) and humid environment. A root cellar, either partially or wholly dug in the ground, is ideal. In the old days, before it was common to import vegetables from warmer parts of the country and even the southern hemisphere, almost every farm and many backyards had an in-ground root cellar. It was how you stayed fed through the winter.
Other storage crops that like it cool and moist are turnips, cabbage, and kohlrabi. Kohlrabi, a close relative of the cabbage, is a good one for us. We grow a giant variety called Kossak, which is an excellent storer; we will keep it for up to four months in a root cellar. In the winter months it is a favorite of our customers. The fibrous, protective skin must be peeled off, but the copious interior remains sweet and crisp, like a carrot, long after harvest. This uncommon vegetable can be enjoyed in many different ways — roasted, stir-fried, steamed, mashed, or even raw. My wife often cuts the large bulbs into julienne–like strips and uses them as dip food or just slivers to snack on.
The sweet potato is a relative newcomer to Northeastern growers. The ones on our Thanksgiving dinner tables mostly come from North Carolina, Louisiana, and other Southern states, as well as California. But this is changing, at least in part due to the longer growing seasons here in the Hudson Valley. We did a trial planting of a few hundred sweet potatoes five years ago and liked what we got. So did our customers. Today, we reserve space for a few thousand.
Our favorite is Beauregard, which is ready for harvest about 100 days after planting — just the right amount of time for our Northern growing season. This crop does not like cold weather. Even the hint of a frost is anathema to the sweet potato. So we wait until early June to set our slips (thin stem shoots with a leaf or two on top) in the field. We’ve found it best to plant them in black plastic, which keeps the soil warm and reduces weed pressure. Underlying the plastic is a drip irrigation line. Sweet potatoes like plenty of water, so we give them the equivalent of two inches of rain per week.
When it’s time to harvest, the black plastic and irrigation tape are lifted and the sweet potatoes dug up with a garden fork — carefully! After harvest, the crop should be cured in a hot and humid place for 10-15 days. This converts the starch in the tubers to sugar and gives them their sweet, buttery flavor.
Storage crops are a natural, nutritious, and satisfying part of a winter diet, and many farmers are adjusting their crop plans to reflect this. But they face challenges. Distributing these vegetables to the public in the heart of winter is one of them. Many New York City farmers’ markets are able to operate year-round thanks to their large customer bases, but this is more the exception than the rule. In contrast, few Hudson Valley farmers’ markets are able to stay open beyond the fall season. Farmer cooperatives and indoor markets might solve this problem. Selling wholesale is another possibility, but for small farmers, there’s not much profit to be had in the wholesale marketplace.
Another challenge local growers face is having adequate facilities to meet the differing storage needs of various crops. Some like it cold and dry; some cold and humid. There’s no one size that fits all. And building appropriate storage environments will likely require major capital investment. For many, cooperative storage facilities shared by different growers may be more practical.
One thing’s for sure: The more customers support local farmers, the better equipped they will be to overcome the challenges they face and keep farming. In return, they will do their best to bring you real, wholesome food — even if we freeze our butts off in the process.