Extending the Season

by J.F. Pirro

        Don Kretschmann is as realistic as they come. He understands that when typical people, particularly consumers, think of vegetables, they think of summer. Of the fellow growers he's spoken to, many say that spring and summer--the traditional growing, harvesting and distribution time--are so demanding that come winter, it's time to rest and recharge and not have to worry about things for a while.

        They see things differently at Kretschmann Family Organic Farm (www.kretschmannfarm.com) in Rochester, Pa., where the week before Christmas they used sleds to bring in harvested kale.

        "Many want to lay back in the winter," Kretschmann says. "If it was me alone, I probably wouldn't [extend the season]. It's definitely harder, even just getting a truck in and out, even just making sure you remove the snow so you can get to the apple cooler. But to get a year-round customer and a year-round employee, there's something to be said for working year-round."

        In the Northeast, Kretschmann and his wife, Becky, are models for extending the season by using postharvest storage. This allows them year-round profitability while also helping them foster loyalty in customers and train and retain more consistent employees.

        The Kretschmanns, who began practicing sustainable, organic growing in the early 1970s, have always been fruit and vegetable growers. They started out on rented farmland, increasing the amount of rented land over time. In 1978, they purchased the current farm, just 35 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, specifically for its proximity to the city.

        "Back then, organic growing was a hard sell," Kretschmann recalls. "We were crusaders, but now it's become the thing. Organic and sustainable are brands to have. In the beginning we did it just because we believed in it. Now it's been amazing just to see what water has come under the bridge."

        The Kretschmanns were pioneers in selling produce directly to schools, hospitals, larger grocery stores and wholesale warehouses. They did it then as they do today, by growing on just 15 to 20 acres of land. In fact, when the Kretschmanns sought organic certification status last year, officials couldn't fathom the statistical success--the amount of produce netted from the amount of field space planted.

        "We just always figured that if our loyal customers come for what we offer, we can broaden the selection for them," he says. "While we're not increasing the number of customers, we are increasing dollar volume. It's amazing. Once you have customers, you have customers. Variety is always what grocery stores have done. To increase the variety offered, the Kretschmanns obtain certain produce they don't grow from other area farms. That includes blueberries, strawberries and peaches, and recently chickens were added to the list of products offered.

        Evolving into a winter harvest
        When the Kretschmanns started growing, farmers' markets were in decline, though they began renewing that old model and were selling at six or seven markets. By the 1990s, CSAs had become the trend. "Now that's taken over our lives," he says. With 1,300 shares, that's understandable. Of those shares, 220 now continue with a winter share program. The formerly doubtful Kretschmann is now a believer.

        "I thought they would die out. There was no reason to think they would succeed when consumers could come to the market and get what they wanted," he explains. "But from the beginning, we made it more and more convenient for the consumer by dropping off the produce in their neighborhood. It made economic, sustainable sense: One farmer driving one distance rather than all those consumers driving to the market."

        The addition of winter boxes from December through February, which began a decade ago, was originally a matter of simple extrapolation, a way of selling what was left over from the year's harvest, essentially excess produce. Initially, the Kretschmanns emailed customers and asked if they would be interested in getting produce over the winter. Boxes were made up in December; for example, 3 pounds of tomatoes, apples and cabbage at a cost of $30. "We just kept it going until we ran out of stuff," he notes. "Now, we've extended it to storable items and have begun marketing other produce."

        The jury is out, however, on whether or not extending into the winter season is profitable in a strictly dollars-and-cents way. The Kretschmanns have found that it's more valuable in allowing them to retain farm help through the winter and thus year-round. They're increasing their employees' yearly wages, essentially paying salaries, providing medical benefits, and allowing workers to invest in pension plans.

        "We've found it's giving us a whole new level of employee," he says. "If we can't keep them [over the winter], then we're starting all over again in the spring. It's making our lives easier, even knowing that the training sticks. We're not losing people, then losing all that [training] time. It makes everything we're doing more professional. When you have that kind of employee, you can start thinking about other things and moving toward other opportunities."

        In much the same vein, offering a winter CSA program also helps retain customer-subscriber loyalty. Service is continuous, though for logistics there is a separate enrollment for the winter program. "It's a way of keeping the consumer engaged," he says.

        Developing a production model that ensures increased retail market sales rather than sales to the wholesale world has helped the bottom line. The Kretschmanns pay close attention to where they're channeling produce. Initial overflow goes to restaurants, then smaller grocery stores, and then larger wholesalers. "You keep diverting produce until such a time that you've eliminated, or are able to eliminate, wholesale sales," explains Kretschmann. "Having enough CSA customers who carry over to the winter helps."

        The family farm allows CSA registrations year-round, even in September and October, and just prorates the annual fee. For what he calls a "classic" CSA model, growers determine their subscription number early, and then plant to meet the needs of that rate. "We plant as much as we can produce, and then market it through our channels," he says.

        Limitations and storage options
        About the only limitation for winter produce is storage capacity and, of course, the additional challenges that working in the winter brings--even wearing gloves to pack the boxes.

        "In the summer you're working on faith that you can sell what you're producing, and that if you see a crop is going to be a failure, you immediately compensate, but in the winter there's nothing you can do to compensate," Kretschmann says. "It can be a little tricky. For one, you're never quite sure how long winter squash will last. We've found that it's about mid-January, but it's really a crapshoot."

        He's even used one of the simplest, oldest innovations for winter storage: leaves. He packs carrots in alternating layers of leaves and row cover in an old, unheated basement. The downside is the steps to get into the basement, but the upside is the leaves. "Leaves are free," he says. Others have also used sawdust or mulch. "Leaves have the right amount of moisture to sop up any rot, and we have a tree right outside that basement," he adds.

        For critical storage, the Kretschmanns rely on two coolers, one that's specifically earmarked for apple storage. Each system's condenser and regular insulation supplies enough heat to prevent freezing. A few years ago, they created a squash storage room using fiberglass panels to insulate a grain room in an old barn. That area is heated with a 1,500-watt electric heater, keeping the space at 50 degrees Fahrenheit on average. The room is also used to store onions, garlic and potatoes.

        Another converted area in their classic Pennsylvania bank barn is used for winter storage of potatoes, beets and cabbage. Kretschmann constantly monitors the temperature and is upgrading the space. On the hillside end, he closed up an outside opening with plastic and sealed up airflow and moisture cracks in the foundation and walls. The temperature stays in the 30s unless there's a deep freeze.

        "It all requires flexibility," he says. "We can even pick kale and put it in there as long as it doesn't get super cold. If we get worried, I might cover it with row cover. It's all pretty simple: You just use what you have."

        Kretschmann says that in the past, growers would bury barrels in the fields and cover them, which is not unlike what he's done in the bank side of his barn. "It's all about air filtration and insulation," he explains. "These are little things. None of it is rocket science."

        A greenhouse and hoop house on the property are used to grow mesclun greens (the arugulas and kales, etc.). Also in the greenhouse, which is used for growing tomatoes in the summer, they're experimenting with growing Swiss chard. "We're going to see how long those plants survive," Kretschmann says.

        Planting and harvesting
        With the focus on extending the season, the Kretschmanns purposely allow their beets to grow huge. "They're perfectly edible," Kretschmann says. "The bigger the beet, the better it scores, so we deliberately let them grow. The smaller ones we say get wimpy--soft. We grow a nice firm beet." These firm beets store better over the winter.

        Likewise, they grow bigger carrots because they store better. Red cabbage stores better than green cabbage. They also plant turnips, selecting varieties because of their storage durability. Winter squash varieties have increasingly been based on shelf life.

        Creative marketing
        Any farm in the Northeast that extends its growing season into the winter is fighting grocery store produce. "Perfect stuff that's picked in Florida or Texas," Kretschmann says. "It's 100 percent nice, and it's hard to have stored stuff that's as good and consistent."

        However, he's tickled to have produce well into the winter and says the key is passing on that same marketing message to the consumer. "We have to continue playing our strongest card. It's direct farm-to-consumer sales. Get to know your farmer and whatever other artistic-philosophical message we can throw at them," he says.

        His own newsletter promotes that message, or what he calls the "Little House on the Prairie" picture. "Part of it is almost Hollywood," he says. "It certainly requires creativity. Part of the message is that growers are alive and well over the winter."

        From growers like the Kretschmanns, there's a creative challenge to other growers to better evaluate and understand themselves and their own operations. He says, "Too many underestimate themselves. It takes thinking about what you have and being open to new ideas."

        The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.