Growing to satisfy demand for organic produce

Temperatures are in the 20s, snow lies deep, andin four high tunnels at the Vegetable Ranch inWarner, N.H., Larry Pletcher and Farm ManagerStacey Cooper tend spinach, bok choy, tatsoi,radish, salad turnips, leaf broccoli, spring lettuce and mustardgreens. When temperatures warm, they will add othercrops. However, despite their best year-round efforts, theycan’t grow enough organic food to satisfy the demand.

Coming to winter growing

Pletcher has been growing organically all his life. His farm was certified organic in 1988, and he has been growing and selling produce for the last 10 years. In summer, 40 different kinds of vegetables grow on 20 acres of cropland at his farm and on scattered plots within a 15-mile radius. In 2001, he began experimenting with winter growing in a small high tunnel. Since then, Pletcher has added a 17-by-56-foot high tunnel, a 30-by-96-foot high tunnel and a new 30-by-72-foot high tunnel. All were designed and constructed by Ledgewood Greenhouses of Moultonborough, N.H. All have hip boards, are roll-ups, and are basically unheated. (The medium tunnel does have a small gas LP heater occasionally used to protect the least hardy crops on very cold nights.) None have electricity. Water in the medium tunnel comes from the farm’s domestic supply. The large tunnel is served by a dug well with a pump. The new high tunnel’s water, from a well, runs in a hose from the farm’s nearby shop.

High tunnels in winter

Before seeding begins, soil is tested and soil amendments added. Pletcher uses North Country Organics’ Pro-Gro in the high tunnels. In summer, when heritage tomatoes are grown in the high tunnels, he adds phosphorus, usually in the form of bone char, which he describes as relatively cheap, fast-acting and concentrated, but a black, dusty mess to deal with. Bone char is also used for tomatoes grown in the field.

Seeding for winter crops begins in mid-September and continues through October. Before real winter cold sets in, the seeds, most from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, have germinated and plants have begun growing. Some crops, such as lettuce and mustard greens, will be ready to harvest in January, others later. Scallions sown in September will be ready in early April. Spinach grows little in the coldest part of winter, but sprouts more leaves as temperatures warm in late February and March. During the coldest months, high tunnel crops are not reseeded.

Seedlings are watered until the ground freezes. Then all watering stops. Pletcher has found that it is best to keep winter high tunnels on the dry side, because excess humidity promotes mold. In general, watering is resumed when outside daytime temperatures reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Temperatures within the high tunnels can range from nighttime lows in the mid-20s to daytime highs of 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The ground inside the tunnels will freeze lightly to a depth of less than 1 inch. Although he formerly removed row covers on warmer days, Pletcher has found that they can be kept in place most of the winter. On days when high tunnels warm to 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, doors are opened for ventilation. If it gets too hot in the high tunnels, plants stop growing.

Various critters are happy to find a warm place in winter. Mice and voles burrow under the hip boards. Voles, slugs and aphids appear from time to time. Cutworms overwinter particularly well. Rodents are trapped. Ladybugs, purchased from The Green Spot in Nottingham, N.H., control the occasional aphid infestation.

Sprouting shoots

Spinach and other greens aren’t the only crops growing at the Vegetable Ranch in winter. In addition to high tunnel crops, Pletcher also grows shoots and microgreens. Beets, arugula, cabbage, sunflowers, peas and buckwheat sprout in trays under lights in a 12-by-12-foot interior room of the Vegetable Ranch’s storage building and shop. The room, which serves as a cool-storage area in summer, is heated to 80 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. Shoots and microgreens are seeded in potting soil or a growing medium. Beets, arugula and cabbage are grown as microgreens. Sunflowers, pea plants and radish are grown a bit larger and sold as large shoots. Some buckwheat is grown to shoot size, others become microgreens. All are cut with scissors, packaged in vented plastic bags or clamshells and sold by weight.

With shoots and microgreens, temperature and timing are everything. In 2009, Pletcher learned the art of growing them at Pete’s Greens, an organic, four-season vegetable farm in Craftsbury, Vt. Plants to be grown as shoots or microgreens are seeded densely so that the young shoots will support each other. Shoots knocked down in the tray tend to mold and rot. What’s left after harvest is food, too. Remaining shoot stems become a tasty dessert for the farm’s 20 Black Star and New Hampshire Red hens.

Summer seeds are also started in the storage building and shop. In a large, open area where the temperature is around 45 degrees Fahrenheit on a late February day, trays of seedlings cover conference-style folding tables. On sunny days when the temperature is above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the tables are moved to the building’s porch. Later in the season, the porch will become the farm’s market.

Commitment and cash

Customers in search of organically grown produce help support the Vegetable Ranch through participation in CSAs. Since 2002, the Vegetable Ranch’s produce has been available in summer through the multifarm Local Harvest CSA centered in Concord. For the past six years, the Vegetable Ranch has also partnered with Bob Bower of Kearsarge Gore Farm. This two-farm, Warner-based CSA anticipates 2011 participation of 80 to 90 families.

In 2008-09, the Vegetable Ranch began its Concord Area Winter CSA with 60 member families. By 2010-11, its third year, 92 families were receiving winter storage vegetables (including beets, carrots, potatoes, onions and turnips) and freshly picked cold-loving greens grown in high tunnels. Produce was available for pickup on 10 dates between mid-December and early May at a church in Concord or at the Vegetable Ranch.

Other markets

Weekly in summer and monthly in winter, the Vegetable Ranch’s organic produce is available at the Concord Farmers’ Market. Despite the efforts of 11 full and part-time summer employees (many recruited via craigslist), the farm cannot grow enough organic produce fast enough. Much in demand, it always sells out quickly. Other markets include A Market in Manchester (a 40-year-old independent healthy food market), the Concord Cooperative Market, and several other natural foods markets and restaurants in central New Hampshire. The Concord Cooperative Market’s board of directors recently voted to purchase a high tunnel for use at the Vegetable Ranch to be used exclusively for growing winter and summer crops for co-op members and guests.

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. She resides in Henniker, N.H.