When I asked which kinds of local produce the co-op carried during the winter, Robert Kirigin, produce manager at Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, surveyed a spreadsheet of recent wholesale purchases.
“There are Cortland, Empire, Granny Smith, McIntosh and Gala apples,” he read from his list. Those are from storage at Sunrise Orchards.
Then he proceeded through a list of the usual winter-season suspects: garlic from Witch Cat Farm, onions from Pete’s Greens, fingerling and Russet potatoes from Foote Brook Farm, and sweet potatoes from Laughing Child Farm. There are red, gold and Chioggia beets from Foote Brook Farm and Pete’s Greens, and carrots from Sanders Farm in Quebec.
“He’s a phenomenal grower,” Kirigin said of the owner of Sanders Farm. That farm supplies black radishes and rutabagas, too.
Then, Kirigin got excited.
This winter, the co-op is carrying local organic tomatoes from Long Wind Farm in Thetford. “They taste like real tomatoes in the winter, which is amazing,” Kirigin said. And, they’re grown in soil rather than water-based hydroponic systems, like most other winter tomatoes.
The co-op carries pints of “Little Guys,” as the farm has named them, which are largeish cherry tomatoes. Then there are also “Big Guys,” which are Grade A slicing tomatoes, as well as Vermatoes, a smaller slicing tomato, and Good & Ugly tomatoes that are seconds in appearance, but not in flavor.
The Little Guys sell for $6.98 per pint and the Big Guys sell for $5.29 per pound at Hunger Mountain Co-op. They’re steep prices for tomatoes, but not when you consider the source and quality.
“If you’re going to eat tomatoes in the winter time, you’re better off eating a small amount of these than something that doesn’t taste like a tomato,” said Kirigin.
The tomatoes are grown in two big glass greenhouses that total 2.5 acres. Farm owner Dave Chapman has been growing tomatoes since 1984, but up until two years ago, he stopped picking in his greenhouses in late December. Then, after a few tomato-free months, his plants again began producing in early spring. But recently, Chapman extended his greenhouses’ growing season by adding grow lights, and now, for the past two years, he grows tomatoes year-round.
“In Vermont in winter, there’s not enough daylight to grow a mature plant with tomatoes on it,” explains Chapman by phone from his greenhouse, where he was measuring tomato plants. And because the lights help increase the tomato yield, plus give off heat that offsets propane use in the greenhouses, he has actually decreased the energy input per pound of tomatoes grown.
But, despite the success, his tomatoes are hard to come by in the winter. “We just don’t have that many,” he says. Hunger Mountain Co-op and City Market in Burlington are two retailers where his tomatoes can be found when they are available.
Farming is hard in the winter, whether it’s tomatoes or any other crop. At 1000 Stone Farm in Brookfield, owner Kyle Doda supplies greenhouse-grown veggies and storage crops to a number of customers — that is, when he isn’t shoveling snow.
Doda’s customers include his Community Supported Agriculture members, twice-monthly farmers markets in Burlington, and wholesale buyers at restaurants, such as Kismet and Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier, and retailers like the Hunger Mountain Co-op and a number of markets along the Interstate 89 corridor heading north from Waterbury to Burlington.
Doda’s mushrooms are on sale at Hunger Mountain Co-op, like Chestnut, Oyster and Shitake mushrooms, plus pea shoots. These young pea plants, sold in bunches, serve up nicely in soups, salads, stir fries and other winter dishes that call for a tender green vegetable.
The pea shoots are grown in plastic trays under grow lights inside an insulated building, and Doda keeps them growing all year long. Spinach and kale are currently winding down their growing season in the unheated greenhouses, and the mushrooms are growing in an insulated room.
These days, his farming work also includes getting ready for the upcoming summer growing season. He’s starting seeds like lettuce, bok choy, and mustard greens in trays, and soon he’ll be direct-seeding arugula and radishes in the greenhouses.
His customers are also eating their way through the last of his cool-storage crops, such as winter squashes like butternut, hubbard and delicata. These vegetables store best at temperatures in the 40-degree Fahrenheit range, as do his onions, shallots and garlic, which are stored alongside the squashes. There are potatoes, beets and cabbage in walk-in coolers that serve as cold storage, where the temperature is held below 41 degrees Fahrenheit but above freezing.
Other than infrastructure requirements, like cool and cold storage, grow lights and greenhouses, Doda says winter farming requires a lot of planning. Each plant has to be planted at the right time to be productive through the winter. Kale, for example, has to be planted in the fall, when the daylight and temperatures aren’t too low.
“You have to get the timing just right” for all of the crops, says Doda. “It takes a lot of planning to transition from summer crops to winter crops.”
When it comes to local food, home growers are starting to plan their gardens, too. And, it turns out, they’re already buying up seeds in preparation.
Back at Hunger Mountain Co-op, the produce department is also getting ready for planting. The High Mowing Seeds display went up on the second Tuesday of January, offering organic seeds from the local supplier in Hardwick.
Kirigin looks at another spreadsheet, this time a sales report for the seeds. Already more than 1,000 seed packets have been purchased.
“Last week alone we sold 485 seed packets,” he reports. The uber-local foodies are getting their backyard operations ready, too.
Whether local food lovers are headed out to eat, hitting the grocery store, or passing time by planning next summer’s garden, local flavors abound, even in the snow.