Winter Markets Extend Season For Farmers

03/06/10 9:35AM By Susan Keese
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VPR/Susan Keese
Joe Buley of East Montpelier, Vermont, tends his winter spinach

(Host) It's the time of year when a lot of people in the Northeast are hankering for fresh grown vegetables.

Now, even in the coldest area, farmers are devising ways to satisfy that craving.

As part of a collaboration with Northeast public radio stations, VPR's Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) The Winter Farmers Market in Montpelier is a magnet for sun-starved Vermonters on a cold Saturday morning.

There are carrots and potatoes and - if you get there early - Joe Buley's fresh-picked greens.

(Buley) "That's salad mix and then I have spinaches in the front."

(Customer) "Oh, I'll have spinach."

(Keese) Buley, a gourmet chef-turned-market-gardener, is on the vanguard of a movement among Northeastern farmers: growing cold-tolerant vegetables all winter to satisfy a rising demand for fresh local produce.

On a windy mountain terrace in East Montpelier, Buley grows his winter vegetables in two specially designed greenhouses known as "high tunnels." They're heated only by the sun. 

(Buley) "Here's a mix of Tatsoi.  It's Tokyo Bekana. This is called ‘golden frills.' It's a really nice little mustard green. And this is all an experimental patch and it's doing quite well."

(Keese) Buley's long, raised beds of spinach and salad greens are covered with spun polyester blankets that let in light and trap the heat. It's about 12 degrees outside but inside it's a balmy almost 60.

(Buley) "Here try that, it's really sweet."

(Keese) Buley chooses plants that grow back after he cuts them. He'll harvest these rows five or six times before spring.

The plants grow slowly at first, then take off as the days lengthen.

For six years Buley's biggest challenge has been figuring out which varieties will thrive in his unheated structure.

About 100 miles southwest in Argyle New York, Paul Arnold has been at it even longer.  

Almost 20 years ago he and his family began a push to start their season earlier and extend it later into the fall.

But they didn't grow winter crops commercially until 2005, when a winter farmer's market opened in Saratoga.

(Arnold) "Going back five, six years ago there wasn't really markets that were developed enough to do winter growing and now since then it's been an explosion."

(Keese) Now Arnold has almost tripled his winter production.

Arnold steps into one of his two high tunnels. Inside are beds of Swiss chard, kale, bok choi, lettuces, leeks, and tiny heads of broccoli.

(Arnold) "That's the turnips. We grow them in bunches."

(Keese) He lifts the leafy tops to reveal clusters of small red and white globes peaking out of the soil.

Arnold is one of several dozen producers working to satisfy a growing niche market. They're scattered across New England and New York.

Arnold says there's room for many more.

(Arnold) "This local movement is challenging us growers to supply this market."

(Keese) He says people want food that's grown closer to home.

For VPR News, I'm Susan Keese.

(Host) Northeast environmental reporting is made possible, in part, by a grant from United Technologies.  The coverage is part of NPR's local news initiative.

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