If you're a fresh vegetable lover, it's hard to get excited about what's available in the supermarket produce section in the dead of winter. Whatever is there often has made a long journey from a field in a distant, sunny locale and been sprayed with something to keep it looking fresh. It's usually a little worse for the wear.
But winter veggies from your local farmer may be right under your nose for the picking, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Earlier this month, the agency announced that winter farmers markets are taking off.
Since 2010, these markets have increased 38 percent across the country to more than 1,200 sites. You can scout out the closest one through the National Farmers Market Directory.
New York, California and Pennsylvania lead the way with the most winter markets so far. Our colleagues over at KUNC in Colorado are also reporting a big expansion of markets in their state.
But even though more farmers are finding a way to maintain the harvest through the cold months, and get crops to market, coaxing vegetables out of the ground when the air is chilly and the wind brisk is tough work. That's why some universities that work with farmers have made winter production a new research priority.
"Winter farmers markets showing up throughout New England and are drawing large crowds of eager customers," the cheery UMass Extension Vegetable Program reports on its website. And so the program, along with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and two local food organizations, is experimenting with different technologies and farmers to expand their winter harvests and sales.
A lot of simple measures already exist to help cold weather crops like green and root vegetables along. Some farmers, like Zach Lester and Georgia O'Neal in Unionville, Va., use high tunnels – steel arches covered with plastic sheeting that act like greenhouses for tender crops like salad greens. Nancy Shute reported on their farm, which produces fresh leafy greens all year round.
Other farmers prefer low tunnels to protect cold-hardy crops from the elements. They're much cheaper and simpler than high tunnels, and usually only two-feet tall. (Check out this nifty tunnel primer from Cornell University for more details.)
This year, the folks up at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York (the same folks who appeared in Dan Charles's piece earlier this month on young farmers) are building low tunnels out of old PVC pipe, according to Erica Helms, the center's director of marketing and philanthropy.
"We also want to preserve the harvest," Helms tells The Salt. That means improving root storage and cold storage so that fall vegetables last deep into the winter. Good, hearty seeds are also key to growing vegetables that beat the cold. "We want high productivity and flavor," she says.