Winter Brings Change and Innovation to Massachusetts Farms

by Lara Goodrich Ezor

As winter approaches and temperatures drop in New England, regional farms must adapt to the changes that come with shifts in season. Traditionally, the winter season is the slow time of year on Massachusetts farms; workers depart, fields lay near-empty, and harvests are minimal. But some are establishing innovative ways to enhance productivity and extend the growing season in spite of the harsh, wintry conditions.

By the end of October, seasonally hired farm workers often find themselves out of a job and in search of employment elsewhere during the slow months.

“If you’re an apprentice or crew member, you’re probably going to be laid off and not hired back until April,” Jordan McCarron explained. McCarron has worked on Lindentree Farm in Lincoln, MA for two full seasons as a work-share volunteer and the manager of the Field of Greens plot on the property, a one-quarter acre area set aside for growing produce to donate to the Cambridge-based food rescue non-profit, Food for Free.

Some seasonal workers take the winter months to travel, while others find temporary employment in the regional maple sugaring industries, or tree-pruning sectors.

Miriam Stason is the manager of the Boston-area CSA shares at The Food Project in Lincoln. While some workers are employed through the winter at The Food Project, irregular scheduling allots part-time hours to year-round workers.

“The year-round farmers work a lot of hours in the summer…but taper in the winter,” she explained. “Over the course of a year they have an average of forty hours per week, but in terms of the farm in the late fall, things really slow down. By the end of October, we try to have things mostly cleaned up and put away.”

Though the deep winter is an ideal time for farmers and workers to take a break from farm work, winter months are dedicated to planning for the upcoming busy season, and the work is never done.

“Typically, there’s always someone around, and the farm is always on the farmer’s mind,” Stason said.

In spite of the inevitable seasonal changes, Massachusetts farms are finding innovative ways to expand their production and activities during deep winter months. Some hearty greens, like kale and collard greens, taste better after the first frost of the season, and The Food Project and Lindentree farms have enough produce to be harvested or stored late in the season to provide a hearty Thanksgiving share. Additionally, many local farms are beginning to experiment with high greenhouses that keep plants warm and protected by retaining heat from the sun and allow for growing and harvesting throughout the winter.

Red Fire Farm, with locations in Granby and Montague, MA, has systematically expanded its winter production and storage capacities over the last few years. Farmer and owner Ryan Voiland explained their decision to scale up in spite of the dropping temperatures.

Washed parsnips stored for winter in a Red Fire Farm root cellar/L. Goodrich Ezor

Washed parsnips stored for winter in a Red Fire Farm root cellar/L. Goodrich Ezor

“We are interested in trying to find ways that we can make locally grown food available to our local community for as much of the year as we possibly can,” he said. “Before we started doing this, we essentially had to lay off all of our employees [at the end of the season]…So, from a business perspective, it helps us provide steady work for our core employees, and they don’t have to go find other jobs.”

Farmer Ryan Voiland tends to one of Red Fire Farm’s winter greenhouses/L. Goodrich Ezor

Farmer Ryan Voiland tends to one of Red Fire Farm’s winter greenhouses/L. Goodrich Ezor

While Red Fire Farm employs fewer people during the winter months, they now remain steadily busy year-round. The farm participates in winter farmers markets, and offers both a late fall CSA share (November-December) and a deep winter share (January-March). The shares are made up of produce and other local food products – like cheese and pickles – as a way to showcase other local producers during the slow season and round out the winter share.

In order to continue to offer their produce throughout the winter, Red Fire Farm has made significant investments in building storage cellars, where vegetables harvested in the summer and fall are saved for winter distribution and sales. Between their on-site storage facilities and rented spaces, they store up to 200 palettes of produce for winter use. The farm also freezes fresh produce like berries, peaches, and peppers in the high season for winter distribution, and, with an acre of land cultivated under high greenhouses, is able to continue harvesting throughout the winter.

While winter inevitably brings changes to New England farms, farmers are adapting and finding ways to provide local food to consumers regardless of the season. Even on farms where work remains sparse in the winter months, the slow season passes quickly. By February, seeds are being planted, and farms become lively again.

“All of a sudden,” said Stason, “March is here, and most of the seasonal workers are on the farm by April.”

Before long, winter has inevitably come to a close, and the busy season is back in full swing.

Lara Goodrich Ezor is a first-year FPAN student and an aspiring gardener. She worked on a CSA farm on Whidbey Island, WA in 2010, and now experiments with growing vegetables and herbs in her backyard raised bed in Somerville, MA.  To learn more, visit our Meet  Our Writers page.

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