A few weeks after coming back to campus, as beautiful white snowdrifts have been transformed into puddles of murky slush — and then covered with snow again — the Yale Farm is a resplendent image of winter beauty. Contrary to popular belief, this huge tract of land atop Science Hill does not lie idle in the winter months. 345 Edwards St. is abuzz with activity as Yale farmers plant, tend and harvest away despite the frigid conditions.
I arrived at the farm after lunch last Friday to meet Justin Freiberg FES ’10, who works part time at the farm, for a tour. Stumbling through piles of unplowed snow, I came upon two plastic tunnel-like buildings tended to by four workers. Compared to a Friday afternoon three months ago, the farm was shockingly quiet — gone were the flocks of students eager for brick-oven pizza and hands-on experience.
But even though the students are conspicuously missing, the farm is by no means dormant during this part of the year. Freiberg explained that the farm is able to continue production thanks to these strange plastic structures, which are called “hoop houses.” The buildings are covered on all four sides by translucent plastic draped on metal rods. Not only do the hoop houses protect these areas of land from snowfall and other inclement weather, but they also trap sunlight inside, creating an environment that is about 10 degrees warmer than the air outside.
Even better, the hoop houses are sustainable.
“Because we only need to use plastic, they’re a lot cheaper to construct than greenhouses, which need glass,” Freiberg said. He explained that greenhouses need an outside energy source, while the hoop houses only require sunlight.
The Yale Farm currently has two hoop houses in operation, and Freiberg said they are planning to add another in the spring.
Right now, the houses contain hardy crops like arugula and members of the mustard family. I reached down and plucked a leaf of claytonia, a tough, leafy vegetable, and tasted it, discovering that the weed-like plant was actually delicious. While they don’t grow as fast as summer crops, these plants are meant to be raised in harsh, cold climates. If the weather ever gets dangerously cold — as it’s been this past week — measures can be taken to ensure the survival of the crops. Much like a small child cowering under a blanket on an icy night, the plants are covered with sheets to protect them from the frost.
Laura Blake ’12, a student farm manager, said it is so important to keep the farm active during the winter months because it allows farmers to get a head start on the summer growing season. The farmers begin to grow summer crops — usually vegetables grown in a tropical climate — that can survive the New Haven winter thanks to the protection of the hoop houses.
“This is a really important time because you’re reflecting on the season that you just had,” Blake said. “The decisions you make now affect the harvest you collect in the fall.”
Since summer crops that start in the hoop houses may get too hot if they remain in the enclosures, the hoop houses are built to be collapsible. As the summer heat starts to set in, the back walls of the houses are removed, allowing for more ventilation. By the time the heat has reached its maximum, the entire plastic covering is removed.
Not only does this activity promote Yale’s sustainability goals, but it also has an immediate effect on the local community. While the winter harvest does not produce enough to supply food to the dining halls, the farm still provides vegetables to local restaurants. In previous years, farm vegetables have even been sold at winter markets and donated to local food pantries. The farmers sell the leafy vegetables that grow in the hoop houses as well as carrots and parsnips, which grow under a blanket of snow and are sweetened by the cold.
While it may not be as easy to get involved at the Yale Farm during the winter months, many students still devote time to helping out. Blake explained that there are currently seven student farm managers, in addition to other employees, all of whom hold paid positions. These students work on planting and tending crops in the hoop houses, making decisions about the upcoming growing season, and maintaining the farm facilities. For example, the student farmers were removing snow drifts from the outside skins of the hoop houses when I visited, allowing more sunlight to reach the crops and preventing damage to the plastic.
Despite the cold, the farm still provides an escape from academic pressures for devoted students.
“It’s really liberating to work with your hands,” said Yasha Magarik ’12, another of the student farm managers. “It serves as a nice contrast to being an English major, which is all writing, reading and thinking. Working on the farm uses a set of skills I’ve never used before.”
Students interested in reaping the therapeutic benefits to be harvested at the Yale Farm during the winter can visit on Fridays and Sundays between 1:00 and 5:00 p.m.