The pizza oven is closed for the season, and the workday planned for this wintry afternoon has garnered a dismal turnout — four volunteers, myself included, made it up the hill to the Yale Farm. After spending what felt like an hour, but couldn’t have been more than 20 minutes yanking at weeds with mittened hands, the student managers huddled around the stove in the supply shed, preparing tea to warm us up.
But though the plots we overlook are brown and sad-looking, and clouds of frozen breath hover in the air between Yale Sustainable Food Project Lazarus Program Coordinator Zan Romanoff ’09 and I, inside the hoop houses the winter crop is quietly thriving.
Romanoff is a California native who speaks at an accelerating pace as she packs in more and more facts and figures related to the farm. Despite the fact that her job requires a significant amount of time spent digging in the dirt, Romanoff has impressively manicured fingers (she later tells me that she did them that morning). People complain about winter-growing in Connecticut, Romanoff says, but she insists, “It’s actually A., possible and B., in some ways less arduous, less difficult.”
In the summer months, the farm runs at full throttle, with constant planting and harvesting — one crop or another is always either going in or coming out of the beds. The combination of shorter growing periods and higher yields puts a lot of pressure on the farm. On top of the extra work, there is more at risk if the weather doesn’t cooperate or if pests cannot be controlled. Tomato blight could wipe out the whole lucrative summer crop of tomatoes, while a drought could threaten the entire harvest.
Winter-growing moves more slowly, producing smaller yields and allowing for more control. After the majority of the farm’s beds are “put to sleep” for the winter — either covered in mulch or a cover crop that won’t be harvested, but which serves to hold the soil in place and replenish its nitrogen supply — the farm’s three hoop houses continue to yield a surprising bounty. Hoop houses are permanent metal arch-shaped structures left open most of the year, but covered in plastic in the winter months.
Each layer of plastic covering a crop “moves” the climate 500 miles south. So, the first layer of plastic enclosing the hoop house in addition to the remay cloth overlay directly on the beds keeps the coldest temperature at around 20 degrees Fahrenheit — the equivalent of winter in northern Florida — without requiring any energy input aside from natural sunlight, while the considerably lower temperature outside takes care of most pests.
Because of these protective measures, the problems the farm faces are not necessarily the ones you would expect, considering the season. “Our enemy is not the cold, it’s moisture,” says Yale Farm Coordinator Jeremy Oldfield, the man in charge of the science of the whole operation. To keep mildew and mold at bay, farm workers start off the morning by rolling up the sides of hoop houses to “vent” them, releasing any moisture accumulated overnight. They then roll them back down to trap and store enough heat to keep the crops warm through the next night.
“What you’re really looking at is this moment around 3 a.m. where everything out here is frozen and nothing in those high tunnels is frozen,” says Oldfield, gesturing at the exposed fields below and moving his hand towards the hoop houses. He continues, personifying the nascent veggies, “That’s allowing those guys to grow at night, and a lot of the growth that they put on is actually at night.”
Winter on the farm means salad greens and root vegetables. The hoop houses support what Oldfield describes as “a bouquet of really beautiful Asian greens and mustards.”
A few of the outdoor beds are planted with beets, carrots, leeks and onions that grow infinitesimally each day and are harvested at intervals throughout the season in order to ensure that the farm remains consistently productive, even if not prolific. The cold slows the growth, but rather than weakening the crop, it actually allows the produce to develop more complexity, producing sweeter, fuller flavors that also contain more nutrients. In the case of salad greens, the color of the leaf indicates the increased level of nutrients. A vegetable grown year-round is “its full self,” says Oldfield. “The red mustard we’re selling is not just dusted with red, it’s ruby leaf.”
For the first time, the farm is experimenting with artificially heated greenhouses as well. They have rented beds to grow microgreens in Greeley Greenhouse, located across from the farm owned by the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and primarily used as a space for students to conduct research in different climate conditions. Here, they are experimenting with new crops, like basil and radishes, that are rarely grown in northern winters.
CitySeed’s winter market is held just twice a month, in contrast to its popular weekly farmers market held during the rest of the year. The Yale Farm only opens their booth for one market a month. In busier seasons, every table is awash with piles of produce fresh from Connecticut farms. Since this isn’t always the case in the winter months, the Yale Farm has a little bit of an edge. “Because they’re nice, tender, local salad greens, we can get a very good price on them,” says Romanoff of the Farm’s winter produce, compared to the root- veggie leaning offerings of the other vendors.
Throughout the season, the Yale Farm continues to produce a regular but modest output of produce and revenue. These smaller winter harvests lend themselves to partnerships with local restaurants. As the farm’s presence in New Haven has grown, so has its network of potential buyers for the winter harvests. Miya’s Sushi will often buy whatever is available, and then work it into their menu. Last year, Blue State Coffee purchased most of the farm’s salad greens throughout the winter for salads and sandwiches sold in their coffee shops.
Produce also stays on campus. A genetics lab has purchased two pounds of spinach, fodder for spinachy genome analysis, every week throughout the year and will continue to do so through the winter as it pursues its research. Northern Greening, the fledgling catering company founded last April by Emma Schmidt ’15 and Hallie Meyer ’15, has partnered with the farm on a Public Health Coalition lunch this year, and will continue to do so on other events through the winter.
“We both wanted to be involved in the farm in a way that was more creating our own thing,” says Meyer. They saw a catering venture as the natural next step. Before preparing the lunch, they stopped by the farm to pick up chard, squash, carrots, garlic, leeks, beets and baby lettuces. Hours later, the girls were serving up their first meal of warm gingered carrot soup, roasted beets, baby lettuce salad and crostini with chard and white cheddar.
Watching Schmidt and Meyer leave the farm with ungainly armfuls of veggies, Oldfield suggested that they develop a system for a more efficient partnership. The girls met with Oldfield late in the fall. Together, they discussed the plans for the season, allowing Schmidt and Meyer to put in requests and plan their menus around what would be available. Unlike a restaurant with a set menu, a catering company like Northern Greening has the flexibility to determine menus based on what’s available, making them a natural partner for the farm.
Just as winter is a time for slow growth for the crops on the farm, it is also a time for gradual growth of the farm itself, through partnerships that explore the flexibility of the quieter season. The respite gives the Farm caretakers a bit of time to contemplate long-term projects — for example, Romanoff hopes to build more hoop house to expand the available beds for future harvests. But as with all winter developments on the farm, these plans are moving slowly.