The aim of this four-year project has been to support New England farmers as they expand their vegetable production and sales into the winter months in response to the increasing public desire for year-round access to local food. For this project we considered the months of December through April as ‘winter’, because in most of New England, vegetable crops that are sold during those months require protected environments for growing or storage. Our work has facilitated the expansion of this market during the four years 2010-2014 and contributed to its success on multiple fronts. The project was a partnership of vegetable Extension specialists at the Universities of Massachusetts (UMass) and New Hampshire (UNH) Extensions, marketing specialists at two local food organizations, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) in Western MA and Seacoast Eat Local (SEL) in Eastern NH, and a group of grower advisors from four New England states. Through this partnership, we were able to reach a wide range of growers interested in increasing their winter vegetable sales and work on their technical needs related to having product to sell, while also building winter markets and the customer base needed to sustain them. The growth in winter markets and winter vegetable sales has been dramatic and we exceeded our performance target, documenting that 80 growers increased their winter income on average by a range of $11,775 – $23,113 per farm.
Our initial needs assessment indicated that growers wanted to increase their understanding of postharvest handling of crops for winter storage, as well as expand and improve their facilities. Many were using high tunnels for winter production but needed additional low cost season extension methods to address late fall and early spring harvest and sales. Field research trials (16 on-station and 9 on-farm) conducted over three winters addressed issues related to over-wintered vegetable production in low tunnels and post-harvest handling and storage of root crops. We found that low tunnels constructed of ten-foot hoops covered with heavy (1.25oz/yd2) row cover and 6 ml greenhouse plastic moderated the coldest winter temperatures at least 20 degrees F at locations from central NH to southern RI, and that spinach, onion, kale and carrots could be successful low tunnel crops for spring sales. At least 60 farms who worked with the project, attended programs or read our publications changed their postharvest and storage practices for winter vegetables, and built more carefully designed storages for vegetable needs or made improvements to adapt their existing facilities to new uses. The project used case studies to assess how well different types of storage units could maintain carrot quality in storage from November through February. We found that ambient-air-cooled root cellars and freestanding walk-in coolers worked as well or nearly as well as more expensive custom-engineered facilities, although an ambient air system may need supplemental cooling and humidity in a warm fall. Reports from these trials, along with other relevant technical information and farmer innovations, were presented by researchers and farmers at a total of 50 educational programs, reaching over 4,300 people during the four years of the project. During the same period, UMass Extension published over 24 unique articles in Vegetable Notes and UNH published 4 research reports and 2 refereed research articles on topics related to harvest and storage of winter crops, or season extension structure engineering and management. A Winter Production, Storage and Sales website was established at UMass in the second year of the project. It had over 3400 pageviews in 2014, a 20% increase from 2013, with the heaviest new traffic in the Post-Harvest and Storage Resources section. Several articles were written collaboratively by UNH and UMass including, “Using Low Tunnels for Overwinter Vegetables: Lessons Learned” which was published at the project’s completion.
CISA and Seacoast Eat Local worked on organizing, promoting and managing winter farmers markets at six locations, facilitating steady growth in the number of market days per year (more weekly and biweekly markets, extending into April instead of ending in February), the number of vegetable vendors (up by 50% from 2010 to 2014 in SEL markets) and customers, and the range of vegetables available over the course of the winter (up 17-35% for each month). Their customer education work highlighted the abundance and diversity of vegetables available through ‘vegetable of the week’ promotions, recipes, workshops for customers, websites and social media. They steadily drew new customers as well as nurturing an enthusiastic and loyal customer base. Farmers who were engaged in winter farmers markets diversified into other channels including farm stores, CSA, wholesale, and restaurants as their production and storage capacity increased.
In surveys conducted in 2014, farmers expressed that their major reasons for increasing winter vegetable production and sales are to increase farm income, maintain contact with customers through the winter, and keep employees year round. Among farmers we surveyed, over 60% indicate they currently intend to increase winter sales. Further work is needed to balance the continued expansion of production and customers so that markets do not become saturated. Farmers also want research and better understanding of 1) planting dates and methods for a range of crops and growing conditions from field to low tunnel to unheated or minimally-heated high tunnels, and 2) energy-efficient and cost-effective storage facilities. Post-harvest handling including fall and winter washing also remains a major challenge.
Performance Target: 75 vegetable growers in New England increase their annual income from sales of vegetable crops during the months of December through April, by an average $6750 per farm. This will be accomplished through extending their production and harvest season or through expanding successful storage of fall-harvested crops, or both.