All this week, as part of our food series, NHPR, has been looking into the possibilities of a regional food system. What would it look like? What would have to change? One of the largest obstacles facing farmers in northern New England is something they can’t change. The weather. It’s a short growing season when the rule of thumb is don’t plant before Memorial day. But as NHPR’s Mark Bevis reports, farmers across the region are finding solutions ….under glass.
If you want to see the mother of all greenhouses, at least in this region, check out Backyard Farms in Madison, Maine. Tim Cunniff is a company Vice President. “we have 42 acres under glass. 36 football fields” Because Madison , Maine is more or less on the same latitude as Dixville Notch, in Coos County, they’ve got to heat the place in the winter. They use propane boilers for a hot water system. For light in the darkest of the Maine winter, they use electricity. And they’re growing year round. “A typical week, we do about a half a million pounds. (Bevis) A half a million pounds of tomatoes? “In a week, yeah.” Cuniff says about 35 to 40 percent of those tomatoes stay in Maine and the rest sell in Northern New England. And he says, they plan to expand. But, Backyard Farms is anything but a backyard operation. There’s no outfit in the region that’s bigger. Nothing even comes close. Typically farmers around here are growing on the scale Pooh Sprague is. He drives me around his Edgewater Farm in Plainfield on a little utility vehicle. “we got four other tomato greenhouses, so we got a total of 4,7, 9 tomato greenhouses plus we put a bunch of them in the field, a pretty good size crop, a pretty important crop for anyone in the retail farm thing…..” Sprague starts his tomatoes in January in a greenhouse. Then in March, he moves them into the ground in what are called high tunnels. High tunnels are low-tech greenhouses, built with metal tube frames and covered with a plastic sheeting. Unlike greenhouses, they typically are not heated. “I can’t tell you exactly the yield of these things, because we’re not good book keepers, but in this house we have 360 plants. So it’s not a high density population. A lot of my friends will plant a lot higher. It’s just a user friendly system for us at this farm that we’ve adopted.” And it looks like it’s working. Sprague’s plants are about 4 feet tall and covered with fruit. …and it’s only mid-May. Sprague and most other vegetable farmers across the state are thumbing their noses at New England’s short growing season. With greenhouses and high tunnels, they’re planting earlier in the winter and producing later into the fall. John Wells is the northeast sales rep for Rimol Greenhouse Systems based in Hooksett. He says he’s sold dozens of greenhouses and high tunnels since January. “It really has made a difference in some farms that were struggling, to get them into a new way of selling, a new market for them. I think it’s probably going to save some businesses.” Some of that growth is due to a new federal assistance program out of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Those farms that qualify can get more than 10 thousand dollars toward the cost of a new high tunnel. Branden Smith is the state agronomist with the NRCS. This started in January, and in our first sign up period we had I think over 70 applications for high tunnels. Smith predicts the agency will approve more than 100 by the end of their second sign up period this spring. The strategy of trying to produce more local fruits and vegetables in the off season is clearly growing in popularity. But Becky Sideman, with the UNH Cooperative Extension, says farmers in New England can push it only so far. “To produce things like tomatoes and cucumbers which require a quite a bit of temperature and light year round, that is going to be a challenge, no matter what.” Some farmers are trying to meet those challenges. They are heating their greenhouses, with wood, with corn, with coal, with gas. They are putting up grow lights for those dark winter months. Rimol Sales Rep John Wells says farmers are always looking for innovation. “There’s already things in play, like there are energy curtains that we use, they are like a reflective milar curtain that are all automated, they close at night. Because during the night is when you heat, during the day the sun does it for you.” But anything that costs money, whether it’s milar curtains, wood pellets, or photovoltaic solar panels is going to cut into a farmer’s already meager profit. Another alternative is to focus on what already grows well in the region. “with even an unheated high tunnel, you can produce greens, salad greens, year round if you use a little bit of protection inside. “ That’s Becky Sideman at the UNH Extension Service. “While that is not a tremendous amount of calories, it certain is a tremendous amount of feel good green nutrients (laughs), you know there’s something great about having something green in the middle of winter.” Add to those greens the squashes, the potatoes, the onions and beets and carrots that can hold well into the winter, and says Sideman, you’ve got a viable food system. And while they may not be as pretty as bright red tomatoes, they cost a whole lot less to produce.