How Appalachian farmers and gardeners are raising crops through the winter
By Dave Walker
Finding fresh, local food during cold Appalachian winters can be a challenge. “Most folks in our region don’t grow at all in the winter,” says Christopher McKenzie of the nonprofit organization Grow Appalachia. “That limits what’s available and when. We know that families need and like to eat fresh produce year-around, and we want folks to be able to eat out of their garden all year long.”
Some farmers and backyard gardeners in the region are using season extension strategies to do just that.
Season extension expands growing opportunities by controlling the environment around a plant, allowing more favorable conditions for the plant to thrive. From high tunnels to low tunnels to heated greenhouses to straw bales and cold frames, gardeners and farmers are producing fresh vegetables in Appalachia even in the deepest snow.
Crops like carrots, beets, cabbage, kale and lettuce can be planted earlier in the spring or sustained over the winter. Summer vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, beans and cucumbers can also be started earlier and be better managed for disease prevention, water use and consistency.
For Grow Appalachia, based in Berea, Ky., four-season growing matters as the group works to end food insecurity in Appalachia. Founded in 2009, the nonprofit organization provides funding and technical assistance to 40 partner sites in more than 50 counties throughout Central Appalachia. In 2015, they helped 4,644 gardeners grow over 580,000 pounds of food.
“We work in this region for a reason,” says McKenzie. “A lot of the counties that we work in are record-setters, nationwide, for joblessness. The exit of the coal economy has made an impact on our region.”
By encouraging Appalachians to grow more of their own food, Grow Appalachia partner sites have been able to introduce market farming as an extra income source for families, teach new generations how to preserve their food, and connect fresh food with community centers, assisted living facilities and hunger relief agencies.
Lengthening the Life of Your Garden
Each season extension strategy is unique to the backyard garden or farm. But several simple methods can go a long way toward enjoying fresh, hyper-local greens in the middle of winter.
Hardy plants — including arugula, cabbage, mustard greens, kale, swiss chard, mâche, miner’s lettuce and turnip greens — can grow well throughout the region unaided or with some simple frost protection. Many of these are sown in the fall for winter eating, but some can be started in December for early spring harvests.
Use row covers to blanket plants and insulate them from the cold. They come as fabric rolls from garden supply companies, and can be cut for the gardener’s bed size and reused each year. By adding more layers, the gardener increases their insulation. Small metal hoops lift the row covers above garden beds and plants, much like a tiny high tunnel or greenhouse.
Straw bale cold frames can be constructed by placing straw bales in a rectangle. By adding a window frame on top, the gardener has made a mini-greenhouse. This simple and inexpensive strategy can be very useful when starting vegetables for the spring. To control temperatures, the gardener can ventilate the cold frame by propping open the window with a stick at different heights.
High Tunnels for Higher Yields
McKenzie’s work with Grow Appalachia focuses on the organization’s social enterprises — businesses that aim to improve communities, not just make a profit. By manufacturing and selling high tunnels alongside certified-organic fertilizers, Grow Appalachia is able to direct profits back into its gardening program.
High tunnels look like greenhouses, but are unheated, and are an increasing trend with gardeners and farmers. Some structures are small, just six feet wide by twelve feet long. Others are much larger, such as 30 feet by 96 feet, with peaked, gothic roofs that allow space for tractors.
These structures enable gardeners to harvest year-round and provide farmers with a market advantage. Over the last several years, Grow Appalachia has built 79 high tunnels for 40 different farms and families in Appalachia, many of whom also participate in Grow Appalachia’s gardening program.
“One of our farmers in Waco, Ky., grows spinach in his high tunnels,” says McKenzie. “He’s able to have fresh spinach in February when no one else has fresh greens. He once told me that he was making better money in February than the height of the summer growing season.”
Grow Appalachia’s initial high tunnel design was flexible in its size and did not require grading the land or pouring concrete. Known as a quonset-style high tunnel, it looks like a series of semi-circular hoops that are short and narrow, without a peaked roof. These smaller high tunnels work well on slopes or in compact growing spaces.
“Later, we worked with the University of Kentucky’s research farm to develop a gothic-style high tunnel that has a peaked roof,” says McKenzie. This allows the high tunnel to be larger and to perform better in harsh weather conditions.
Grow Appalachia works with farmers and gardeners to develop unique high tunnels for each client. The organization receives raw materials such as lumber, galvanized steel, hardware and plastic, and manufactures pre-built kits: galvanized steel tubes are bent, doors are fabricated and holes are drilled. The hoop houses are then delivered by Grow Appalachia, which can also assist with construction and follow-up technical assistance.
While high tunnels constructed with galvanized steel can last a long time, their plastic covers and wood support-sidings have a limited lifetime. Greenhouse-specific plastics are engineered with UV inhibitors, often guaranteed for four years. After that, the plastic begins to discolor and needs to be replaced.
Depending on scale and style, high tunnels vary in price. But for market farmers, support can be found through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which offers a cost-share program. Grow Appalachia’s high tunnel enterprise meets NRCS standards, and the organization can assist farmers through the cost-share process. The nonprofit also serves as a NRCS technical assistance provider in Southeast Kentucky, helping high tunnel farmers with growing plans, guidance on pests and weeds, and assistance designing irrigation systems.
“Grow Appalachia has helped us do patchwork on our high tunnels by adding new plastic and building new sides,” says Christina Lane of GreenHouse17 in Lexington, Ky., an advocacy agency committed to ending intimate partner abuse in families and the community. Serving 17 Kentucky counties, seven of which are in Appalachia, GreenHouse17 grows flowers, fruits and vegetables in six high tunnels on its 40-acre farm.
Since 2012, GreenHouse17 has worked with the University of Kentucky and Grow Appalachia to develop its high tunnels. Participants in GreenHouse17’s farm-training program earn stipends and learn the basics of farming and running a small business. Produce is used for meals at the center and sent to the 75 members of the organization’s Community-Supported Agriculture flower program.
“High tunnels are super helpful,” says Jessica Ballard of GreenHouse17. “We’re able to grow winter root vegetables, cabbage and kale while also putting flower seeds in the ground earlier. Our flowers’ stem strength is better and our high-dollar flowers won’t break from the wind and rain.”
Severe weather, though, presents challenges. “Over the past years with interesting weather patterns, we’ve seen a lot of collapses due to snow because folks have sourced them as cheaply as possible or they’re getting a kit from outside the region which may not be built for the snow load,” McKenzie says. “Season extension is an investment, and if you invest in season extension it will pay off. High tunnels have the potential to be a game-changer for farmers, especially where weather can be a challenge.”
At the Laurel County African American Heritage Center in London, Ky., Wayne Riley works with local youth to grow food for community members, an assisted-living center and the county’s jail. Riley grows lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower in the winter and tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and beans in the summer. With plans for two more high tunnels, the Laurel County African American Heritage Center will soon have six through Grow Appalachia’s social enterprise.
Riley prefers smaller high tunnels because they allow him to better rotate crops and control disease within the garden.
“Trying to overlap growing each season in a high tunnel can be hard,” says McKenzie. “With smaller tunnels, you can have one for spring, one for summer, and one for a cover crop. This lends itself to a sustainable production plan.”
Beyond Season Extension
In addition to its high tunnel social enterprise, Grow Appalachia works with partner sites across the region. These community groups collaborate with backyard gardeners, farmers and community gardeners to help produce bountiful harvests. Through six core classes, home gardeners work with these partner sites to plan, plant and maintain their garden while also learning heart-healthy cooking, food preservation and season extension techniques. According to McKenzie, this work has increased the availability of local food in many communities.
“Between season extension and food preservation, folks are eating and selling things out of their garden or farm year-round,” he says.
At the Cowan Creek Community Center in Letcher County, Ky., canning classes sponsored by Grow Appalachia lead to a greater sense of community. “People from all over Letcher County come to learn how to can like their mom or grandma used to do. It brings people from different economic backgrounds and experiences together,” says McKenzie. “In doing so, they’ve formed this interesting community where preconceptions are dropped.”
In Hindman, Ky., the Hindman Settlement School is reviving its agrarian history by experimenting with low tunnels, which are comprised of small hoops over crop beds that are blanketed with row cover.
This winter, the 114-year-old resident settlement school is busy planning for the spring. In February, it will distribute onion sets and pea seeds to more than 50 family gardeners. Many of these gardeners choose to only have a summer garden, but in the last few years Jacob Mack-Boll and Ashton Huxtable of Hindman have seen more and more gardeners continue to grow well into the winter.
“Some participants have been growing their whole lives,” says Mack-Boll. “They might need help tilling, while others have never grown anything before. So it’s a fun connection to have, bridging the gap between a generation ago and today for the folks we work with and the Hindman Settlement School’s history.”
During February, Mack-Boll and Huxtable will work with their area extension office to help gardeners prepare for the season. They will provide soil testing, advice on soil amendments, and will encourage gardeners to keep good long-term records. “We will talk about cover crops and crop rotation to put nutrients back in the soil,” says Mack-Boll.
Their hope is that this work, as well as their promotion of season extension strategies, will lead to a more vibrant and longer-lasting local farmers’ market. “One struggle is that our farmers’ market is just two months long, July and August,” says Mack-Boll. “With more late and early-season crops, we hope that it can run a little longer.”
Expanding the growing season gives farmers, customers and backyard gardeners alike the opportunity to enjoy local food beyond the traditional summer months. That leads to a greater abundance of healthy, fresh options, and the feeling of self-sufficiency that comes from a flourishing winter harvest.
Dave Walker is the program manager for Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture’s CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) program in northwestern North Carolina. He also is working with community stakeholders to establish a seed library and a local food policy council.
Winter Greens with Executive Director Tom Cormons
For Appalachian Voices’ Executive Director Tom Cormons, gardening and self-sufficiency has always been a passion. He grew up eating fresh, wholesome food and wanted to share the experience with his family when he moved to his current home in Charlottesville, Va.
“I read Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest and learned what’s possible through that book,” says Cormons. “He’s up in Maine and grows a tremendous amount of food year-round. If he can do it in Maine, I can do it more modestly in Virginia. One thing that I learned from him is that certain vegetables and varieties are incredibly cold-tolerant.”
In Cormons’ 500-square-foot garden, two of his favorite home-grown cold-season greens are mâche and miner’s lettuce. Mâche, also known as corn salad, is a small leafy green with a nutty flavor. Miner’s lettuce leaves are even smaller. He plants them densely, harvesting them with scissors. Both are incredibly productive in Charlottesville’s 7a hardiness zone, regrowing after each harvest for several successions.
Other vegetables that he regularly grows and harvests throughout the winter are komatsuna, a mild, mustard-like brassica that is fast-growing and can survive the winter with some protection, as well as kale, arugula, and mustard or turnip greens. Cormons also plants lettuce in November or December, which will lead to a strong harvest in late February or early March and produce until July.
To sustain these crops, Cormons uses several layers of floating row cover resting on top of the plants. This may be one or four layers, depending upon the vegetable and the temperature. With heavy snows, he will sweep the snow from the row cover, as it’s resting on top of the plant. “I haven’t needed to use any other strategies,” Cormons says. “I’m always able to get all the salad greens that we can eat through the cold season, as well as a lot of cooking greens.”
“I grow anything my kids are fired up about trying. They are involved every step of the way, from ordering the seeds through the harvest. That’s one of the most wonderful things about it for me,” he says. “It’s really nice to be able to eat greens picked a few minutes before you eat them, year-around.” Cormons also notes that growing greens in the winter is easier and less labor-intensive than summer since there are no weed, pest or water shortage concerns.
Several things to look out for are: one, get things in on time and two, keep an eye on them. “It doesn’t require a lot of energy or time for the luxury of fresh greens,” says Cormons.