Partly out of a rising demand for local produce, and partly because of the innovative farming methods pioneered by Eliot Coleman (The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year-Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses, The Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables From Your Home Garden All Year Long), the growing season in Maine and other northern states has extended past the first frost.
More and more farmers are using unheated or minimally heated hoophouses and greenhouses to take advantage of the plentiful sunlight on the 44th parallel, building on their existing infrastructure and shifting their harvests to hardier winter varieties. Nowadays, winter gardening is not only possible but profitable.
From the Portland Press Herald:
The vegetable-growing season used to end with the first hard frost in Maine.
An increasing number of farmers are pushing the growing season into the winter to take advantage of the surging demand for locally grown food. As a result, more farmers are operating greenhouses, branching out into cool-weather crops and creating new markets for their produce.
“Basically, people have gotten into it because their infrastructure is already there,” said Mark Hutton, vegetable specialist and assistant professor of vegetable crops with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Winter farming was pioneered in the 1990s by organic farmer and writer Eliot Coleman and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, at their Four Season Farm in Harborside. The two took a trip to Europe in 1996, following the 44th parallel through France and Italy – the same latitude as Maine – when the idea of winter farming hit Coleman.
“The whole time, we had seen gardens in January with Brussels sprouts and leeks, and the minute we got above the snow line there was nothing,” said Coleman.
Coleman said he realized there was plenty of sunlight in Maine during the winter to grow vegetables – he just had to modify the temperature. So he came up with the idea of layered greenhouse structures that require minimal or no heating.
While there are no recent statistics on how many Maine farmers are venturing into winter gardening, agricultural experts say the number of new winter farmers markets and winter community-supported agricultural ventures reflects the increase.
There are about 18 community-supported agricultural operations selling winter shares of organic crops raised on Maine farms, according to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. The organization has seen its list of winter farmers markets more than double in the past year to more than a dozen across the state.