Sustainable, organic farmers take winter months to plan, prepare and start their seedlings

They're not just hibernating

CINCINNATI -- It’s late winter, and the fields appear to be sleeping. It would be lovely to think our farmers have been binging on old “Survivor episodes. But we’d be mistaken.

There may not be much visible activity in the fields, but sustainable/organic farmers have been busy these winter months, getting ready for planting – and making the decisions that will land on your plate from spring until next fall.

For these farmers, winter is a time for estimating yields, deciding which fields could use higher nitrogen byproducts, pleasing the chefs.

It’s also a time to calculate risks. And fill the kitchen, or greenhouse, with seedlings.

Many of the planting decisions are made in consultation with chefs, sometimes via Alice Chalmers of the Ohio Valley Food Connection, which offers a variety of services supporting local sustainable agriculture.

Chalmers said she asks farmers to give her a crop plan by the third week of January. She then reviews them with chefs – such as Julie Francis of Nectar and Jackson Rouse of the Rookwood.

“I bring an initial crop plan from the farmers and present it to the chefs to say, ‘OK, this is what the farmers are planning on doing. What would you like more of? What are the volumes that you would be looking for in different crops?’” Chalmers said.

Then she returns to farmers with suggestions or a thumbs-up. She works much like an editor, seeing the planning document through various drafts.

“They’ll give me a first draft, and I’ll give them feedback, and they’ll maybe add another row or two of this or that,” she explained.

Chalmers said the produce that chefs are looking for this year include hakurei turnips, Jimmy Nardello peppers, watermelon radishes, kalettes (a hybrid of brussels sprouts and kale) and, as always, heirloom tomatoes.

“There’s a lot going on,” Chalmers said. “This is a busy season, to get your seeds in and get everything started.”

Meghan Gambrill, crop manager at Turner Farm, said she nails down her crop plan as early as possible.

“I try to get all my planning done in December/January so that I can get seed orders in before seeds run out, because the best seeds tend to sell out,” she said.

Seedlings get their start indoors in heated greenhouses or under high tunnels, which are unheated, semi-open greenhouses.

“We’ve been seeding since the end of January, trying to get all of our onions done first so we can get them out of the way and move on to other stuff,” Gambrill said.

The other stuff, for the moment, includes herbs, Swiss chard and tomatoes.

“We’re going to do shell peas this year, which we haven’t done in a while, because there seems to be a lot of demand for them, and we do start our peas (from seed indoors) and set them out because (that way) we have a little bit longer of a pea season,” Gambrill said. “I try to get as much time before they bite the dust from the heat.”

Annie Woods, owner of Dark Wood Farm, spoke over the phone on her way to help clean up at Rabbit Hash General Store, which burned Feb. 13. Woods was raised near Rabbit Hash.

“The planning process of deciding what will go in the ground started a long time ago,” Woods said. “A lot of people think there’s not a lot to be done for farmers in the winter, but actually, a lot of the planning and seeding and everything that happens in the winter does take up a lot of time.

“New tools (need to be bought), getting everything maintained, getting everything ordered that you need, supplies for the greenhouse while the plants start, supplies for the field, making sure that you’ve got everything ordered so you can hit the ground running when the weather is right in the spring.”

Woods started seedlings in January, beginning with onions, leeks, lettuces herbs, and brassicas. Her kitchen near Burlington, Kentucky, is full of seedling trays.

“I’m going to try transplanting beets this year,” she said. “Normally you plant those directly by seed out in the ground, but this year I’m going to try transplanting them, which takes time to get them started in the greenhouse.”

She said she hopes this method will increase yield and decrease competition from weeds.

Meanwhile, at Carriage House Farm in North Bend, Ohio, farm manager Richard Stewart said right now, they’re doing a lot of planning for the season.

"Sometimes those plans don’t happen because Mother Nature intervenes," he noted.

Stewart also said it's a time to order seeds and re-mulch some of the fields.

“Right now, we have kale and chickweed” growing in their high tunnels, he said. “Chickweed most people look at as a weed, but up till about 90 years ago it was part of people's diets, and we continue to harvest that. It’s a nice sustainable product because it’s local, it’s wild, it grows really well in good soil.

“We’ve planted short-term crops in our high tunnel, because by mid-May, we’ll have our entire high tunnel planted in yellow ginger. We’re starting to sprout that (ginger) right now."

This year, Stewart said, he's experimenting with some exotics.

"We’ve started sprouting a new crop called oca,” a starchy tuber from Peru, he said.

Another new tuber Carriage House is trying is crosne, which Stewart describes as garlic-like, versatile and slightly crunchy, with an almost citrus flavor; it's also known as Chinese artichoke.

Stewart said restaurants that have served Carriage House's crosnes included Mita's and Bouquet.

"This time of year, we’re focusing on making sure that crop (crosne) made it through the winter OK," he said.

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