How Vermont Farmers Will Feed Local Demand This Winter

Nov 25, 2015

Consumer demand is driving farmers to grow and sell more produce, even as the days grow shorter and colder.

It's the day before Thanksgiving at Walker Farm in Dummerston; the final day of the season and the employees are saying goodbye to their regular customers.

This used to be the time of year farm co-owner Jack Manix would be winding down, and looking forward to at least a month or two away from the long days of farm labor.

But Manix says a growing interest in local food, and advances in technology and storage techniques, have allowed him to extend the year at Walker Farm.

"Who would have thought you could grow spinach and lettuce and mesclun into March in a green house?" Manix says, standing among rows of strong broccoli plants that come up to his knees. "Now, instead of sitting by a lake reading a book, I am growing in the winter."

Growing during the winter months is just part of a larger agricultural revolution hitting Vermont. 

Farmers are using smart phone apps to monitor and regulate greenhouse conditions, while advancements in LED technology bring affordable growing light to the darkest days of winter.

High tunnels and green houses are more economical and efficient, as across the state farmers experiment and push the limits of Vermont's short growing season.

Jack Manix ducks into one of his greenhouses at Walker Farm in Dummerston. Growing during the winter months is just part of a larger agricultural revolution hitting Vermont.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

And web sites and blogs allow farmers to share information in real time as they experiment with storage techniques.

All of this is going on as the locavore movement becomes more mainstream; consumers are flocking to winter farmers markets and signing up for winter CSAs.

Manix has about twice the number of winter CSA members he had when he first started eight years ago. To help meet the growing demand, he added a "deep winter" CSA that runs into February.

"What shifted was the desire of the population to eat local,"he says. "It's just the consumer awareness, and the desire to know where your food's coming from, that it's safe, and that it's nutritious, and it's organic."

About a quarter of all farms in New England now do some form of protected growing, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.

"What shifted was the desire of the population to eat local. It's just the consumer awareness, and the desire to know where your food's coming from, that it's safe, and that it's nutritious, and it's organic." - Jack Manix, co-owner of Walker Farm

In the past five years the number of winter markets in Vermont jumped from 17 to 23.

At the Brattleboro Winter Farmers Market, Judy Fink is loading up on Brussels sprouts, leeks, carrots and greens. She says the winter market has become a routine part of her weekend.

John Richardson of Walnut Ridge Farm has a full assortment of vegetables at the Brattleboro Winter Farmers Market. In the past five years, the number of winter markets in Vermont jumped from 17 to 23.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

It's a bustling, social scene with music, lunch and a wide assortment of products ranging from bread to cheese, to chocolate, and of course lots of produce.

"We are religious farmers market shoppers," Fink says. "That's pretty much where we buy all our produce throughout the year."

The Brattleboro Winter Farmers Market. Consumer demand is driving the steep increase in winter direct sales, according to Vern Grubinger, the University of Vermont Extension's vegetable and berry specialist.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Farmers are figuring out ways to better store their root crops and squash, and at the same time they are coming up with more ways to provide fresh greens. 

Vern Grubinger, the University of Vermont Extension's vegetable and berry specialist, says consumer demand is driving the steep increase in winter direct sales.

"We have growers right now growing pretty much through the winter, with some supplemental inputs," Grubinger says. "There's a huge potential to expand the production and consumption of vegetables, and a lot of it has to do with the off season marketing."

Grubinger says as successful as farmers have been, local produce makes up a fraction of the overall winter consumption.

He says as farmers experiment with, and develop, successful storage capabilities, and the cost of indoor growing comes down Vermont's locavores can look forward to an even fuller harvest during the darkest days of winter.