Monday, June 21, 2010

Celt's Garden - Getting Real About Winter Gardening

Just as a filthy cold spring is delaying planting the summer garden, it's time to get ready to plant your winter garden. The winter garden feeds you, your family, and possibly your laid off friends through next fall, winter and spring with fresh delicious veg. That eight months of food you grow yourself provides fresh food when it is most expensive and most likely to be imported from California, Mexico, China and Chile. Personally, I wish Chile all the best in a changing world, but tying a great chunk of their national prosperity to our continued ability and desire to buy air freighted perishables in midwinter deserves a rethink.

As Kenyan green bean and flower growers discovered when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull blew in Iceland and disrupted air freight for a week, it's a vulnerable business model. As Kenyans fed roses to cows by the truckload and scrambled to find closer markets for green beans (Kenyans don't eat green beans), Britons got a view of their supply chain that most people never notice. In Kenya, distributors struggled to stay afloat, growers were hit hard, field hands were laid off and had no pay packets to take home to momma. In Britain, eaters got an abrupt insight into just in time supply.

Despite all the publicity around local eating, we're not organizing our supply chain much differently from the British. I ran smack into that in November 2005, when I was gardenless. I was suddenly back to buying fresh food. Good ruddy luck buying winter vegetables from Washington, much less the Fourth Corner region, in a state that raises a good part of the world's supply of seed for winter vegetables. Yup, you heard me correctly. Washington State grows 50% of the world's cabbage, carrot, spinach, cauliflower, brussels spout and table beet seed, 40% of world radish seed and 20% of world onion seed. (Source: WSDA, dig around and you can find it.)

So I wander into the Co-op on a Tuesday in November and ask the nice lady in the produce section about local winter vegetables, seeing as all the chard, kale, onions, beets, spinach, brussels sprouts, cauliflower and suchlike are from California. First response: the local farmers want a vacation in winter after the summer growing season. Thinking of farmers I know who have winter jobs to keep it together, that sounded doubtful. Second response: not enough farmers. She was putting out two and a half cases of kale a day and local farms couldn't supply the volume. Winter vegetables don't grow around here because the farmers don't plant them. That makes sense: no market, no planting. Since we were standing in a market, I kept on it and got the third response: kale and suchlike doesn't grow around here in the winter time. Now, I had to tell her that I been eating kale out of a patio garden in Bellingham for five winters. By which time, wanting to get back to arranging the organic tomatoes from Chile and clearly fed up with idiots like me, she told me that if I wanted local winter vegetables I should grow them myself.

So back by the canned beans aisle I found Derek Long, who at that time was in charge of the Local Food and Farming initiative with Sustainable Connections and also on the Co-op board. I asked Derek about the shortage of local winter veg. Derek rolled his eyes, gave an exasperated snort, and said "Get real, Celt! What do you expect from us?"

Derek is normally a fairly easy going guy, so I took this as indicative of tripping over a larger issue.

In fact, I had tripped over the kale strand in a whole plate of organic vegetable production spaghetti. Just one piece of it is that the Co-op (and Terra Organica, which really tries hard to buy from local growers) has to make margin to stay in business, and making margin means adopting supermarket standards. Customers expect fresh tomatoes in midwinter and they don't expect to find a sign that says, "Sorry, all out of kale. Fred's Farm in Snohomish County will be sending a shipment Thursday."

Another piece is that the big growers in far away places can offer lower wholesale prices. Even with the paperwork for USDA organic standards jacking up the price and hysteria over illegal immigration (there is no other kind for Mexican farm workers, the legal immigration quota is zero) choking the supply of skilled agricultural workers, the big growers in California can offer a reliable volume at a lower price than local growers.

Even with the economies of scale for big growers, multiple subsidies to the energy industry to get the produce transported here, multiple subsidies to the water industry to grow irrigated vegetables in the desert, and considerable taxpayer subsidies for the overhead of organic certification programs and rest of the USDA, the stuff isn't all that cheap by the time it hits our shelves.

Growing your own is one answer. If you have some space that you can devote to a winter garden, it will save you beaucoup bucks. If you have 10-20 square foot per eater, you can have something fresh all winter. The storm in 2008 froze out my normally reliable winter garden, but even then it got growing again after a couple of months.

If you are growing your own starts, June is the time to get the heavy veg (leeks, cauliflower, winter cabbage, and brussels sprouts) started in little containers for transplant July-August. Kale tends to bolt in summer's heat and can wait another month. Beets, chard, bok choi, napa cabbage, Walla Walla onions and carrots are direct seeded in July. Winter spinach, mustard family greens, radishes and lettuce are direct seeded a bit every week July through September. Arranging some protection for tender greens will extend the season and give you fresh salads until it gets really cold.

The other option is to get to know your farmer. Attempts by producers to generate a market for the off season have failed miserably so far. Growing Washington kept the farm stand on Railroad Avenue open last fall until it was clear that it wasn't going to work. Various farmers have tried to offer extended season CSA's. That hasn't worked either. If we want local farmers to plant for us instead getting jobs bookkeeping and fixing cars, they need to feel comfortable that they have customers through the winter. We eaters will have to step up and make a commitment to buy consistently.

The longer season at the Farmer's Market is a step in the right direction. Talk to the farmers there and see what you can arrange. There are many more farmers in the area who aren't selling at the Farmer's Market. Look for them on the Farm Map, and by asking around. If you are out in the county, look for on-farm sales signs. The Smith Road is one long farm stand. There's a cluster around Ferndale, another around Everson, and a few down Highway 9 towards the county line.

Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at on May 28, 2010. For recent posts, see

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