Making the best of winter’s worst

The hillsides are bursting with blooms and the temperatures have finally warmed, but winter will not soon be forgotten by Kip and Becky Rondy, who own Green Edge Gardens in Athens County. The certified organic crop farm relies heavily on year-round crop production in unheated high tunnels for the success of their business and the extreme weather this winter offered challenges they have never faced before.

Green Edge Gardens sells at farmers markets and wholesale, but the bulk of sales are through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that delivers a share of fresh greens and veggies to pre-paid customers year round — even when winter temperatures plummet.

“We sell fresh greens year round from high tunnel greenhouses — none of them are heated. We are harvesting almost every week 12 months a year. This winter, we found that we were still able to deliver to our CSA customers every week, but production was absolutely reduced,” Becky said. “The really eye-opening part of the experience was that everything didn’t die. We still had products for the CSA and the farmers market, but not enough for wholesale.”

The keys to successful winter production without supplemental heat are the right types of crops to grow and the layering of protective covers over the plants. The rows of cold tolerant plants are lined with half circles of wire to hold up the row covers. As temperatures fall below freezing (an all-too common occurrence this winter) the wire is covered with lightweight, permeable row covers. When it gets really cold, an additional layer of plastic is added.

“We have row covers and plastic that we put on almost every night over all of the plants when it is cold. If it is a gray day sometimes we have to just leave them covered, but if we can, we always take the plastic off so things can breathe and the air can circulate. It is all sun and temperature dependent. We would leave the covers off as long as we possibly could this winter. If the sun came out it could get up over 50 degrees in there, but there were so many gray days and it got cold,” Becky said. “Ambient temperature on the inside of the high tunnel got down to -21 this winter, but it didn’t get quite that cold under the plastic.”

The high tunnels are situated in the rural valley to maximize winter warmth from the low sun and minimize exposure to winds. The Rondys have worked with engineering students at nearby Ohio University to design processes within their facilities to maximize their efficiency and productivity in hot and cold weather.

Even with the very strategic design and layout, keeping the high tunnels full of productive plants (and keeping CSA customers happy) during the extremely cold conditions was physically and mentally challenging for the Rondys and their staff.

“It was very challenging and exhausting. It was grueling just to be working in those temperatures. But if the temperature warrants it, it will get covered. This winter was proof that this production model can be transferred to the northernmost parts of the state where it get this cold more often. And, the snow certainly helped keep those greenhouses tight and offered some insulation factor,” she said. “Production was down by around 25% for most types of crops compared to the previous year. CSA customers did get a little less for a few weeks. Many of them would write to us and say ‘I don’t know how you are able to do this in this kind of weather.’ If it had gotten much worse we would have had to do something else.”

Winter crops grown in the houses include arugula, carrots, green onions, Swiss chard and other leafy greens. The cool winter conditions in the high tunnels actually can enhance the flavors, making them sweeter. Microgreens and salad mixes are year-round staples of the farm’s offerings and crops like potatoes, beets, and squash can be grown in the summer months and stored for winter delivery.

In terms of winter casualties, a higher percentage of the growing crops were actually lost in the one heated greenhouse on the farm.

“We lost the most production in our heated house because we didn’t use plastic in there and the row covers were not enough. It looks like what happened was that the heated soil drove the moisture out and the plastic wasn’t there to hold it in, so instead of being frozen the plants were dehydrated,” Becky said. “If it is below freezing we can’t put water in the lines to irrigate the plants. That being said, we don’t have to water much in the winter.”

In addition to their high tunnel winter crops, the Rondys also sell organic shiitake and oyster mushrooms grown on the farm. Both types of mushrooms prefer a similar environment and are grown on inoculated blocks after being soaked.

For their Athens Hills CSA, Green Edge Gardens partners with a number of other area farms and businesses including Sticky Pete’s Pure Maple Syrup, Snowville Creamery, Cherry Orchards, Cantrell Honey, Village Bakery and Café, High Bottom Farm, and Shagbark Seed and Mill. The Rondys buy the products from the other farms to include in their weekly CSA deliveries.

“We started the CSA in 2007. Initially we just did a trial effort. Our first CSA season was in the winter. We delivered to just to one or two sites in Columbus. Or first drop site was Bexley Natural Market. Our second site was in New Albany. Clintonville is now usually our largest drop at the Natural Food Market. Now we have six stops in Columbus, three in Athens, and in Marietta and Belpre,” Becky said. “CSA customers can get a full share once a week for 20 weeks. A half share is same amount of food every other week for 20 weeks.”

These sunflower sprouts are popular microgreens from the farm.

These sunflower sprouts are popular microgreens from the farm.

They offer a summer and a winter season for CSA subscribers.

“The summer season is from June 11 through mid-October, then we take six weeks off to turn the greenhouses and start the winter cycle in Mid-December,” she said. “That lets us have trained employees year round and it helps us with packing and planning.”

The base share includes seven to nine weekly vegetables from the farm and the various other items can be added to the mix by adding additional options to the subscription. Along with the food, CSA subscribers get to learn about how it was produced and how to prepare it.

“On Fridays, we send out the list of veggies they will be getting the next week. We send out a weekly newsletter telling more about the products they are getting,” Becky said. “We are having an open farm day for customers on June 8. This year we are having a different format with a canning tutorial, yoga workshop, kids healthy cooking workshop, farm tours, music and farm fresh snacks and some appetizers.”

Because of increasing summer competition from other farms, the Rondys have found more success in the winter CSA and farmers market.

“We are toying with the idea of only doing a winter CSA. We are at the point

Mushroom production has been a popular component of the farm offerings for CSA customers.

Mushroom production has been a popular component of the farm offerings for CSA customers.

where we are out of storage space from harvest until delivery, which limits our potential to grow much larger,” she said. “We are the only organic CSA in Columbus, but there is a lot of competition in the summer.”

In the summer months they expand into field production on around 30 acres of the 120-acre farm. They strictly adhere to the use of certified organic products and growing practices.

“Within organics there are things you are allowed to do if we need to. For the most part, we don’t mind a few bugs. A healthy crop can handle a few bugs. We use a lot of row covers and plant crops with timing to avoid the worst bug pressure. We do some companion planting in the houses with marigolds and other things to keep the pests guessing. We have beneficial insects, but we don’t really release them,” she said. “We use hoes, cultivation and hand weeding for weed control. We also mulch and we are going to start using plastic for weed control. Everything is on drip irrigation for the most part. We use organic fertilizers and compost from manure we get delivered, spent mushroom blocks and plant material. We have red wiggler worms in all of the potting material we use and that really helps.”

And, whether dealing with chefs, customers at the farmers market, CSA customers or wholesale buyers, quality is vital.

“Our attention to detail helps us maintain the quality. Our farm manager pays close attention to keeping all of the plants going and meeting all of their needs. You work on quality in the field by controlling pests and weeds and give every plant the nurturing it deserves,” Becky said. “It is all hand harvested and goes right to the FDA-inspected packing room and then the cooling room. A one-day turnaround is not bad and it will almost always taste better than food that has had a week in transit. That lack of transit time makes a difference and people can taste it.”

And now the Rondys have proven that this holds true even in the worst of winters.

For more about the farm, visit www.greenedgegardens.com.

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