The cold, dark New Hampshire winter is tough on vegetables, and vegetable growers. Farmers race the frost in the fall and chomp at the bit in the spring waiting for snow to melt. But a federal grant program has been changing the way that some Yankee farmers grow food.
In New England farmers plant their crops in spring and harvest them in the fall. At least, that’s the way it used to be. Hank Letarte, the owner White Gates Farm in Tamworth, shows me some beds that in early April have already been harvested.
"We’re already seeing a good development like on these beets," Letarte says, "That was harvested and was pretty idle in January, and now it's looking great and they'll be gone in another month or three weeks."
We’re in what he calls his “cold house,” one of three plastic tunnels on the farm that he uses to grow vegetables all winter long.
It is not, as he corrects me, a greenhouse; it’s a high-tunnel. It’s two layers of plastic, with an insulating bubble of air between, stretched tight over metal hoops. Underneath there’s another layer of plastic draped on knee-high wire hoops, called a low-tunnel. The whole set-up is tall enough to drive a tractor through.
The difference between a high-tunnel and a greenhouse is high-tunnels are only heated by the sun, and the vegetables are planted straight in the dirt, not in pots.
Letarte and his family have been growing spinach, bok choy, beats and other cold-resistant plants in a high tunnel all winter long.
He says, outside it might be New Hampshire, but "if you put one layer of plastic on you may be somewhere around Hartford, CT," he says referring to the temperature in the high-tunnel, "and once you put these little hoops up and put row covers on top, we’re really talking somewhere around the Carolinas."
The Letarte family got their high tunnel through a grant from the National Resource Conservation Service. Letarte says the grant covered about 40 percent of the 20 thousand dollars it cost to put the tunnel up. He says the structure has more than paid for itself.
According to Brandon Smith, who administers the program in New Hampshire, over the past three years NRCS has helped 114 farmers get high-tunnels, and another 121 have been approved but not built. He says that’s around 18 percent of the New Hampshire farmers who earn more than $10,000 a year in sales.
That’s a lot of farmers producing local food all winter long.
"About a year and a half ago, we thought we’d provided at least most of the farmers who are interested in a high tunnel with one," Smith remembers, "but they keep coming through the door."
Agriculture watchers say the new high tunnels are an important part of why, in the last two years, twenty-eight winter farmers’ markets have sprung up around the state.
John Carroll, a UNH professor who studies local food in New Hampshire says that this is big news for New Hampshire’s economy, but it’s really hard to say how big.
"We know of the enormous number of people now going to winter and summer farmers’ markets, we know that the transactions are almost all cash, we know that almost everyone who goes in to the farmers’ market is spending money," Carroll says, "but it’s impossible to measure."
To understand why high-tunnels have taken off where heated greenhouses haven’t, you just have to think like a cash-strapped farmer for a second. They’re relatively cheap to build, they cost nothing to heat and little to maintain, and they let you grow market ready greens even in the dead of winter.
High-tunnels have been around since the 80's, but it’s taken a long time for them to get to the main stream; as a group farmers take their time adopting new ideas. The high-tunnel grants are part of a three-year pilot program, and if the USDA feels it’s gone well, the grants could become permanent.
For the Letartes at least, things are going very well.
Hank Letarte’s son, Reed, is in charge of the vegetable wing of the family business. He says at farmers markets they have "people lining up at the door getting to market just to clean us out of spinach and lettuce."
When his dad asks him how long it takes to sell out, he replies "45 minutes."
"Forty-five minutes, in a four-hour market? Yeah," says Hank Letarte, "I'd say there's a demand."
To see how Hank Letarte is experimenting with heating one of his high-tunnels using composting wood-chips, click on the photo gallery at the top of this story.