Saturday, November 20, 2010

Farm Bulletin: Farming al Fresco…in Winter?

I wouldn't say that contributor Anthony Boutard or his wife, Carol, are contrary, exactly. The successful practices they've developed at Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston are hard-won and have involved years of trial and error. But if the way they do things flies in the face of convention, so be it. Sidelong glances and heads shaking at their foolish ways isn't going to change a thing. Get a taste of their unique approach to farming at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market as it moves into its twice-a-month winter schedule through April.

A few years ago, we answered a call from somebody associated with the OSU Extension Service. They had heard we sell greens and other vegetables all through the winter. The person was putting together a panel on "season extension" and wanted to know if we would sit on the panel. After hearing an amiable "yes," she asked us what sort of season extension we used. We explained that the most important factor was the latitude in which the crop was developed. We farm at the 45th parallel, so we look for crops adapted to that latitude or higher. Crops adapted to lower latitudes tend to bolt, or go to flower, prematurely—flowering crops lose their ability to resist freezing. Having a deep selection of winter crop varieties (top photo) gives us greater flexibility in harvest times. Finally, we explained that we supplemented the cultivated crops with the feral greens in our cane fields and orchards.

Fennel flowers.

After listening to this explanation, the caller asked again what we did for season extension. Did we use greenhouses, high tunnels or cold frames? We explained that it seems crazy to buy a bunch plastic structures when the Willamette Valley has the ideal climate for field-grown vegetables. A vegetable growing in the open air is denser and has better flavor and nutrition. Moreover, the idea of needing to water in the winter seems odd. Unimpressed, she explained that the panel organizers wanted farmers who used actual structures rather than planning and variety selection. The conversation ended on that note.

Today, as we harvested the fennel in the gusty squalls, it was fun to watch the trimmed fronds bounce across the field like tumbleweeds. Then, as the late afternoon gloom and chill gathered, the idea of harvesting beneath a canopy of plastic developed a bit more allure. Nonetheless, a salad of fennel grown in the drenching rain and whatever sun the valley can muster restored good sense and banished any doubts. There is full, robust quality to a field-grown vegetable that cannot be had from one coddled in plastic, protected from our nourishing rains.

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