COOK - With nearly two feet of snow on the ground and temperatures far below zero, the offerings at this summer’s local farmers markets are likely far from the minds of area shoppers. That’s not …
COOK - With nearly two feet of snow on the ground and temperatures far below zero, the offerings at this summer’s local farmers markets are likely far from the minds of area shoppers. That’s not the case, however, for local growers who are already well along with their planning for the upcoming growing season.
“Right now, it’s a lot of planning, education and some equipment rehabilitation,” said Melissa Roach who helped found the Cook Area Farmers Market in 2006. “There are all types of conferences and training. Drawing up maps. What you are going to plant and where.”
Experience as well as input from customers help guide what local producers will plant each year.
“Years of going to market help me determine what I am bringing to market,” Roach said. “I know, in the spring time, the greens are going to be most abundant, and that is what people are going to be most excited about.”
With demand always high for the first fresh produce of the season, area growers are constantly experimenting with new ways to get a jump on spring.
Many, like Roach or current Cook market president, Kelly Dahl, employ small greenhouses and high tunnels to extend the season.
“It’s amazing the things a high tunnel can do,” Dahl said. “It can be 68 degrees outside and over 100 degrees inside.” The warmth helps speed plant development and protect the crops from late frosts.
It also helps to brace his growing plants against gusty spring winds, which can be a problem for Dahl, with his clay-heavy soil. Dahl said his soil can be so hard, he typically grows his plants in rows of compost that he spreads on top of the clay, and they can be subject to wind damage until their roots can set more firmly into the soil.
Dahl said he’s still learning how to best use the tunnel, such as working out the relationship between hours of sunlight and temperature during the fall when the days grow short.
He’s also researching the long-term effects on the soil from having long-term coverings, like high tunnels or hoop houses.
Janna Goerdt, owner of Fat Chicken Farm, grows for the Tower Market, a local CSA, and Natural Harvest Coop in Virginia. She has a more “underground” method to her early planting. Many of her veggies are planted in her basement under growing lamps.
By March, the toughest of the seedlings are moved into greenhouses, and then moved outside or into hoop houses as the weather permits.
The cold months provide her with time to gather her thoughts before the growing season sets in.
“I clean things up and get organized,” she said. “You try and do every inside thing you can think of so you can spend most of your time out in the dirt during the summer, which is what we love to do.”
SNAP benefits in Tower
In Tower, the market planning has been relatively quiet, but a statewide program allowing customers to use SNAP benefits could be deployed this year at the town’s market.
“There have been some hoops to jump through at the state,” Goerdt said. “We are hoping this is the year it is all set up.”
Through the University of Minnesota Extension service, farmers markets across the state can accept the food benefits on produce items for sale.
At other markets, such as the one in Virginia, there is often a booth setup where SNAP users can swipe their card in exchange for tokens that are given to vendors. Vendors then exchange the tokens for payment.
New wholesale plans
Organizers of the Cook Area Farmers Market are working to allow some of their vendors to begin selling wholesale this year. The market has partnered with both the state Department of Agriculture and the University of Minnesota to have an aggregate wholesale license.
Dahl said that, individually, local producers don’t always have the resources to sell their products beyond local markets. With the group license, all of the market participants can pool their resources and sell wholesale to grocery stores, restaurants, schools and other businesses.
According to Roach, the Cook Market is only one of four markets in the state that are trial-running the program.
With a push from local groups such as the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability (IRPS), which Roach now leads as Executive Director, and a greater awareness of locally-produced food in general, Dahl said such wholesale programs could be the way of the future.
He said the impacts can be large for communities, by retaining local food dollars, which benefits the economy, and providing residents with healthier and fresher food choices.
According to a study done last year by the IRPS, just a 20-percent increase in local food production could bring in an additional $51 million to the region’s economy.
“There is peace of mind in knowing where the food you are eating comes from,” Dahl said. He pointed to recent cases of E. coli from large corporate farms on the West Coast as one example.
So what can local market shoppers expect in 2019? Roach said the farms and their products are as unique as the people working them.
“Some have goats and lambs,” she said. “Mine has garlic. We also do a lot of greens— like spinach, lettuce and kale. We sell all of that at market. We even have a flock of hens for eggs.”
Both Roach and Dahl said they are planning to start planting well before the first sign of spring comes to the Northland, taking advantage of both greenhouses and high tunnels as soon as the latter part of February.
Dahl said he has put some snow in his tunnel to insulate against frosts and freezes.
First up for planting will be cold weather crops for Dahl; he said he’ll start with onions and similar veggies.
Roach said she’ll put some greens in her greenhouse.
As the weather permits, the crops that can survive out in the open will be moved completely outdoors.
Then, Dahl said, it’s a matter of keeping the deer away, which he said is a different story altogether.