Winter harvest: The potential of growing year-round
November 28, 2023 By Stéphanie Brunet, Organic Council of Ontario
Autumn is synonymous with harvest. It’s a busy time for farmers across the country, with crops that have been growing all summer finally ready to be picked. But what if the harshest, coldest season could also be a time of crop growth and production? Catherine Sylvestre, co-author of The Winter Market Gardener, suggests winter market gardening as a challenging yet rewarding approach to vegetable farming that can yield surprisingly profitable results.
Sylvestre is the director of vegetable production at Ferme des Quatre-Temps, a collaborative farm project inspired by the principles of ecological polyculture and regenerative agriculture. As leader of the market garden team, she trains program participants and develops and implements best practices for cold-season growing, specializing in crop protection and greenhouse production for northern climates. She is also a technical advisor at the Market Gardener Institute, where she studies and teaches organic agriculture.
Her journey into market gardening began with a background in political science. Sylvestre found her passion for agriculture at Ferme des Quatre-Temps in Hemmingford, Que., where she apprenticed and learned the principles of agronomy.
Growing through the winter
The benefits of growing vegetables through the winter are significant. “I believe that our approach to vegetable farming should align with the natural processes. When we work in harmony with nature, we find greater resilience compared to attempting to bypass it,” Sylvestre says. For her, year-round farming means cultivating vegetables in their ideal climate and adjusting crops based on temperature and light availability.
Initially, Sylvestre didn’t fully realize the advantages, but she gradually saw that this approach could have a myriad of benefits. One such benefit is that year-round farming leads to an even workload throughout the year, enhancing the quality of life for farmers like her. Another benefit she has reaped is energy efficiency. By growing vegetables in their optimal climate, less energy is used, particularly for cold-hardy crops in the winter and warm-weather crops in the summer. This also helps pay back infrastructure investments more quickly. Finally, Sylvestre noticed that year-round farming provides more stability on the farm, promoting employee and customer retention. It shifts the operation from being seasonal to year-round, creating a more sustainable business model.
Sylvestre actively works to encourage others to experiment with winter vegetable farming as part of a resilient farm model. By developing winter growing on your farm, a farmer can offer a unique specialty, benefit from limited supply, and command higher prices.
Identifying and mitigating obstacles
Growing vegetables in the coldest months of the year does have its challenges. One of the biggest obstacles Sylvestre has faced is light availability. Winter months have fewer daylight hours, which limits plant growth. Another challenge is the cost of energy, as maintaining the right growing conditions in winter can be energy-intensive, leading to higher costs. Lastly, year-round farming can be demanding, especially if the summer workload is not adjusted to take into account the addition of winter production.
Learning which vegetables are the most productive helped Sylvestre mitigate these challenges. In her experience, the most productive winter vegetables include kale, bok choy, senposai, komatsuna, Tokyo Bekana cabbage, spinach, and arugula. The combination of kale and bok choy grown together on the same planting bed is very profitable. The idea is to use the space left by the small kale plants with a single-harvest crop like bok choy. Once the bok choy has reached maturity, it is harvested to leave the space free for the kale, which will remain in place until spring.
Sylvestre has also found that many Asian crops like senposai, komatsuna, and Tokyo Bekana cabbage are very productive because their growth is scarcely affected by reduced light levels in winter. When it comes to reliability, however, spinach and arugula have proven to be among the most reliable options for winter cultivation. “They are easy to grow and easy to sell. Most customers know about these crops and have no difficulties cooking with them,” she explains.
Winter market gardening vs. greenhouse growing
While the most well-known method of winter production is greenhouse growing, it’s not the only one. “Our model of year-round vegetable farming differs from greenhouse megacomplexes in several ways,” Sylvestre says.
One primary difference that she identified was growing the vegetables in season. “We prioritize growing crops in their prime seasonal time, rather than trying to create an artificial growing environment year-round.” Additionally, only growing season-adapted crops are selected for winter market gardening. Sylvestre’s selection of crops is based on what thrives in her region’s specific climate during each season, leading to more sustainable practices.
Another big difference is the use of minimal heating to control the climate, reducing energy consumption. Sylvestre says, “by working with nature and the seasons, we require less energy and general input, making our approach more environmentally friendly.”
Finally, she explains that winter market gardening is also connected to community enhancement: “Our approach fosters community hotspots, providing year-round jobs and opportunities for people to connect. It also attracts young people back to farming.”
Transitioning to a year-round operation
Ferme des Quatre-Temps initially focused on season extension and shoulder-season growth to extend their market season. However, the concept of year-round farming emerged as some apprentices, including Sylvestre, began experimenting with growing vegetables in the empty greenhouses. Over many years of trial and error, they learned several valuable lessons, including building a clientele before starting to grow, recognizing light availability as the main limiting factor for winter growth, and beginning planning at least six months in advance or more.
Today, Ferme des Quatre-Temps is a fully year-round diversified vegetable production operation, offering winter community-supported agriculture (CSA) and supplying restaurants with vegetables grown in their prime seasonal time.
Writing “The Winter Market Gardener”
Sylvestre decided to write “The Winter Market Gardener” with Jean-Martin Fournier to share her experience and knowledge, contributing to the development of a more profitable small-scale farm model. She believes that year-round growing can play a crucial role in achieving this goal. Their book aims to shorten the learning curve, helping others avoid costly mistakes and offering concrete and directly usable information, including specific planting dates and crop spacing. This resource fills a gap in the available information and provides a solid starting point that can be adapted to individual contexts.
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