Farmers & USDA Invest in Seasonal High Tunnels: SNAP & WIC Clients Benefit with Year-Round Healthy Local Produce

by Gus Schumacher

Demand for fresh, local produce is booming. Farmers in colder climates are making investments to extend the growing season – building seasonal high tunnels  and adding new and old varieties of winter greens. Doing so allows shoppers access to benefits in the form of year-round, healthy local produce.

Farmers markets and CSAs in chillier regions are staying open through the winter, some outside, and many inside as winter markets explode. The changes are proving especially beneficial to SNAP clients and WIC families. Many of these year-round markets run Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program, which provides nutrition incentives that open access to affordable, local produce to all families.

USDA High Tunnel Under Construction in 2011

Christina Dedora of Blue Skys Farm, Rhode Island, using her USDA/NRCS high tunnel for the first year, "sold spring greens through Pawtucket’s Farm Fresh markets. -- Kale, lettuce, mustard greens, spinach, swiss chard, chives... all in March 2012,” said Noah Fullmer of FarmFresh RI.

“The expanded adoption of hoop house technology has enabled many smaller growers to extend their production seasons at low cost, a contributing factor to the growth of winter farmers markets. Hoop houses have allowed growers to produce locally-grown products for longer time periods and in colder climates.” USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan (USDA December 15, 2011).

In New England, Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Winter Market, operates indoors twice weekly in an old, heated, restored mill. Some 2,000 shoppers flock to this Farmers  Market on a winter Saturday to purchase a variety of local foods, including greens, leeks, carrots and beets, grown throughout the winter nearby in seasonal high tunnels. A number in Rhode Island were funded by USDA’s innovative Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) pilot seasonal high tunnel program. Nationally, USDA supported 2,032 joint farmer/NRCS seasonal high tunnel investments in 2011, with USDA’s contribution of $11.9 million.

SNAP customers also appreciate the year round produce, with sales continuing to expand. Farm Fresh’s Noah Fulmer reports that, “SNAP dollars spent so far in 2012 at our Wintertime Market are up 88%. That’s up from $4,133 in January/February 2011 to $7,778 in 2012! An average of $30.84 of SNAP benefits are spent per transaction and 42% of customers have never used SNAP at the market before.”

Further north in Somerset County, Maine, Amber Lambke and Sarah Smith have extended their Skowhegan Farmers’ Market season year round. They discovered that shoppers actually preferred turning out at the outdoor market in mid-winter rather than the indoor winter farmers market, which they’d run previously and was poorly attended.

1 of Eli and Misty Cook’s 7 New High Tunnels, February 2012, West Virginia

In Metro Washington, shoppers at the outdoor winter markets enjoy the bounty from seven new high tunnels on Eli Cook’s Spring Valley Farm and Orchard in West Virginia and five high tunnels on Zach Lester’s new Tree and Leaf Farm, in Loudoun County, Virginia. A number of these projects were also funded by the Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative run by the NRCS/USDA. Weekly winter revenues for Cook and Lester are close to revenues at their summer markets at the well-run FRESHFARM Farmers Markets in Dupont Circle and Silver Spring, Maryland.

FRESHFARM Markets Co-Director Bernie Prince reports weekend customer counts exceeding 4,500 at these two winter markets, including increased SNAP sales. Specialty greens, fresh beets, sweet carrots and leeks are top sellers for Cook and Lester. Prince also reports that farmers value these high tunnels for hail, bird and pest control, in addition to their value for season extension for her many farmers adopting these systems.

This convergence of the use of  seasonal high tunnels,  cold-tolerant vegetable varieties and high demand for year round local and regional produce is not new.

Many of our cities in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies had similar systems, with farmers using “hotbeds,” and early greenhouses producing  year-round vegetables. Their produce was sold at  farmers markets such as at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, New York City’s  Washington Square, Wallabout Farmers Markets and in Washington DC at their Eastern, Western and Central Markets.

New York City, Winter Lettuce and Leek “Hotbeds” Mid- 20th Century

New York City, Winter Lettuce and Leek “Hotbeds” Early 20th Century

In New York City, “hotbeds,” were heated with horse manure hauled back to Queens County farms on market wagons from Manhattan stables. This fresh horse manure  provided the necessary winter heat for greens, leeks and carrots in the “hotbed” system.

Growers in Arlington, Massachusetts in the late 19th Century originated these winter vegetable growing techniques  and cold tolerant seed varieties.

These  Massachusetts innovators,  Abner Wyman, Warren Rawson and W.H. Allen,  developed lean-to hothouses and “hotbeds” with straw mats to cover glass sash on hotbeds during the coldest nights.

By 1900, over 100 acres of hotbeds and hot houses were under glass in Arlington alone. Neighboring towns such as Woburn, Lexington, and Belmont were also supplying winter greens not only to Boston, but as far as New York, Buffalo, Philly and “even cities along the Mississippi River” reported historical records from that era.

Schumacher Farms Selling produce at Washington Square Farmers Market, Manhattan, New York City -1887

In the 1890s in Queens County, NYC, one of these New York City year-round farmers, my grandfather, Fred Schumacher, adapted these New England “hotbed” and greenhouse technologies . By the early 20thCentury in Flushing,  he was growing winter vegetables. He continued to use these systems for some 40 years, until the mid-1950’s, all the while marketing year round to New York City  farmers markets.

Wallabout Farmers Market in Brooklyn, New York City -1887

Horse manure, straw mats and seed varieties all worked well for these simple, but effective winter vegetable production systems. My grandfather’s daily diary on January 13, 1912, a century ago, recorded, “was a fine day, cold, transplanted Romaine into hotbeds, sold 40 cases of leeks Washington Market, $90” .

A century later, farmers in Rhode Island, Maine, West Virginia, New York and Virginia, some with USDA funded “seasonal high tunnel” pilot technologies, are again selling at winter markets—many of the same crops that Abner Wyman in Arlington Mass sold at Faneuil Hall in Boston and my grandfather Frederick Schumacher, sold at the Wallabout and Washington Square Farmers Markets in New York City a century ago.

Now in the 21st Century,  SNAP and WIC families are also benefiting from these adapted technologies of seasonal high tunnels and cold tolerant produce varieties, using Wholesome Wave’s “nutrition incentive” double value coupon programs again at year-round farmers markets, not just in a few northeastern cities, but around the country in 28 states at some 300 farmers markets.

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