By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
On a gusty, chilly day last week, I drove 85 miles north and stepped right into early summer.
The air was warm and pleasantly humid. I gazed upon rows of tomato plants growing in long banks of soil, their branches already heavy with fruit. Bumblebees buzzed from plant to plant, and the sweet smell of ripening vegetables was all around.
My spring-break destination? Twin Springs Fruit Farm in Orrtanna, Pa.
Inside one of the three greenhouses that Tom Childs operates for Twin Springs, the Sungold and Dasher tomato plants were already four or five feet high. In the second greenhouse, cucumber plants -- more like the giant beanstalks of fairy tales than the low-growing outdoor vines -- rose seven or eight feet toward the plastic ceiling. Their elephant-ear leaves measured 12 inches across. Close to the stalk, small cucumbers hung with their yellow flowers still attached, ready to be picked off the vine. In the third greenhouse, red oak leaf lettuce and arugula were growing in neat rows that stretched the entire 96-foot length.
Farming and farm markets are year-round activities there. Twin Springs' greenhouse operations began in 1988: At the time, says co-owner Jim Frazee, "we were just trying to grow tomatoes to supplement the storage crops we were selling at our markets." Twenty years later, the farm tends to more than half an acre of indoor growing space.
Twin Springs comes to the Washington area several days a week to operate its own markets and to sell at other farmers markets (see http://www.TwinSpringsFruitFarm.com for locations).
Frazee says he tries to keep his prices competitive with those for greenhouse produce grown much farther away and sold in other retail outlets. Last year, his Trust variety tomatoes (a medium size) sold for $2.99 per pound. "Our tomatoes are vine-ripened. The taste, texture and color of shipped fruit is disappointing in comparison," he says.
The greenhouses, situated between the fruit trees and the traditional vegetable growing plots, enable Twin Springs to bring just-picked arugula, kale, chard, lettuce and cucumbers to markets now, in the offseason. In the next two or three weeks, tomatoes and eggplant will follow. "If it weren't for the greenhouses," Frazee says, "we'd be down to just storage onions and apples by now."
Twin Springs isn't the only farm looking to greenhouses and hoop houses, or unheated structures, to extend the growing season. At Shoestring Acres in south-central Pennsylvania, Eric Lichty grows various types of lettuce, which he combines in a salad mix. The mix is sold through the Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative to restaurants in the Washington area. "For me, it's a source of income -- cash flow through the winter," he says.
Ann Yonkers, co-founder and co-director of the FreshFarm Markets in the District and Silver Spring, has witnessed and nurtured this growing trend.
"Since we began in Dupont Circle in 1997, I've seen a tremendous increase. I could go down my list of purveyors and name producer after producer who has added greenhouses or hoop houses," she says.
Growing under cover is hardly new. Yonkers brought a farmer from Maine to the Dupont Circle market 10 years ago to educate its producers about the potential of using hoop houses.
At Twin Springs, Childs cares for his plants like a parent watching over his brood, albeit with science by his side. Very little is left to chance: Computers monitor the heating and irrigation systems, and tissue samples taken from the plant leaves are sent to a lab in Lancaster, Pa., for analysis. He uses beneficial insects to control pests and brings in bumblebees from Michigan for plant pollination. "We baby these plants," Childs says.
At night, the temperature in the greenhouses is lowered to reflect a natural 24-hour cycle; during the day, fans and ventilation are used to keep the heat from rising too high. When I visited, the temperature inside was balmy, in the low 70s.
Childs's constant attention is mandatory. As he explains: "If the plants yield fruit that is smaller than it should be, we lose money. If every tomato is one ounce smaller than it could be, and you multiply that by our total yield, you're looking at a big loss."
The greenhouses are an investment -- not just in the structure and the fuel, but also in labor. "There's always something to do here," Childs says. The farm assistants who work in the fields and orchards often start their day in the greenhouses, pruning leaves and cutting greens for market, among other tasks.
The rewards are in Twin Springs' gap-season produce. "Before the greenhouse, we limped through the first weeks of the seasonal markets waiting for the strawberries to come in," Frazee says. Greenhouse tomatoes, for example, get picked right up until the time tomatoes come in heavily from the fields. "We tear them out of the greenhouse and start putting tomato plants back inside in July that will bear fruit about the time the frost hits. It's greenhouse-field-greenhouse," he says.
Yonkers sees it as part of the entrepreneurial energy born from farmers markets. "The farmers meet the customers and get to see what those customers want," she says. "They begin to see that if they add a greenhouse or hoop house, they can sell in the winter, and then sell even more in the summer," to new customers they've attracted during the cold months.
Walking through the Twin Springs greenhouses last week, surrounded by all that beautiful produce, made me want to pack away my stew pots and leave roasting for colder days. I yearned for fresh salads and cool flavors. The arugula I saw would pair well with spring strawberries, which are being shipped in from warmer climates but still provide a welcome change. The cucumbers could be the yin to a spicy shrimp's yang.
As for those tomatoes, they still may need a few weeks to ripen. But I'm already making plans.
Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, a former Food section recipe editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears the first Wednesday of every month.