In Season

In Early Spring, A Taste of Summer

By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 2, 2008; Page F01

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 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.

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