Some Farmers Are Skipping Tomatoes and Eggplants. Their Reasons May Surprise You. | Some Farmers Are Skipping Tomatoes and Eggplants. Their Reasons May Surprise You.

Some Farmers Are Skipping Tomatoes and Eggplants. Their Reasons May Surprise You.

From climate risks to better work-life balance, a small but growing contingent of farmers is giving up summer crops to reap winter’s harvest.

Farmer Caiti Hachmyer plants dry corn at Red-H Farm in Sebastopol, California. (Photo credit: Brooke Porter Photography)

Farmer Caiti Hachmyer plants dry corn at Red H Farm in Sebastopol, California. (Photo credit: Brooke Porter Photography)

Rockwell dry beans, their creamy exteriors punctuated with cranberry mottling, hold a special place in Michelle Burger’s heart. Burger, who owns Bethel Springs Farm on 3 acres in Rickreall, Oregon with her husband, grows copious amounts of Rockwell beans, along with a host of other vegetables most likely to make an appearance in a winter soup. The Burgers are among a modest cohort of small-time growers who almost exclusively cultivate cool-weather and storage crops that they sell in the wintertime.

At first glance, eschewing customer favorites like tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini seems like a risky move. Those crops, which are staples of farmers’ markets throughout the summer, are also profitable for farmers.

“I’ve really come to a place of not being able to work in the summer heat. I couldn’t keep martyring myself.”

But rising summer temperatures, the realities of aging bodies, and financial considerations are driving some farmers like the Burgers to embrace the challenges of running a business centered more on celeriac than heirloom tomatoes. And there are plenty of benefits to shifting away from summertime crops, farmers say: They’re able to work fewer grueling hours and in less extreme temperatures, spend more time with their families, and sell their produce with less competition.

“We can be a little calmer about our season,” Burger says.

Farmer Caiti Hachmyer began focusing on cool-weather crops two years ago. Her decision was prompted in large part by a desire to prioritize her health. As a child growing up in Sebastopol, California, Hachmyer enjoyed summer temperatures in the 70s or 80s, with fog lingering until the late morning. But by 2009, when Hachmyer founded Red H Farm near her Northern California hometown, temperatures had risen noticeably, and the fog no longer blanketed the region. Today, July and August days regularly reach the 90s and above, says Hachmyer. “We’ll have these week-long periods of 100-plus-degree temperatures.”

In recent years, she’s found it increasingly difficult to be outside for long periods of time. “I’ve really come to a place of not being able to work in the summer heat,” she said. The extreme temperatures, paired with more frequent smoke from wildfires in the summer and fall, pushed Hachmyer to rethink how she farmed. “I couldn’t keep martyring myself,” she says.

Farmer Caiti Hachmyer focuses on cool-weather crops to prioritize her health as the summers in her hometown of Sebastopol, California, grow hotter.

Farmer Caiti Hachmyer focuses on cool-weather crops to prioritize her health as the summers in her hometown of Sebastopol, California, grow hotter.

The final straw for Hachmyer was losing half of her crops in 2021 to drought. (She was dry farming a portion of her fields, meaning they were unirrigated.) Walking through fields of dying crops was emotionally draining, she says: “It was actually a fairly traumatic experience.” Hachmyer had already started to think about other ways of farming, and her farm assistant suggested the idea of running a winter community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. The time was right for something to shift, Hachmyer remembered thinking. “In order to continue farming, I need to change my model.”

Hachmyer now grows predominantly storage and cool-weather crops on her 1.2-acre site. Her main planting season runs from April through late June, and she no longer spends 10-hour days planting, harvesting, and selling at farmers’ markets in the summer. Instead, she grows storage crops like onions and squash in preparation for her winter CSA. Once a month from December through February, customers pick up roughly 40 pounds of produce. The haul, which often includes vegetables such as onions, potatoes, and winter squash paired with more perishable offerings like leeks and radishes, is designed to nourish a family for several weeks. “Much of what you’re distributing in the winter can be [sold] in larger quantities for consumers to store,” Hachmyer says.

“As we got better, we would grow longer and longer into the season. We realized how much we could do in the winter.”

Her farm’s CSA model is atypical, Hachmyer admits, but it has distinct advantages. Harvesting for and packing the roughly 40 boxes she sold last year takes about four days but only needs to happen once a month. That left a lot more flexibility in Hachmyer’s schedule. She had time to create value-added products such as dried peppers and tea blends, which she tucked into CSA boxes. The model also makes it possible to pursue off-farm work, which, for both beginning and more established farmers, pays the majority of the bills. (Hachmyer teaches agroecology part-time at nearby Sonoma State University). Last month, she even took a vacation. “I came back to the farm, and I’m not feeling stressed out,” she says.

Other farmers have followed different paths to winter growing. For Michelle and Steven Burger, farming is a second career for both, and they’ve relished the opportunity to improve their skills every year. “As we got better, we would grow longer and longer into the season,” Michelle Burger says. “We realized how much we could do in the winter.”

That was a welcome surprise for the Burgers, who, at the ages 59 and 61, were beginning to question how much longer they could embrace the go-go-go mentality of summertime farming. “You’re trying to grow everything, and at the same time, you’re taking three or four days out of the week to also harvest it and sell it,” Michelle Burger says.

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This year, after a decade of farming, the Burgers decided not to sell at a summer farmers’ market. They’re hoping to streamline their operation, spread out their workload, and potentially avoid having to hire an employee. Besides growing a small quantity of zucchini and cucumbers in the summer to sell to a nearby natural foods store, the Burgers will sell most their crops in the winter at a farmers’ market in Portland. The couple is looking forward to their new schedule, but they also admit to being a little nervous. “It’s not the prime season for farmers’ markets,” Michelle Burger says. “We’ll see how it pencils out for us.”

Sometimes growers turn to winter farming out of necessity. That’s what happened to Danny Percich. His farm, Full Plate Farm, sits on a high-water table in Ridgefield, Washington, and the fields tends to remain wet and largely unworkable until late in the spring. It’s tough to plant crops there early enough to ensure a reliable summer harvest, so Percich and his crew have always opted to focus on winter farming.

“There’s this whole other palate of vegetables that are out there.”

That decision turned out to be a good one, Percich says, because there’s more flexibility in the summer to spend time with his three school-aged children. And since fewer local producers farm during the colder months, there’s also less competition for customers, so the choice made financial sense.

Percich runs a CSA program from November through April. He has relished the opportunity to grow crops like chicories and rutabagas, which are generally more unfamiliar to people. “There’s this whole other palate of vegetables that are out there,” he says.

Winter growing isn’t unique to the West Coast. Even when snow blankets the ground, Hearty Roots Community Farm in Clermont, New York, is growing produce. The farm’s 25-acre production site is dotted with five high tunnels totaling roughly 20,000 square feet. Despite the structures being only passively heated by the sun, they make it possible to grow a large assortment of greens in the dead of winter, says Ben Shute, Hearty Roots’ co-owner and farm manager.

A collection of cool-weather crops grown at Red-H Farm in Sebastopol, California.

A collection of cool-weather crops grown at Red H Farm in Sebastopol, California.

Hearty Roots grows summer crops as well, but its winter CSA—with pick-ups on the farm and also several sites in New York City—has proven to be popular, Shute says. In fact, a sizeable fraction of the farm’s summertime CSA customers also purchase a winter share. “There’s huge interest,” Shute says.

Other farms on the East Coast exclusively grow winter crops. Queen’s Greens, in Amherst, Massachusetts, grows spinach and salad greens in high tunnels throughout the coldest months. It is indeed possible to coax plants to grow in temperatures that hover around freezing, says Danya Teitelbaum, who, along with Matt Biskup, co-owns and manages the 30-acre farm. Spinach in particular is forgiving and holds up to freezing, she says. “You can cut it immediately after it defrosts and have a beautiful crop.”

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Winter growing is catching on with urban gardeners as well. Brian Campbell, the co-founder and co-owner of Uprising Seeds, in Bellingham, Washington, has found that cool-weather crops like radicchio have a dedicated following among his customers. “There’s been a real solid demand,” he says.

Campbell has been pleasantly surprised to find both farmers and customers embracing wintertime crops. Many people appreciate the seasonality of fruit, but that’s often not the case with vegetables. “Veggies have lost that, to some extent,” Campbell says. He believes that the dizzying array of choices at a supermarket, an artificial selection made possible by the advent of far-flung transportation, is probably to blame. “The place of production just shifts,” Campbell says.

There’s an opportunity to celebrate seasonality through growing winter vegetables, Campbell says. And that gets at the heart of values he shares with many small-scale farmers: “Seasonality with produce goes hand in hand with creating community and food culture.”

Katherine Kornei is a science journalist whose work has appeared in Science, Scientific American, and The New York Times. Read more >

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  1. Bernard Nagelvoort
    I have a tiny greenhouse (with southern exposure attached to basement windows where in winter a fan circulates warm air which enters the greenhouse from a restroom and exits back into the house through the adjacent laundry room. It produces tomatoes, spinach and beet greens all winter in 10' and 14' x 3' raised beds using my natural nitrogen fertilizer supplemented with commercial phosphorus and potassium. This summer I'm growing crook-neck squash there to avoid squash borers who like my deer-proof outdoor raised bed garden.

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