Connolly: Area’s first certified organic farm now a year-round grower

It was 1989 when Wayne's Organic Garden became eastern Connecticut's first certified organic farm and the second in the state. In 2013, Oneco farmer Wayne Hansen marked his farm's 25th season but today he is far from alone.

CT-NOFA (Connecticut Northeast Organic Farming Association) now lists 35 organic and sustainable farms in New London and Middlesex counties alone, including eight farms with formal USDA certification.

But Hansen is once again on the leading edge of a farming trend - that of cultivating winter crops under cover and selling at the winter farmers markets.

"I've learned there's unlimited demand for fresh greens and vegetables at the winter farmers markets," he says. "People are crazy for fresh local food this time of year."

In the beginning, Hansen used greenhouses to support his warm-season growing. "I wanted to get an early start on my own seedlings and I wanted early tomatoes," says Hansen. "But once I saw the possibilities, growing year-round seemed like such a good idea.

"If you choose the right crop varieties and do some experimentation with the newer plant protection products," he continues, "you can eliminate much of the downtime that comes with northern growing."

Hansen's early experiments with late season sales started more than a decade ago.

"Row covers gave us lots of greens through October and some varieties until December," he says. Row covers are spun fabrics that provide as much as 5 degrees of frost protection. In 2009, he put in a 2,500-square-foot greenhouse with hot air furnace and circulating fans. He keeps it at 36 degrees and produces abundant Swiss chard, Jericho romaine, Two Star green lettuce, New Red Fire lettuce, bok choy, and Japanese turnips.

In 2011, he built his first unheated high tunnel hoop house. Today, it provides almost 2,000 square feet of Red Russian kale, kohlrabi, and a variety of greens.

"I even grow Walla Walla onions in the unheated house under two layers of row cover," he says. "They're ready for market by the end of June - six or more weeks ahead of the usual schedule."

How difficult is winter growing? "Protected crops call on different skills," says Hansen. "In some ways, it's actually easier." He notes the decline of insects, for instance, and reduced water needs for plants that are growing slowly or not at all. "But you have to start a lot of seedlings in early August. That is key to success with winter crops. While in-season growers are winding down, winter growers are making their second big push of the year."

Hansen's greenhouses are busy during the regular season as well. "That creates a guessing game," he says. "When do we end the summer crops to make room for winter?"

To learn more about winter growing, Hansen recommends the CT-NOFA End of Winter Conference, March 1, for workshops on high tunnel growing and season extension. He also says he's happy to answer questions. On February Sundays, find him at the Winter Fresh Market from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Coventry High School, 78 Ripley Hill Road. In addition to selling veggies, he is taking orders for certified organic vegetable seedlings until Feb. 7; the seedlings are ready in May. He also sells a summer CSA (community supported agriculture) subscription. (See his contact information below.) Wayne Hansen was CT-NOFA's Farmer of the Year in 2009.

Coventry is one of four winter markets in eastern Connecticut, including Stonington Market at the Velvet Mill, 22 Bayview Ave. 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. There are also winter markets in Ellington and Storrs. Fiddleheads Co-op in New London and Foodworks in Old Saybrook also sell fresh local produce in winter.

Just as the roster of organic growers has lengthened in the 26 years since Hansen broke ground, there are likely to be more and more growers busying their once-quiet winter seasons with cold weather crops. George Krivka, public information officer for the Department of Agriculture, says the department wants to encourage a day "when many Connecticut farms are growing year-round under glass and under cover." That vision is limited by energy costs, he says, but there are programs and developments underway to address the need.

KATHY CONNOLLY IS A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER, GARDEN WRITER AND SPEAKER FROM OLD SAYBROOK. HER NEXT COLUMN WILL FEATURE AN INTERVIEW WITH NIKI JABBOUR, AUTHOR OF ONE OF 2013'S BESTSELLING GARDENING BOOKS, "YEAR-ROUND VEGETABLE GARDENER." SEE WWW.SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM FOR HER SPEAKING SCHEDULE OR EMAIL: KATHY@SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM.

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