Small Maine produce farmers press on even in the winter months

As the farm-to-table and buy local movements continue to heat up in the state of Maine, the winter months create a challenge for restaurants, consumers, and farmers who are trying to make a living and uphold a lifestyle that revolves around healthy, locally grown food.

As someone who is very much a believer in eating locally, I had recently begun to wonder how small farmers (the bread and butter of Maine) were getting by during the long winter that Maine so kindly bestows upon its people. What crazy technology, if any, were they using that was enabling them to churn out produce in weather that even birds fly south for?

Furthermore, with as many farm-to-table businesses as I have seen pop up in recent years, I questioned the feasibility of sourcing Maine-grown produce during winter months. I decided to call up a long-time friend who owns a farm with his husband about 8 miles outside of Belfast. I knew they would have the answers that would quench my curiosity.

Greg King and Kyffin Dolliver run a small produce farm in the heart of Waldo county called Morrill Century Farm. On the morning that I traveled out to meet them, a rooster soup simmered on the stove. This would be a totally unassuming sight if it weren’t for the whole rooster that sat in the middle of the pot. If you need evidence, here it is:

They wanted the rooster’s foot prominently placed in the picture. I get it. It’s more legit that way.

Greg and Kyffin were preparing an entirely farm-sourced meal for their dinner guest, Erin French, chef/owner of the James Beard nominated restaurant, The Lost Kitchen, located in Freedom, Maine. Intimidating, right? But no, if there is anything I know about Greg it is that he is intimidated by nothing, so there they were, cooking a soup for one of Maine’s most celebrated chefs.

The Lost Kitchen is one of several restaurants in Waldo county that buys fresh produce from Morrill Century Farm. Others include Ralph’s Café in Brooks, Three Tides in Belfast, and Neighborhood Restaurant in Belfast, as well as a couple of restaurants in the Sugarloaf region like The Doors Bistro in Kingfield. Greg and Kyffin maintain a close relationship with the restaurants they supply to, and while Kyffin farms full-time, Greg works several days a week for Three Tides, allowing them direct access to feedback from consumers.

“A lot of the restaurants we sell to are priced so that we can go eat there. We can drop by and buy lunch and that’s pretty cool,” Kyffin said, “whereas in Portland the farmers can’t afford to eat at a lot of the places that buy their product.”

Which brings me back to my initial inquiry: How are these small-scale produce farmers able to make enough money to feed themselves through the long winter months, let alone others? And more importantly, how are they doing it?

Surprisingly, the operation was not as technologically involved as I had suspected it would be. In fact, a large 30 x 120-foot hoop house, heated only by the sun, turned out to be the winter-defying tool that allows Century Farm to grow certain temperature-tolerant vegetables in the dead of winter. A row cover, which you can see Greg and Kyffin pulling back in the picture below, is placed atop the crops to hold in an extra layer of heat around the plants. Together, the necessary micro-environment for winter growing is created.

When I entered the hoop house at noon on this chilly March day I was pleasantly surprised at how warm it was inside—far warmer than the house! Kyffin said he expected the temperatures inside to rise to 80 or 90 degrees by midday. (Note that as he tells me this I am actively considering selling my house and moving in to a hoop house; it seems cheaper). Rows of leafy greens appeared as he and Greg pulled back the row cover. Spinach, lettuce, arugula and kale all thrive in this grow environment.

“The sun is the key,” Kyffin said. In November and March when there is more sunlight kicking around for longer, the hoop house is warmer and more productive. During the bone-chilling months of December and January, it can be a little trickier. There are more variables. For example, the day before a planned harvest it needs to be sunny and warm enough that the row cover isn’t frozen to the top of the vegetables when they go to pull it back.

Kyffin surprised me when he said that he had harvested 90 pounds of spinach the day before. “As long as you harvest and process [the greens] quickly, they’ll keep well,” he said, adding that although leafy greens stay fresh for a couple of weeks, they are typically only a day old when they deliver to the restaurants they supply.

Once the greens have been harvested they are immediately placed in the CoolBot cooler, designed for on-farm refrigeration. With this technology, Kyffin said that it costs a fraction of what it used to cost to refrigerate produce, making business much more feasible for small-scale farms like theirs.

In the winter months, they are also able to draw from surplus storage crops like potatoes, carrots, winter squash, garlic, onions, and other root vegetables that are grown in-season but keep well through the winter when properly stored.

Thanks to these storage crops, lots of eggs, and the hoop house’s leafy greens, Morrill Century Farm can keep its doors open through the winter, supplying restaurants and offering a CSA box to people who want to eat fresh year-round. During the spring/summer and fall they run a more traditional CSA program, but in the winter, they don’t require customers to buy in for the full season. Instead, you can sign up for their email list to receive emails about the crops they have available, and you can choose to buy in or opt out at any time.

So, to answer my question, Kyffin put it best: “Most farmers in Maine have other jobs. A lot of people do it because they love it, but it’s pretty hard to make it if farming is your only cash source. There are people who do it, but they have to take it very, very seriously as a business, not just be good at growing things.”

Farming in Maine during the winter is certainly possible, and I am happy for my friends that they can continue Maine traditions of sustainability, community, and local food year-round.

It’s a tough climate and it’s a tough job, but as Mainer’s we already knew that, didn’t we?

Bethany Mathieu

About Bethany Mathieu

Hey, y'all! I’m coming at you from the highly wooded, very snowy, central Maine town of Benton and I am here to take you on a food journey of epic proportions.