Where imagination meets farming
Local-food pioneer Pete Johnson's movable greenhouses have yielded a lettuce harvest in the dead of a Vermont winter.
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His inventive juices flowing, he designed a new structure to shed snow. He hauled a chain saw into the woods and cut trees for rafters and posts. During a January thaw, he finished the greenhouse in time to supply his accounts with early-season greens.
“It was the most creative thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “The design was all seat-of-the-pants, but it really worked.” The steep roof and high walls shed snow, letting in more warmth from the sun. When he could afford his own 230-acre farm – Pete’s Greens – in nearby Craftsbury, Johnson built another greenhouse just like the first. The sturdy logs, though, made the structure immovable.
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Last spring the movable concept sprouted again in his imagination. Now with over 250 CSA customers, he bought four 35-x-200-foot greenhouses and erected them on steel skids. The plan was an attempt at something most people would have thought impossible in a northern climate until recently – harvesting virtually year-round.
“There’s a movement all around the country to extend the season,” says Lynn Byczynski, editor of Growing for Market based in Kansas. “It’s probably the biggest trend in small-scale farming in 50 years.”
Low-cost, low-tech “high tunnels” or “hoop houses” are popular in places as diverse as China and Europe, and among Amish farmers in the US. But Johnson is one of the first to grow salad greens year-round, Ms. Byczynski says. “It makes growers think, ‘If Pete can do it in northern Vermont, I can probably do it here.’ ”
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Johnson is one of “a critical mass of new, innovative farmers” at the heart of “a massive wave of change,” says Dave Rogers, national policy director of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association. “Nationally, local food is mushrooming, and winter CSAs are developing all over the country.” He adds that even the US Department of Agriculture is getting the message: Last year’s farm bill designated $100 million for organic agriculture.
Johnson partners with other local producers to give them exposure and to diversify his own weekly offerings. Along with greens and vegetables, customers might get a bag of apples, sunflower oil, artisanal cheeses or breads, local wheat flour, eggs, or humanely raised meats.
The multifarm CSA is part of the local eating trend, an alternative to supermarkets. But isn’t local organic food expensive?
“Compared to what?” Johnson asks. “Compared to the absolute junkiest food you can buy in a supermarket? It’s too bad we think we can’t afford the most important thing in the world, when we’re so wealthy.”
For people who can’t afford local, organic food Johnson suggests home gardening as a way to save a lot of money and eat good food.
“It can be done in not a lot of time, and there’s plenty of land left in suburbia. You could have a neighborhood CSA,” he says. “Each person could grow five crops, and on Saturday everyone could bring their produce to someone’s garage – and talk to their neighbors, too.”
Pie in the sky? Maybe no more so than pulling a 200-foot greenhouse like a sled.
“What makes Pete unique is that he’s succeeding economically as well as practically,” observes Eliot Coleman, an organic farming expert in Maine whose small-scale experiments with movable greenhouses inspired Johnson’s. “He’s got the energy, brains, and imagination to try things nobody else is doing.”
Especially, maybe, the imagination.