Instead of wearin' the green this weekend, go out and eat some greens - fresh, locally grown ones - to celebrate St Patrick's Day.
Between the short, mild winter and more Connecticut farmers putting up polyethylene hoop structures to grow vegetables year round, traditional spring crops are ready about a month ahead of schedule, according to Deb Marsden, owner of CT Farm Fresh Express (CTFFE), based in East Haddam. The delivery service connects consumers, restaurants and businesses with local farmers and food producers in the state. It marks its fourth anniversary this year.
"Right now we have spinach, field greens, baby lettuce and hydroponic lettuces," says Marsden. Hearty, or "braising" greens - spicy mustards, kale and Asian greens, mustards - are right around the corner. All have been grown under some sort of cover. Structures tall enough for people to stand up in are called "high tunnels," the two- to three-foot-tall ones are called "low tunnels." Neither set-up requires heating. There's already a bumper crop of lettuces ready for harvest at Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, one of CTFFE's farms. Farmer Bryan O'Hara, who has grown greens under cover for years, says everything is running early this year. It's been so dry and warm that he's been able to work the fields almost any day he's wanted to. That's not typical in New England.
"We have the solar energy right now to really grow a lot of crops, long enough days and sun intensity," he says. "What usually holds us back are the cold temperatures this time of year, but if it is warm or you moderate things with a tunnel, you can really get a lot of growth going."
Gardeners know the old adage: Plant peas on St Patrick's Day. O'Hara decided to plant some peas under cover in December.
"The vines are already 8 to 10 inches tall, growing like gangbusters," says O'Hara, who expects to harvest peas in May, well ahead of the normal harvest time.
"What we're doing is really just a modern version of cold frame production that was perfected by the French," he says. "Before World War II, they had really brought vegetable growing to incredible heights of productivity. They had winter cold frames with wooden structures with glass tops, and they might roll out blankets or mats of straw on top of them to keep things warm at night, where our structures are polyethylene sheets suspended on hoops. These tunnels are pretty versatile."
With encouragement and Natural Resources Conservation Service grants, more farmers are investing in modern hoop house growing techniques. Hunts Brook Farm in Quaker Hill has grown spinach, Asian greens and arugula all winter long in its new high tunnel structure. The greens are on the menu at La Belle Aurore in Niantic and the Mystic Oyster Club and sold at Fiddleheads Food Coop in New London.
Rob "Digga" and Teresa Schacht, owners, also have been enjoying vegetable juices made from their greens and overwintered carrots. The organic vegetable and berry farm is gearing up for its fifth year of a Community Supported Agriculture program, with up to 75 members who sign up for 18 weeks of the farm's bounty.
"I think people have it in their heads that once farmers markets close and it gets cold that the season is over, but there are lots of Connecticut-grown foods available year-round," says Marsden, who is constantly on the prowl for new and unique Connecticut-grown or made products and makes deliveries 52 weeks a year. "They forget that animal and dairy operations are year-round, plus there are lots of winter-stored root vegetables."
Marsden says her business supports 40 to 50 farms and other small businesses this time of year, delivering an array of Connecticut meats, eggs, dairy products, honey, maple syrup, preserved fruits, breads and prepared foods, plus winter vegetables. In the peak of summer garden season, it's closer to 70 proprietors.
"Even if you did 20 percent of your grocery shopping locally, you'd be supporting small businesses as well as farms in our area," she said. CTFFE works with several farms in the area, including Aiki Farms, Cedar Meadow Farm and Hidden Brook Gardens in Ledyard, Stonyledge in North Stonington and Stanton-Davis in Stonington, the oldest continuous business, run by "Whit" Davis.
Marsden says it's getting easier to eat locally and in-season, and the early spring doesn't hurt. CTFFE makes deliveries every Thursday, delivery rates vary from $6 to $20, see website for participating farms and products.
Looking for your local farmer? See CT NOFA's 2011-12 Farm and Food Guide for listing of CT organic farms and related businesses, www.ctnofa.org; for information on CT Farm Fresh Express, visit www.ctffe.com.