This year the downtown Portland Farmers Market will try its first-ever winter session.
Usually its vendors only sell between March and December. But this market is one of several around the state experimenting with a year-round schedule.
The growers are stepping up with some changes that will keep production going well beyond the traditional season.
John Eveland of Gathering Together Farm in Philomath stands with his head poked under the rim of what’s called a hoop house.
“So this was a house that was full of tomatoes. You can see the dead tomatoes, they’ve cleaned off all the vegetation,” he said.
It looks like a big greenhouse, but a bit more temporary: vast sheets of plastic draped over poles.
Eveland turns to one of his farm managers, Jolene Jebbia.
“Are you going to seed some greens into that then?”
Jebbia nods. She’s been working on an expansion of these structures as the farm’s winter operations get rolling.
“These represent the kind of tunnels we’re using more of now. They’re called Spanish style tunnels. They’re cheap and easy to build, easy to push the sides up and ventilate,” Eveland said.
It’s one of the ways the farm has extended its production time to meet the demand for winter markets. Beets, carrots, peas can all grow here. You might assume the structures’ main benefit to the plants is heat. But in many cases they’re needed to keep plants drier than they’d be in wet Oregon winters. The hoop houses are fitted for a couple of kinds of irrigation. Eveland and Jebbia say that makes them useful for early spring planting, too.
“We look at these things as the high-end rent district. You’ve got to be able to make money to get into these hoop houses. We’ve really expanded our ideas about what makes money over the years. We’ve got crops like potatoes…”
“Watercress. We never thought we’d put them in a hoop house until we just started playing with it and realized it’s a good benefit to us,” Eveland said.
Some winter produce is an extension of late fall growing. Other winter crops will come from an early spring planting. Arugula, radishes, turnips. Some will stay in greenhouses, and move out before the harvest. Some, like Eveland’s greens, will grow in an open field. On the other side of the property, a variety of greens are sprouting up in tidy rows. Some, like arugula, actually taste a lot better after they’ve weathered a little frost.
Eveland says winter produce farming has its own set of challenges. During last month’s cold snap, he found that greens weren’t ready for harvest until late in the day.
“We were in a situation where it wasn’t thawing out enough - the plants become limp, it takes a while to get the leaves plumped up again. it would be 3 o’clock in the afternoon before we could start harvesting them,” Eveland said.
At that point in the day, his team barely had 90 minutes of daylight left to harvest.
Other vegetables, pulled from the ground cased in mud, need a great deal more washing to get ready for market.
But Eveland says he’s glad to have another reason to sell in winter. He sells to farmers’ markets, but also to restaurants and grocery stores. A winter crop helps maintain those relationships, so customers don’t start looking elsewhere for produce.
The Market is betting that shoppers who’ve packed the downtown Portland farmers’ market through late fall will still want fresh produce — and more — through January and February. It’ll run eight Saturdays in a row. Then the market will take another short break before re-starting at its usual time in March.
Alan Rousseau drives over the Cascades each week from his Pine Mountain Ranch in Bend to sell grass-fed beef, buffalo, yak, and other meats at the Market. He was an early believer that the market could be extended into winter months. The market’s traditional schedule he says, doesn’t play to the strengths of the ranching calendar.
“A lot of the animals are coming off late-season pasture where their fat content is optional. If you’re processing an animal in late November, early December, and the market’s over December 17th, then there’s a lot of people unable to utilize some of the best meat,” he said.
While some customers want the extra-lean spring meat he keeps frozen, Rousseau says he’s found a growing market for the fattier winter meat that’s a natural to sell at winter markets.
Rousseau and Eveland are among thirty producers who asked to be part of the Portland winter market experiment, alongside four vendors serving prepared foods. About a dozen other markets around the state, from Salem to Lincoln County, are also staying open through the cold months.
On the Web:
Oregon Farmers Market Association Directory.
Gathering Together Farm Blog