SOUTH BERWICK, Maine — Winter at Riverside Farm isn’t what it used to be.

Traditionally the Tuttle family would just now be getting back from a tropical vacation and would be planning for spring planting. But on a recent weekday, Dave Tuttle was working in two greenhouses full of young vegetable plants and earthy garden smells.

He’s been busy growing a succession of crops since September.

Tuttle and two workers were preparing a harvest of tender greenery to be gathered by hand, washed, dried and bagged for an upcoming winter farmers market in Rollinsford.

Riverside Farm, straddling the North Berwick-South Berwick town line, has been in Tuttle’s family since 1743. During his tenure, the 215-acre family operation has innovated in many ways to survive. This latest innovation is part of a winter growing trend that is transforming traditional farmers markets, which used to shut down when snow arrived.

Over the years, most of Riverside’s ornamental plants and vegetable crops have been sold during three seasons at its farm stand on Route 4, at summer farmers markets and through community supported agriculture shares, or CSAs, purchased by area residents.

Two years ago, a co-worker urged Tuttle to try winter growing and set aside 1½ of his seven greenhouses as an experiment.

It got off to a late start, but in the dead of winter the greenhouses yielded baby lettuce, salad greens, turnips, swiss chard, spinach and other crops that can stand cold temperatures and reduced light. The bullish reception from customers at winter markets got Tuttle hooked.

“It’s a wonderful thing to take this product to market,” he said. Customers “just buy us out every time.”

This season, Riverside Farm expanded its winter crop selection and started planting early, in September. They also grew more root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips and potatoes, for fall harvest and storage. This way they have more to bring to the winter markets in addition to fresh greens.

Winter growing requires intensive management and careful crop selection. Only certain crops can withstand cold, low-light conditions.

Tuttle plants four times during the winter season to ensure he has enough product for the markets and can grow winter crops until the end of April.

Both greenhouses have heaters, one powered by propane and the other by oil. The air is allowed to get down to 34 degrees at night in the greenhouses, but can rise rapidly on sunny days.

There are 600-watt sodium lights in one house set on a timer to extend growing light, while the other house relies on natural light.

Energy is an increasing expense Tuttle hopes to minimize by embracing the sun.

He plans to install solar collectors on several greenhouses to heat water that will in turn heat the plants. He also eventually hopes to build a new greenhouse powered entirely by solar and is exploring a large solar system to generate electricity for the entire farm.

“It’s a big project, and we’ve got a couple companies working on it,” said Tuttle. “Energy is a big cost and it’s what keeps our profits down.”

Among the benefits of growing in winter is a lack of pests. The only problem Riverside Farm had was the first year when aphids began to appear on some of the crops. A dose of lady beetles Tuttle brought in took care of that organically.

Winter markets

Winter farmers markets are a relatively new phenomenon.

Five years ago, Seacoast Eat Local started the first winter farmers markets in the area, held on three dates. Now there are 12 markets — two a month November through April.

Seacoast Eat Local hosts them at Wentworth Greenhouses in Rollinsford, N.H., and at Exeter High School. The response from customers has increased steadily, said Sara Zoe Patterson, Seacoast Eat Local board chair.

The largest turnout to date saw nearly 2,500 customers come through the doors. Vendor enthusiasm has increased as well, with more than 50 booths at the Rollinsford market. This includes vegetable growers such as Riverside Farm, meat producers, prepared foods, crafts and more.

Patterson said many of the participating farms have shifted their business plans to specifically produce crops for winter.

“It evens out their income and we’ve seen farms hiring people,” she said. “It’s so healthy for our local economy.”

Another winter market Riverside participates in is organized by the Gateway Chamber of Commerce, headquartered in York and serving York, Eliot, Kittery and South Berwick. Its winter markets are held two weekends a month at the American Legion Hall in York.

Steph Oeser, the Chamber’s events coordinator and York market manager, said it takes a while to establish a new market but interest has been growing and she is seeking more vendors.

This is the York winter market’s second year. The Chamber has put on a popular summer market for 10 years.

At first, customers were surprised they could find freshly grown local vegetables in the winter, she said. Now they are excited that it’s a regular market they can count on.

More than 20 vendors at the market offer baked goods, meats, eggs, prepared food and seafood in addition to winter grown vegetables.

At Riverside Farm, Tuttle has been able to hire a full-time worker to help the family because of the winter markets.

“I’m just really excited about farming now,” says the 64-year-old. “We’re not going to give up our vacation every year. But we really wanted to learn a lot this year and concentrate on the markets. They’ve given us a whole new income.”

© 2012 Foster’s Daily Democrat

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