Three years ago, I wrote a story about high tunnel farming and instantly fell in love. I knew I wanted to be a piece of supporting other farmers and making a difference in my community. I knew I wanted have my hands in dirt year-round. I had no idea what was to unfold.
Fast forward to today. I've left my reporting life, but I am still in the business of truth—and it's a way better kind! I own a store bringing goods from more than 100 local farmers, growers, producers, artists, etc. to my friends and neighbors. These are people passionate and dedicated to their gardens, flocks, herd, talent and ingredients. If that's not truth, then I don't know what is.
If you've been wondering what's been going on behind the store, a high tunnel is going up. I simply can not wait until those veggies are on the OSM shelves. You'll be getting fresh cut greens all winter long, right from my back yard. None of this would be possible without the help, tutelage, unending support and unlimited knowledge of Paul and Sandy Arnold of Pleasant Valley Farm, Argyle. When they were gracious enough to work with me on the article, they said organic farmers really share their knowledge and experiences. I'm now seeing that first-hand and could not be more thankful for them.
Follow along with the progress of the construction, and in the meantime, take a quick read of the article I wrote that got it all started:
Tunnel farming takes hold on Washington County farm
By Christina Scanlon
Jan. 25, 2015
The wind was whistling and biting two weeks ago. Snow crunched beneath your feet, crusted over with thick ice. Closing your eyes and pretending you were on a frozen tundra wouldn’t have been a stretch. But this wasn’t the Arctic.
This was Argyle.
The sun was out and casting light through plastic walls. Beyond a sliding door, another world existed.
Stunning rows of Swiss chard, arugula and salad greens were a shock to the eyes.
The smell of earth, the smell of life, was a welcome perk.
Kim and Robert Arnold led a crew of three others, taking sharp knives to the tender stems. A quick cut, then a meticulous look and a discarding of weeds and lesser quality leaves was followed by another. And then another, until 40 pounds of greens filled crates, but the work had just begun.
Around Washington County, similar methods are used, as high-tunnel farming has taken root at several farms, and farmers around the nation are taking their lead.
Robert and Kim Arnold have grown up on the farm that Paul Arnold started in the late 1980s.
“There were plenty of people that said this wouldn’t work,”
Paul said, recalling his early announcement he was becoming a farmer, not having been raised in a farming family.
While farmers have never been accused of having an easy life, Paul embarked on the endeavor with a positive outlook.
“You can see trouble, or you can see opportunity,” he said.
Tunnel farming came later, at first just one structure that was used to grow food for personal use.
“We kept ourselves full of spinach,” Paul said.
That first tunnel was smaller, a mere — 26 feet long and 30 feet wide — than the ones they use today — at 144 feet long and 34 feet wide, to grow 200 pounds of food per week throughout the winter to sell at local farmer’s markets, which came in part by request.
“You’re going to be there, aren’t you?” Paul said they were asked by customers when winter farmers markets began in the area.
“We had a root cellar since 1988,” he said, where they stored vegetables harvested in the fall to be sold throughout the winter.
To expand into growing year-round was another matter entirely.
The small tunnel they started with could only grow spinach, the heartiest of the crops. The plants grow directly in the ground, not in containers or raised beds. Growing a variety of other plants requires a larger tunnel to retain heat longer through the night and provide a more even growing environment.
“We started playing around, seeing if it would work,” Paul said, improving upon their experience with their personal spinach tunnel.
“Well, this is kind of interesting,” he recalled thinking while working with other area farmers.
“The idea was catching on. We were discussing it. The information flowed freely,” he said. “That’s what’s great about organic farmers. We’re open and we share information. If we didn’t work together, we wouldn’t know so much.”
That knowledge is now making its way across the country, as experienced and start-up farmers alike attend seminars, conferences and presentations where Paul and his wife, Sandy, share their expertise.
Kilpatrick Family Farm
The Kilpatrick Family Farm in Middle Granville has been tunnel farming even longer. They began year-round farming immediately.
Michael Kilpatrick, who operates the farm with his wife, Savannah, began farming in 2003. Like Paul, Kilpatrick, had no immediate farming family.
By his first fall he was ready to take on the winter.
“Right from the get-go, I was intrigued,” he said.
The toughest decision for farmers to continue with year-round growing, he said, is not having the winters off to regroup before another growth cycle begins.
Kilpatrick said he’s constantly toying with new ideas. Currently on his mind is the possibility of a nine-month season, from October to April, taking the summers off instead.
Unlike the Arnolds, who sell nearly 100 percent of their products at farmer’s markets and a small portion to area restaurants, the Kilpatricks sell about 20 percent to local wholesale buyers.
“It’s a very fine line to be able to do that,” Kilpatrick said. With bigger sales come bigger production costs.
“As we’ve grown, we’ve gotten more efficient,” he said of being able to make it work.
As the farm has grown, so has their family. The Kilpatricks welcomed their first child, a daughter named Charlotte, just one month ago.
Off the top of his head, Kilpatrick estimated hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce come from his 13 acres of farmland annually.
About 5 percent of their sales come from their broiler and layer chickens.
Kilpatrick also conducts presentations and offers consulting around the country.
They are teaching how to build the structures, sometimes called hoop-houses, that are covered with plastic. They’re sharing these experiences, both good and bad, and the techniques they’ve learned along the way.
The ground stays warm enough to grow the plants, mostly salad greens, spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, kale, parsley and Asian greens.
Heads of lettuce take too long to grow, and many varieties of other summer plants can’t take the cooler conditions.
Heat is not customarily used, though on a harvesting day when it reaches far below zero, a heater may be used.
There’s a limited window when they can access the tunnels. The sun being out is more important than temperature. The door can absolutely not be left open.
Once the greens are picked, they are washed and spun dry in a large mesh bag on spin cycle in a stainless steel tub dedicated solely for that purpose. Weighing and packaging follow, to be loaded up in the wee hours of the morning to make it in time for market.
Both the Arnolds and Kilpatricks hire outside of their families for help.
The Arnolds have eight part-time employees and add full-time help in the summer.
The Kilpatricks employ 12 to 15 in the summer and six to eight in the winter.
A team of employees is a must when harvesting for the market.
About five years ago, the Arnolds took on Michael Palulis as a part-time employee.
“I fell in love,” he said of his first day on the job. “This is what I want to do.”
He owned a restaurant at a ski resort and was used to taking odd jobs during the off-season.
He returned home that evening to a house he and his wife, Jennifer, had recently purchased in Salem.
“We have to buy a farm,” he announced.
Instead, “We slowly turned the house into a farm,” he said.
They added a greenhouse, a pond and an irrigation system, creating Echo Creek Farm.
For the first year, he still ran the restaurant, overlapping with farm duties.
“I was working about 100 hours a week. I was sleeping at the restaurant,” he said.
Though in the food industry, he said there was a definite disconnect between growing and cooking food.
“I’d call up and just have it delivered,” he said.
“I always wanted the best ingredients, but I didn’t have any understanding of what it required to get them,” he said.
Now he does, thanks to the tutelage of the Arnolds.
“I can call them, email them, every day,” Palulis said.
Learning alongside him are their children, Ella, 10, Madeline, 7, and Izaac, 5.
From the beginning, they knew they wanted to be a U.S. Department of Agriculture certified organic operation.
“My backyard where my kids play is my farm,” Palulis said. “I’m responsible for this land.”
Starting organic from the very beginning was easier, he said, because they were just starting out.
The Kilpatricks are also a certified organic farm, a decision made, in part, Kilpatrick said, because they wholesale.
“There’s a demand for organic,” he said.
Organic products are also able to draw a higher price.
The Arnolds, who only sell locally, are a certified naturally grown operation, which Kilpatrick explained is equally strict.
“In some cases, it’s even stricter,” he said.
Both Echo Creek and Kilpatrick farms sell through Community Supported Agriculture, where members join at the start of the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest.
Food stays local
Will Siegel-Sawma of Queensbury, started as a CSA member about five years ago. An attorney by trade, he took a part-time position on the Kilpatricks’ farm during a period of less than full employment.
“Their principles meshed with mine,” he said. “The idea of food without chemicals and food as the first step in medicine, it was something I was already interested in.”
His full-time gig is now program coordinator at Mediation Matters, specializing in ag-related issues, which aligns well, he said, with his work with the Kilpatricks.
Now, he’s the market stand manager on Saturdays at the Saratoga Springs Farmers Market.
Though others that have seen the inner workings of the farms and created their own, Siegel-Sawma said he’s unlikely to take that on.
“I’ve always been into gardening, just not at the level of farming,” he said.
The one-word title- farmer — doesn’t cover the many tasks you have to master to make it work.
“There are 90 hats you wear,” said Kilpatrick, beginning a very long list. “You’re a welder, an engineer, an efficiency manager, an electrician ...”
Every day, they continue to learn.
“We’ve definitely killed some crops. We started small, so there were no massive mistakes,” he said.
Winter farming adds an extra element of risk. If a crop is destroyed, there’s no time to start again.
All three farms can be found at area farmers markets.
Jon Dickinson, president of the Glens Falls Farmers Market Association, said the market’s new location at Sanford Street School gained many new customers in the residential setting this season.
“People can walk to this location. Some came that had never attended before. They were surprised to see all that we have in the winter,” he said.
Julia Howard, market coordinator at the Saratoga Springs Farmers Market, said the winter grown produce adds depth to the variety offered.
“There’s cold-storage vegetables, hydroponically and greenhouse-grown herbs and tomatoes. We have honey and meat and eggs. It’s really mind-blowing that it’s all right here in one place.”
Beyond the goods, Howard said there’s a sense of community that can’t be found in a grocery store.
Laura McDermott, a regional agriculture specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Washington County said some area grocery stores may offer organic produce at a reduced price, but it’s coming from California.
“By the time it gets here, it’s only lasting a couple days,” she said.
Here, the farmers are harvesting just before the markets. You could be buying and eating salad greens that were literally cut less than 24-hours earlier.
“Buying organic and buying local are very important to people,” McDermott said. “These farmers fill that niche.”
As we were warned before beginning our tour of St. Croix Farm in Valley Falls, farm owner John Moore could talk for hours about grasses.
He did talk about grass. A lot. And every word was fascinating.
The picturesque fields are green, but an attempt to count the types of grasses and plants quickly showed a landscape rich in many, many varieties. Most I'd heard of before and never thought much about: Crab grass, bedstraw, dandelion, clover, violets, burdock....alone they may not seem so impressive, but together, they weave a nutritionally dense diet for the cows.
More fascinating? We learned that the underground structure of roots connects with mycorrhizae, where plants can actually share nutrients! (Sorry if this is not new info to you! I'm still super excited about it!) You can read a little more about it here.
We watched as the herd was let into a new field for "first bite" of new "teenage" grasses, which like teenagers, have lots of energy. Every step through the process of feeding the cows is carefully planned and executed.
Some fields will be allowed to go to seed, further strengthening the growth and density.
In some years, the fields may have chickens in them, instead supplying plenty of nitrogen to the ground below. It's a careful dance the Moores do, satisfying to their souls, beneficial to the cows' health and creating an exceptional product.
There's more than 700 acres on St. Croix Farm. A peek on Google Earth shows a patchwork of greenery, hard work and the cows, delightfully entering a new field as the satellite snagged the photo.
A snapshot of feed lots in the midwest shows a dishearteningly different view.
While the cows are outside in the sunshine in those feedlots, they certainly are not enjoying the life the St. Croix cows are afforded.
There are arguments on both sides of whether grains should be fed to cattle. Regardless of your opinion, for taste or ethics, one thing is true: A cow can also be raised solely in a barn, never seeing daylight and if it's fed a diet of grass, it can be labeled as "grass-fed, grass-finished."
That's another reason to head to Google and search for your suppliers.
While I make every attempt at Old Saratoga Mercantile to research the farmers, visit their property and do my homework on the slaughterhouses and butchers they are using, Google Earth is one tool in easy reach for everyone.
I'm lucky to have connected with more than 100 farmers, growers, suppliers, etc., doing things the right way right here in our area, and especially thankful for people like them for working with me, opening their doors and helping us all learn alongside them.