It's officially spring, and people are hitting the farmers markets, looking for fresh, local greens. That can be a challenge in many parts of the country. But some farmers have mastered the unusual art of growing greens straight through the winter.
At the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market in Washington, D.C., people line up in the rain on a Sunday morning, standing in a line 10 deep, just to buy mustard greens, arugula and kale.
"We've come out of the winter doldrums," says one customer, Guilia Adelfio of Chevy Chase, Md. "We're into salad mode."
Farmer Zachariah Lester, who is selling at the market, has salad greens. But he also has a profusion of kale: Scottish curly kale, red Russian kale and dark-leaved toscano. There's spicy Piso mustard; a mellow Italian chard called Barese; and a bitter chicory mix with radicchio, endive, escarole and Rossa di Verona.
These greens are not only beautiful; they're among the most healthful foods out there. "They have such a fabulous nutritional profile," says Joan Salge Blake, a clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University.
Fresher Is Better
Aside from the obvious vitamins, Blake says, "leafy greens are full of nutrients Americans are falling short of, like calcium, potassium and fiber." Locally grown greens are likely to be more nutritious, she says, because vitamins deteriorate the longer vegetables are shipped and stored. And fresher greens are tastier, making it a pleasure for people to eat their veggies.
But most people live in places where nothing grows in winter.
Lester and his wife, Georgia O'Neal, have a solution. They grow their greens at Tree and Leaf Farm in Unionville, Va., just 80 miles south of Washington. It's freezing cold there in winter. But they use winter farming methods rarely seen in the United States to produce fresh leafy greens all winter.
In the late 19th century, market farms just outside cities in Europe perfected year-round food production. Lester cites as influences the 19th-century French maraicheres who farmed on the outskirts of Paris, as well as contemporary winter growers Anna Edey of Vineyard Haven, Mass., and Eliot Coleman of Harborside, Maine.
Now some plants can handle being outside all winter. The Scottish and Russian kales, for instance, bounce back in spring and are ready for a fresh harvest by late March. Being out in the cold actually improves their taste.
"I want things like kale and mustards and collards to get frosted a little bit," Lester says. "The flavor is going to be that much more enhanced — sweet, hot."
But not all greens are so hardy. That requires these year-round farmers to provide shelter. They do so with a variety of low-tech shelters. Long batts of polyester are laid right on top of crops to protect them from wind and cold. Knee-high wire hoops topped with row cover or plastic offer a little more protection. High tunnels covered with plastic sheeting act as greenhouses for tender crops like salad greens.
"I have arugula here," Lester says, pointing to 4-foot-wide rows inside a high tunnel. It was sown right after Christmas. "We've had two harvests off these beds."
There's no artificial heat or light to fuel the plants' growth. But O'Neal says that even in the depths of winter, the passive solar heating can make it feel like May inside the high tunnel.
It "could be February and 30 degrees outside, and if the sun's out, you're sweating inside here. This is so pleasant to come into."
A Labor Of Love
Winter food production is labor-intensive, requiring that planting, transplanting and harvesting be done by hand.
"Farming in the wintertime is definitely a labor of love," says O'Neal. It's also hard work. "I cleared snow with Zach this winter," O'Neal says. "It was a wet snow, and it was night, and it was hard to see. You take brooms and you push 'em up over your head to push the snow off your high tunnel. It is one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life."
Lester grew up in Waterford, Va., and has always loved working with plants and soil. O'Neal grew up in New York City, but realized she'd rather be outside with nature than inside a cubicle all day.
They met when he noticed a spectacularly beautiful salad, crowned with one edible calendula flower, at a party he attended when they both lived in New York.
"I was like, who made that salad?" Lester recalls. "Can I have that edible flower?"
He wooed O'Neal with armfuls of vegetables, and they realized they shared a passion for sustainable farming. They bought their farm near Orange, Va., in 2009, and run the business together. Their son Eoin, 4, helps with the harvest. Their produce is more expensive than the supermarket variety — $9 a pound, compared to about $6 a pound for organic salad mix at a chain supermarket — but the customers are happy to pay that price.
One regular customer is Nora Pouillon, owner of Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C. Hers was the first certified organic restaurant in the United States, way back in 1999. She knows good greens when she sees them.
"I'll take everything he's got," she says.
Check out Pouillon's recipe for Wilted Hearty Greens With Garlic.
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
In Your Health this morning, it is officially spring as of yesterday and time for greens. In a moment, we'll hear about the best ways to cook them. First, NPR's Nancy Shute tells us how one farmer has mastered the unusual art of growing greens through the depths of winter.
NANCY SHUTE: It's a cold wet morning at the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market in Washington, D.C. But here are eight, nine, ten people standing in the rain waiting to buy fresh greens. The farmer's name is Zach Lester.
Mr. ZACH LESTER (Tree and Leaf Farm): I have a curly - a Scottish curly kale. It's like an old heirloom kale. It really deals with the winter. An Italian...
SHUTE: Even in the depths of winter, in the ice and snow, Zach was here selling his greens.
Unidentified Woman #1: Hi. Can I get half a pound of the red Russian Kale?
SHUTE: Leafy greens like kale are some of the healthiest of vegetables, full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber. Just picked greens have more of the good stuff, because nutrients degrade when greens are shipped from far away. But most of us live in places where nothing grows in the winter. Or so we think.
Unidentified Woman #2: All right. There you go.
Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you.
Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you.
SHUTE: Zach Lester grows fresh greens outdoors all winter long just 80 miles south of Washington, where it's freezing cold and often snowy. How can that be? I went to Tree and Leaf Farm in Unionville, Virginia to find out.
Mr. LESTER: Let's go walk out there. Let's trod through the mud.
SHUTE; Things aren't looking too springy here. The fields look barren and flat. But as we walk closer I realize that they're not barren at all. There's row upon row of sturdy, dumpy plants.
LESTER: And I have parsley and red Russian kale. And I have (unintelligible).
SHUTE: This form of winter farming is unusual in the United States. To do it you have to know your plants. Those Russian kales can take the cold. But not all greens are that tough. To protect them, Zach has set up arched shelters covered with plastic sheeting.
Mr. LESTER: We have arugula here, so I had to really sow that into the soil right after Christmas. And we've had two harvests off these beds of arugula.
SHUTE: There's no heat in these shelters or artificial light. But Zach's wife, Georgia O'Neal says the winter sun can make it feel like May.
Ms. GEORGIA O'NEAL (Tree and Leaf Farm): It could be February and 30 degrees outside. And if the sun's out you're sweating inside here.
SHUTE: When Zach set out to try winter farming he studied up. It turns out that before the age of jumbo jets flying and salad from who know where, people had figured out how to grow greens in winter. Zach is inspired by the market farmers of 19th century France.
Mr. LESTER: You know, at the turn of the century, Paris had its own food system year around. They farmed on these small plots outside of the city.
SHUTE: Though this system is simple, it's not easy. Georgia says they struggle against the wind and cold.
Ms. O'NEAL: Farming in the wintertime, it is definitely a labor of love. I mean, I cleared snow with Zach this winter. It was a wet snow, and it was night, and it was hard to see. You take brooms and you push them up over your head to push the snow off of your high tunnel. It is one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life.
SHUTE: These two farmers met up in, of all places, New York City. Zach had been working in horticulture and this and that. One night, he went to a party and saw an amazing salad.
Mr. LESTER: In the salad there was one edible calendula flower. And I was like, huh, interesting. Who made the salad? Can I have that edible flower?
SHUTE: Georgia made that salad. She was gardening on her rooftop in Brooklyn. Zach knew just how to win her heart.
Ms. O'NEAL: Zach romanced me with food. He brought me the harvest. You would -I mean, ladies, you would die. He blew me away.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LESTER: She felt the love.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHUTE: Zach convinced Georgia to move to his home state of Virginia, so they could make a business of growing greens through the winter. That business is labor intensive, planting and harvesting by hand. That hand labor makes for more expensive greens. A pound of Georgia and Zach's salad mix costs $9, compared to about $6 for organic greens at the supermarket.
Mr. LESTER: People are going to have to pay a little bit more for that hard work.
SHUTE: Are you saying there's a suffering tax there?
Mr. LESTER: Sure. Sure. Sure, there's a suffering tax.
SHUTE: That's a tax a lot of people are willing to pay.
Unidentified Woman #3: Who's next?
SHUTE: Back at the farmer's market people are scooping up pounds and pounds of greens.
Unidentified Man: I'm addicted to the baby Swiss chard.
Unidentified Child: I love all the vegetables.
SHUTE: It's the great taste that's got these people excited. Nora Pouillon is in line. She buy's Zach's greens for her Restaurant Nora, which is just a few blocks from the market.
Ms. NORA POUILLON (Restaurant Nora): Look at this chard. It's beautiful. I think it's called rainbow chard because every leaf has a different color.
SHUTE: Because in early spring, what could be sweeter than a rainbow of chard?
Nancy Shute, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.