Consumers show interest in root crops, stew vegetables
By STEVE BROWN
CURTIS, Wash. -- Western Washington has a fairly long, mild growing season. Mike and Heidi Peroni want to make it longer.
"Season extension is somewhat new to us," Heidi Peroni said. "We're doing it to keep employees and customers longer."
The Peronis' Boistfort Valley Farm, which Mike Peroni bought in 1992, has built its success on a community-supported agriculture program that started with 60 members. The 50-acre organic farm now serves about 600, along with a substantial wholesale market and three farmers' markets.
"Our goal is to produce as much product as much of the time as possible," Heidi Peroni said.
"I was dragged kicking and screaming into season extension. ... Fourteen days -- the second half of September -- is my idea of the perfect farming season," he said.
What changed for him? "I was motivated to provide decent employment for people," Mike said.
Boistfort Valley Farm employs 25 workers at the height of the season, and he's looking into having a place nearby rented year-round so he can offer housing to workers who need it.
As the Peronis led a tour of farmers through their farm, they offered examples of what has worked and what hasn't in extending their season, but they're going the right direction, they said.
"We've tacked on two deliveries to the summer CSA -- just before Thanksgiving and just before Christmas," Mike Peroni said.
Their monthly winter shares -- November through May -- provide 200 members with greens and a variety of heirloom root crops, along with breads, cheese, granola, jam and other products from local producers.
"The economy of the country gets people back to comfort foods -- root crops and stew vegetables," he said. "Through the CSA we can educate them, especially with the website."
"A lot of choices come out of what physically will grow," Heidi Peroni said. "Have you ever had parsnip fries? They're just awesome. I love to inspire people to cook with winter stuff. People love that aspect of what we do."
The greatest tool in season extension is sheltering the crops, he said. Hoophouses protect seedlings in spring and dry onions in the fall and low tunnels cover row crops in the field. Plastic and agricultural fabric are key to managing temperature, water and pests.
"We use AG-19 row cover extensively, about 200,000 square feet a year," he said. The fabric costs about 2 cents a square foot, compared with 50 cents per square foot of plastic.
Handling takes time, but the advantage of plastic is that, with careful handling, it can be re-used. The downside of plastic is that it must be removed for overhead watering.
"We've got basil and tomatoes going now," he said during the mid-October tour. "But I'm not totally convinced."
Though the low tunnel stretches the season, it also limits production, he said.
"Watching the weather is a big part of season extension," Heidi Peroni said. "Just protecting the crop that few degrees makes a difference. There's a lot of risk-taking and an added cost of doing business in the winter, so we do it with as little impact and cost as possible."
The farm walk was sponsored by Tilth Producers of Washington and the WSU Extension Small Farms Program.