For farmers in Southwest Colorado, it can be difficult to match supply with consumer demand. That’s where year-round farming can be a boon.
Year-round farming is a method of growing produce outside of natural growing seasons. It can help farmers meet ever-present demand for local produce, especially when certain items aren’t typically in season, such as peppers or strawberries.
For two months of the year there is a local food surplus, where farmers have more food than they can sell, said Linley Dixon, co-owner of Adobe House Farm along U.S. Highway 550 in Hermosa. But for 10 months out of the year, not enough food is grown locally.
Tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers are examples of produce that take months to mature. But they can’t traditionally be planted until around June, leaving just August and September for farmers to sell when they are ripe.
“So if you can get things to ripen out of season, you can actually sell them,” Dixon said.
Dean Vidal grows year-round with his wife, Susan. They farmed for 20 years in Virginia before moving to the Durango area where they own Brightwood Farm in Hermosa. They practice season extension and year-round growing on nearly 5 acres of land.
Dean Vidal said the method presents multiple benefits, including the ability to earn income year-round without needing more land or tools.
They also have slightly more control of their vegetable prices when they’re selling produce out of season. And selling out of season helps them develop more consistent relationships with local customers.
“Folks enjoy and especially appreciate fresh vegetables at a time when they’re typically only available by long-haul freight or air traffic in the Southern Hemisphere,” he said.
Plus, growing organically year-round promotes soil health with frequent crop rotation, he said.
Yet, year-round farming in Colorado comes with its challenges.
Erratic weather can make season extending difficult as a result of early and late freezes, Peter Dixon said.
And excess supply can be an issue for farmers. If the Dixons focus on greens in the winter, the vegetables will ripen all at once when temperatures rise, and they will have hundreds of pounds of greens to sell in a short amount of time.
Linley Dixon said residents should communicate with year-round farmers about when they plan to have certain vegetables in stock.
Root crops such as beets and carrots and some leafy greens like spinach, lettuce, chards and Asian greens are more tolerant of the cold and can grow well in the winter, Vidal said. Garlic planted in the fall will grow all winter before emerging in the spring.
In the spring and summer, the Dixons grow tomatoes in a large hoop house, a greenhouse structure with a pad and a fan system to regulate heat and humidity.
For tomatoes, they keep the temperature at 70 degrees and the humidity at 70%. For reference, the humidity outside the hoop house was about 10% in early May.
They use bees that live inside the hoop house to pollinate the tomato plants, because tomatoes won’t produce fruit if they haven’t been pollinated, Dixon said.
In the winter, they grow lettuce and greens.
They use smaller hoop structures, some heated, some not, to grow outdoors as well. Plastic layers in the structures provide an extra 10 degrees of protection from the cold, per layer, Dixon said.
The Vidals have a similar setup with a large hoop house and collapsible walls, as well as smaller outdoor rows that can be covered.
“Lettuce loves it out here in the spring, winter, fall, and it starts to strain a little bit under the summer sun,” Dean Vidal said.
The outdoor hoops protect the plants from snow. Vidal said if someone were to remove the plastic coverings and reach a hand into the hoop, she would feel the difference in temperature, even during winter.
“As the temperature gets really low, these layers of covers blunt the wind, they retain the warmth of the earth,” he said. “Because there’s heat coming out of the earth all time, just tiny little bits.”
Vidal said he keeps track of temperatures inside the hoop house and the outdoor rows using Bluetooth thermometers that send data straight to an app on his phone.
“On a very calm, very clear night with no wind and a clear sky, the cold air stratified across the valley floor like water,” he said. “And if you’re growing stuff it makes a difference. It really makes a big difference.”
Keeping track of temperatures so meticulously isn’t required to successfully farm year-round, Vidal said. But he finds it fascinating. And he appreciates the science of soil health involved in annual organic farming.