At Green Edge Organic Garden in Athens County, Ohio Farm Bureau members Kip and Becky Rondy have been putting their own spin on Ohio’s growing season. Their success at coaxing a harvest of farm fresh greens and more during the winter months finds them toying with the idea of taking summers off. Kicking back when the weather is prime for growing might be a bit of a stretch when it comes to agriculture but then so are some of the unique and innovative growing techniques this couple uses to put locally grown food on their customers’ tables year round.
“Growing through the winter presents a unique opportunity to sell a lot of product year-round,” said Kip. “While we sell at the Athens Winter Market, we dream of having a huge winter CSA.”
CSA, which stands for community supported agriculture, is evolving as an increasingly popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal foods directly from a farmer. Green Edge Garden’s Athens Hills CSA is among more than 150 CSAs currently operating in Ohio that supply their customers with seasonal food from the spring through the fall. They are also among a more select group that pushes their CSA production into the off-season by creating optimal growing conditions in less than optimal conditions.
“When I started farming in 1974, plastic greenhouses, drip irrigation and row covers didn’t exist for us,” said Kip, who began his career with field-grown vegetables and chickens raised for eggs and meat. “The introduction of these three things makes it possible to grow food throughout the entire winter.” So while it may be snowing outside, there’s plenty of green inside.
The Rondy’s 120-acre Amesville farm is heavily forested with 30 acres in vegetable and grain production, a few controlled environment grow rooms for micro greens and mushrooms and eight greenhouses that keep them in business year-round. The greenhouses were purposely built facing east to west, a “no-brainer” for this hilly southern Ohio location. “It’s the way the hollow runs,” Kip said. “We can capture the most light and it’s protected from the way the wind is blowing.”
Water comes from three ponds on the farm and is filtered through an ultraviolet light system to sterilize the water before it flows into the irrigation system. A natural gas well provides some low cost energy for heating two of the greenhouses.
“Anything we plant must be cold tolerant,” Kip said. So they choose hardy greens such as spinach and tatsoi – a popular Asian green – kale, chard and salad mixes, planting them in the late fall. Throughout the winter growing season, the soil, although cool, never freezes. The plants grow slowly and experience cycles of gentle freezes and thaws which concentrate the sugars to enhance and create a flavor specific to winter growing.
When the snow flies, the Rondys consider it somewhat of a blessing more than a curse. “The curved roofs on the greenhouses shed the snow so it piles up on the sides,” said Kip. “That seals the greenhouse from drafts and provides some natural insulation.”
When the temperatures dip to about 27 degrees, the Rondys and their staff cover the plants with row covers – lightweight blankets that are sunlight, rain and air permeable. “Row covers capture the warmth and protect the plants from strong winds and frost,” Kip said. If the temperature dips much lower, constant monitoring of greenhouse temperatures and precipitation becomes a priority. The addition of an extra layer of plastic requires daily covering and uncovering of the plants.
Insects still pose a challenge to the Rondys’ crops even in the winter. “You’ll still see some aphids, even when it’s cold,” said Becky, who treats the pests with insecticide soaps. Disease is not a real problem until late winter when funguses can be a challenge. “There are no organic fungicides for us to use, so the sunnier the winter is, the better it is to fend off the disease,” she explained.
While the Rondys know how to work with the cold during the winter growing season, it still exists as the farm’s biggest enemy. “When you get to the single digits or when the weather dips below zero, that’s when we start to get worried,” said Kip, “especially if it’s sustained over a few days.”
An economic edge
With all the challenges farming in the winter brings, why does the couple dig in at a time when other growers step back and spend their time planning for the next growing season? “It gives us an economic edge,” said Becky, “and it’s all about cash flow. This is all we do. We don’t have off farm jobs and we hire five full-time and four part-time employees and keep three interns busy.”
Almost every week during the year, the Rondys deliver CSA shares or boxes filled with fresh food to more than 125 subscribers. In the summer, they receive up to 25 different seasonal vegetables including heirloom tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. But come December, the shares shift to freshly harvested Japanese greens and micro salad greens, meaty shiitake mushrooms and root vegetables pulled from storage — turnips, beets and potatoes. To add more local flavor to the weekly distribution, the Rondys partner with other local producers to round out the selection including milk, artisan breads and apples.
Another value-added feature is a newsletter Becky prepares to accompany each weekly delivery featuring recipes using the ingredients found in the order, especially the unfamiliar or often underutilized varieties such as rutabagas.
“People have forgotten or haven’t learned how to work with some foods,” said Becky. “We tell them what it is and how to cook it and they send us lots of requests asking for more information.”
On most Fridays, even in the winter, Green Edge Gardens also hosts a harvest lunch for its employees and visitors. The Rondys show others how to experience interesting twists on preparing fresh foods such as “massaged” kale – a clever preparation for softening hardy greens without cooking – and more importantly, an education on how good new foods can taste, particularly those grown in the dead of winter.
Marilou Suszko is a freelance writer from Vermilion.
Attention teachers and parents: See how this story connects to Ohio’s Academic Content Standards.
Getting Your Share of the Harvest
If you live in the Athens or Columbus area and are interested in joining the Athens Hills CSA program at Green Edge Gardens, contact Kip and Becky Rondy at 740-448-4021 or go to the farm’s website at greenedgegardens.com for complete details on how to join. You’ll also find Green Edge Gardens at the Athens Winter Market, Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. through March 26 at 1000 East State Street in Athens (inside the mall). You can also find Green Edge Gardens’ newsletter featuring recipes and weekly CSA information by following their blog at greenedgegardens.blogspot.com