The extension of the season offers the possibility of strengthening the relationship between local producers and customers
For farmers in southwestern Colorado, it can be difficult to match supply with consumer demand. This is where year-round farming can be a boon.
Year-round farming is a method of growing produce outside of natural growing seasons. This can help farmers meet the ever-present demand for local produce, especially when certain produce is not usually 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 US Highway 550 at Hermosa. But for 10 months of the year there is not enough locally grown food.
Tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers are examples of produce that take months to ripen. But they traditionally cannot be planted until June, leaving only August and September for farmers to sell them when ripe.
“So if you can ripen things 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 cultivation on nearly 5 acres of land.
Dean Vidal said the method has multiple benefits, including the ability to earn year-round income without the need for more land or tools.
They also have a little more control over the prices of their vegetables when they sell produce out of season. And off-season selling helps them develop more consistent relationships with local customers.
“People appreciate and especially appreciate fresh vegetables at a time when they are generally only available by long-haul cargo or air traffic in the southern hemisphere,” he said.
Additionally, growing organic year-round promotes soil health with frequent crop rotation, he said.
Still, year-round farming in Colorado comes with its challenges.
Irregular weather conditions can make the season difficult to extend due to early and late frosts, said Peter Dixon.
And oversupply can be a problem for farmers. If the Dixons focus on greens in the winter, the vegetables will ripen all at once as the temperatures rise and they will have hundreds of pounds of greens to sell in no time.
Linley Dixon said residents should contact farmers year-round to find out when they plan to have certain vegetables in stock.
Root crops such as beets and carrots and some leafy greens like spinach, lettuce, chard and Asian greens are more cold-tolerant and can grow well in 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 greenhouse, a greenhouse structure with a cushion 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 was around 10% in early May.
They use bees that live inside the hoop to pollinate the tomato plants because tomatoes won’t produce fruit if they haven’t been pollinated, Dixon said.
In winter, they grow lettuce and green vegetables.
They use smaller circle structures, some heated, some not, to grow outdoors as well. Layers of plastic in the structures provide an additional 10 degrees of cold weather protection, per layer, Dixon said.
The Vidals have a similar setup with a large hoop and collapsible walls, as well as smaller outer rows that can be covered.
“The lettuce loves it here in the spring, in the winter, in the fall, and it’s starting to get a little tired in the summer sun,” Dean Vidal said.
Outdoor hoops protect plants from snow. Vidal said if someone took off the plastic coverings and put their hand in the hoop, she would feel the temperature difference, even in winter.
“As the temperature gets really low, those layers of blankets blunt the wind, they trap heat from the earth,” he said. “Because there’s heat coming out of the earth all the time, just tiny bits.”
Vidal said he monitors temperatures inside the hoop and outside rows using Bluetooth thermometers that send data directly to an app on his phone.
“On a very calm, very clear night with no wind and clear skies, the cold air lay down on the valley floor like water,” he said. “And if you grow things, it makes a difference. It really makes a big difference.
You don’t have to track temperatures so meticulously to be successful in growing year-round, Vidal said. But he finds it fascinating. And he appreciates the soil health science involved in annual organic farming.