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Hannah Van Sickle
Jan Johnson of Mill River Farm stands in front of the microgreens for which she has become well-known, even in the winter months.

Wintertime produce: Mill River Farm extends the growing season with right combination of conditions, plants

By Thursday, Mar 14, 2019 Farm and Table 2

Mill River — Despite the snow overnight, it was a balmy 75 degrees inside the giant greenhouse at Mill River Farm. For Jan Johnson, who acquired the 32-acre farm in April 2013, it’s simply another Monday in the Berkshires: There are animals to feed, eggs to gather, greens to harvest and plans to be made. “We’re still trying to find the sweet spot for our area,” said Johnson in a nod to the right combination of plants and the ideal interior conditions required to keep growing and harvesting throughout the winter months. Come Saturday (March 16), Johnson’s stall at the Berkshire Grown Winter Farmers Market will be laden with fresh produce despite the expected scarcity at this time of year. Her impressive piles of pea shoots and microgreens, braising mix and pac choi are evidence of “the particular dance” required for season extension, an arena in which Johnson is currently excelling.

A close-up of pea shoots being grown at the USDA certified organic Mill River Farm. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

“The thing I was least prepared for was growing something great and then having to sell it,” said Johnson of produce grown on her USDA certified organic farm on the sunny slope of Brewer Hill. This is her third year growing in the winter season.

Long before Johnson made her way to Mill River, she was immersed in the teachings of Eliot Coleman and Joel Salatin. Even while steeped in a professional career, both as a corporate lawyer in a busy Wall Street firm and as vice president for business affairs of Buena Vista International, farming has been part of her blood. “I always had a garden,” she recalled, adding that, in the “early days,” her education came largely from reading a book and visiting a farm.

She made her way to Coleman’s Four Season Farm in Brooksville, Maine, where she was introduced to small-scale organic farming practices and sustainable agriculture. The writings of Salatin, who raises livestock using holistic management methods of animal husbandry on his Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, were equally influential. Suffice it to say a lifetime of passion and patience converged when Johnson turned her attention to farming full-time in 2013.

A crop of radishes at Mill River Farm, unconcerned with the weather—which included 5 inches of new snow the night before this photo was taken. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

“We felt like geniuses,” recalled Johnson of her first foray with winter growing in a year that was unseasonably warm. That was 2017. She kept the thermostat in her multiple greenhouses set at 35 degrees and “it worked splendidly.” Last year, she followed the same protocol in a year that was “exceptionally cold” and did not fare as well. At Mill River Farm, Johnson has been employing Coleman’s concept of season extension, noting that a distinction can be made between extending the growing season and extending the harvest season.

Anyone who even dabbles with a backyard garden knows that hardy greens like kale and spinach can do very well through the winter, in a dormant state, if grown to maturity while 10 hours of daylight are available. The downside of this method? Out in a garden without protection from the cold, while the produce can stand to be frozen and thawed effectively, the leaves often turn leathery with exposure to the elements. Johnson relies on propane heat and solar gain to create an indoor climate ideal for both sustaining mature crops and growing new.

“You really have to plan it out pretty carefully,” Johnson said of her winter crops that will continue to grow if it does not freeze. These include Tuscan, curly and crimson kale, collards, arugula, spinach, some varieties of lettuce and radishes. Thankfully for our latitude, Feb. 2 marked the return to 10 hours of daylight; as a result, Johnson’s seed house is currently brimming with all varieties of microgreens that are lush, healthy and being consumed at a rapid clip at the myriad local restaurants for which she is the supplier. “Happily, winter [produce] has a long shelf life,” Johnson interjected, “[particularly] for those who know how to store it properly.”

Hardy crops flourish in the 30-by-120-foot greenhouse at Mill River Farm while hanging misters loom overhead in an attempt to streamline costs associated with labor on the 32-acre farm. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

Johnson’s most expensive cost, after her land, is labor; as such, she has worked to improve not only the efficacy of myriad growing chores but also the ergonomics. Her son, Peter, has researched and now built a device to aid in the seed-starting operation. The device, built of two-by-fours and wire fencing, allows for multiple seed-start trays to be filled with growing material simultaneously while the worker remains standing upright; next, a set of wooden dowels will poke anywhere from 72 to 200 holes at once in cells for plant propagation; then, a vacuum seeder takes the tedious task of pinching up one seed at a time and will seed an entire tray in one fell swoop. Johnson and her team manage the farm to promote ongoing soil improvement, and the addition of hanging misters in all of the greenhouses have cut down on the time needed to perform daily tasks like watering.

Simple conundrums like how to effectively dry large quantities of greens when the temperature has settled below freezing have led to several innovations at Mill River Farm. Johnson has two stainless steel washtubs, retrofitted with hot-tub jets and motor, to streamline the washing process of all produce, and a new Maytag washing machine stripped down to nothing but a spin cycle makes for a quick and effective means of washing piles of greens. She is also using a salad cutter, which allows for entire trays of mature greens (and microgreens) to be clear cut in one fell swoop. “These are huge labor savers,” said Johnson, pointing out that they allow her to keep costs low for consumers.

A veritable field of mature mesclun awaiting harvest in the first week of March at Mill River Farm. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

That said, the cost of anything is relative. Johnson chose to be certified organic because she believes in sustainable farming as the path to greater health for people, farm animals and the planet. Johnson’s willingness to adhere to stringent standards—and to have her farm’s practices verified twice yearly by an independent certifying agency—is rooted in her commitment to stave off the current health and environmental crises gripping our world. “Plants grown in healthy soil not only contain more nutrients but can also be grown without chemicals that may pollute groundwater and threaten other organisms,” is how Johnson sees it. As a result, she relies on the “solid support from neighbors” to sustain her important work. What began as a table on the roadside with a Mason jar for making change has evolved into a year-round farm store stocked with eggs, fresh produce and frozen meat. “We know that, to be successful, we need to make it convenient for local people,” said Johnson, who strives to provide her customers with the quality they have come to expect.

“Farming is a big lesson in staying humble,” said Johnson, who is about to embark on her seventh growing season at Mill River Farm. And she is always on the hunt for more information to improve. She is currently experimenting with “stacking,” a practice that utilizes her pigs’ winter digs (and droppings) as fertile ground for growing turmeric and ginger, perennial root crops that require seven to 10 months between planting and harvest. Soon she will again turn her undivided attention to the 15 open acres of farmland used for grazing and growing. “I know spring is coming,” Johnson said before we made one final stop to see the nearly 300 chicks that have taken up residence in her brand new chick brooder—new this season, a whole flock of Araucanas. But for the time being, Johnson is focused and content to “concentrate on things [she] can grow well.” With a solid product, she is able to model how dollars spent locally benefit the whole community, which is why her farm’s mission is to serve as an educational resource for all. “Farms really can’t survive without locals,” she added.

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