By Sam Knapp
When I started farming on my own in 2017, circumstances drove me towards an unconventional business model in which most of my sales occurred during the winter. This originally seemed inconvenient and was intended to be temporary; however, I found my local produce market in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan mostly untouched between January and May.
The original inconvenience became an opportunity to serve an unmet demand for locally grown produce in the depths of winter. I’ve since learned that my market is not unique and that in most regions, consumer demand does not diminish when the growing season ends.
One way for market farms to meet consumer demand for locally-grown vegetables during the winter is long-term vegetable storage. Unlike winter production in hoop houses and high tunnels, I found relatively few resources for winter vegetable storage at the market farm scale. Most the resources I found while researching for my farm were intended for homesteaders storing produce in basements and earthen root cellars.
Although these practices work well in some circumstances, they are often inadequate or impractical for CSAs, market farms, or small wholesale farms trying to efficiently maintain optimum vegetable quality deep into the winter. However, high demand for quality, locally-grown vegetables during winter makes storage something that small farms should consider pursuing.
Future articles will cover the specifics of planning, building and using modern root cellars on small-to-medium farms. This article will lay out reasons to consider adding modern winter vegetable storage to your farm business.
Why include winter storage to your business model?
There are several reasons to incorporate long-term vegetable storage into your business model: (1) increasing the amount of locally-grown food available to consumers during the off season; (2) evening out your workload by focusing on sales less during the growing season and more during the winter; (3) spreading your cash flow more evenly throughout the year, and (4) tapping into an underserved and often lucrative market.
It’s no secret that consumers like locally grown food. Research shows that consumers prefer locally produced food and are willing to pay a premium for it. Unlike certified organic products, locally produced foods are not perceived as expensive by consumers.
One of the biggest barriers to purchasing local foods is availability, and this is seasonally apparent in most regions that experience harsh winters. Summer farmers markets and store shelves burst with local produce, but that bounty often dries up come winter. Maintaining the availability of locally-grown produce may encourage consumer loyalty and keep them buying your farm products year-round. It’s also an important step towards reducing reliance on national industrial-farming and -distribution systems and increasing consumer confidence in local food systems.
Expanding your sales into the winter could also help to spread your cash flow and workload more evenly throughout the year. For some vegetables, it’s possible to store and sell a quality product into June, 7–9 months after you harvested the crop. Thus, instead of your income ceasing in the fall, long-term storage can enable you to maintain an income source through the beginning of next year’s growing season.
For many farms, increasing winter-storage capacity could also increase gross annual sales by lengthening the time over which sales are possible into limited markets. Winter storage might similarly help spread your farm’s work load more evenly throughout the year. In my operation, winter storage made part-time farming possible by reducing the concentration of work during the growing season: during summer I focused solely on growing crops, while in winter I focused on selling the harvest.
For full-time farmers, a winter-storage enterprise might justify dropping some summer-time markets in lieu of winter sales. The time that would otherwise go towards harvesting, packing, and selling at summer markets could then go towards planting and tending storage crops.
Additionally, winter storage on farms with part- or full-time employees could create opportunities for retaining good employees by providing work throughout the year. Of course, the exact impacts of adding winter storage to your operation would depend on the crops you grow and your scale, but many farms could nonetheless benefit from adding some form of long-term storage to their business models.
Demand for winter-stored produce
As part of researching this article, I contacted produce managers from food co-ops across northern New England and the Midwest and asked them about the availability of locally grown vegetables and the consumer demand for those products during the winter. The co-ops consistently reported a high demand for locally grown produce during winter months. The number of growers selling wholesale vegetables varied by co-op and region, but most respondents said that just under half of their total growers supplied produce during the early winter (i.e. December and January).
However, most co-ops had only 1–2 local farms supplying storage crops into March, with very few farms supplying stored vegetables later into spring. Most co-ops needed to supplement their supplies of storable produce—e.g. beets, carrots, parsnips, cabbage, potatoes, onions, garlic, etc.—with those available from their national distributors.
Thus, customers who otherwise prefer to purchase locally are consistently forced to purchase storage crops from far away. This adds to the general conception that local farms are unable to meet consumers’ needs throughout the year. Of course, local farms cannot always supply vegetables that (1) don’t store well and/or (2) can’t be profitably grown in the local climate.
However, many market farms could increase their volume of storable produce sales—either through direct sales or wholesale—to make shopping locally a viable year-round option for consumers. Even though I’ve only discussed grocery-store sales, there is also viable demand for storage crops from restaurants and direct-sales outlets such as winter farmers markets and CSAs. Winter farmers markets are becoming increasingly common, and winter CSAs can be easily marketed to summer CSA customers from your farm or other farms in your area.
Considering your marketplace and scale
Even though there are clear benefits to winter vegetable storage, you may be wondering if it’s a viable option for your business. I believe that most, if not all, markets could benefit from more locally available produce in the winter, and accessing these ripe markets could benefit many farms. However, you should consider the demands of your marketplace and your target scale before beginning a new winter storage enterprise.
Not all marketplaces for winter-stored produce are wide open, and having top-quality products can sometimes be essential to compete in tight markets. For example, the Willy Street Co-op in Madison, WI, reported that consumer demand for winter squash and root vegetables is nearly met by local farms during the winter.
However, declining produce quality usually forces Willy Street Co-op to stop carrying some vegetables early. They usually stop carrying local winter squash in January and local root vegetables in March, well before the maximum storage lives of these vegetables. To compete in this market, growers would need to maintain produce quality beyond the typical storage lives of those crops.
This is difficult if proper storage conditions aren’t met. It also requires high vegetable quality at harvest and proper post-harvest handling. To meet these criteria, farms will likely require a significant investment in facilities to store vegetables at a large scale. At a small scale though, it may be possible to improvise and create optimum storage conditions with little investment.
Other markets may have few local sources for storage crops during the winter and therefore be easier to enter at any scale. For example, local sources of most storable produce at my local Co-op—the Keweenaw Co-op Market in Hancock, MI—usually dried up in December. This meant a hungry marketplace for any vegetables I could store to January and beyond.
So long as I grew varieties designed explicitly for long-storage lives and harvested at the right time, vegetables easily achieved moderate storage lives (i.e. to February and March) in less-than-optimum storage conditions. (That’s not to say conditions were cavalierly errant; for example, storage temperatures may have been 36°F instead of the optimum of 32°F). In similar marketplaces, it may be possible to sell a high volume of stored vegetables in the winter with improvised solutions and minimal capital investment in facilities.
You can balance the demands of your marketplace to your budget limitations and business plan to begin a winter-storage enterprise on your farm. Energy-efficient and effective storage facilities that maintain optimum temperature and humidity can be expensive, but they also enable growers to achieve the long storage lives and quality necessary for tight marketplaces.
For example, Food Farm near Duluth, MN, recently built a storage facility capable of storing over 200,000 pounds of roots, squash, potatoes, and cabbages. This facility cost roughly $200,000 to construct new, but Food Farm now has the capacity to sell vegetables to a winter-CSA and local groceries through the end of April, including over 80,000 pounds annually of carrots.
On the other hand, effective, modern root cellars can be built out of existing infrastructure and inexpensive materials. I built my root cellar and squash storage area into existing structures with used materials for roughly $1,000. In these facilities, I can store about 5,000 pounds of vegetables that maintain high quality through the end of February. Farms can enter winter markets slowly or at small scales, but many opportunities exist for those willing to gain the expertise and make investments into winter vegetable storage.
If you’re interested in learning more, future articles will cover specifics of building and using modern winter storage facilities. Currently, there are few available resources on this topic intended for small farms, but there are some articles and books that cover optimum storage conditions and post-harvest handling for many vegetables. You may find these resources from your local university extensions; the book Root Cellaring by Mike Bubel is another good source of information. The makers of CoolBot also have lots of quality information on cooler construction that is often relevant to winter storage facilities on their website, storeitcold.com.
Sam Knapp has experience farming in Alaska, Sweden and Wisconsin, and spent the last three years running a farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula focused on long-term storage and winter sales. Sam is currently moving to Fairbanks, AK, where he plans to start a new farm business centered on winter vegetable storage.