By Jordan McNeil
Eating healthy in the Mahoning Valley all year round has gotten a little easier.
Until now, having locally grown vegetables available during the winter meant going into the basement and choosing from the canned and dried produce from the summer’s harvest. While this is still an excellent source of local nutrition in the winter, fresh produce is even better. Season extension techniques have been coming to local farms, helping farmers lengthen their growing season, increase their income and provide fresh, local produce to the community all year long.
Grow Youngstown is a community-based organization dedicated to local agriculture. Through their Farm to You market, the group connects residents of Youngstown, Warren, Poland and Boardman with healthy, fresh and locally grown produce. Many local farmers participate in Farm to You and utilize the idea of season extension to provide the Valley with fresh local food in the cold winter months.
There are various types of season extension techniques that can be used to further a farm’s growing season, including greenhouses, hoop houses and row covers.
Kathryn Hatch uses row covers and a handmade greenhouse at her farm, The Zaney Pearl.
“[Row covers] extended the season last year  into January. This year , with the crazy weather we’ve had, it only extended it until, I think, the end of November,” Hatch said. “Just simple row covers that we’re using for the heartier things like kale and lettuces.”
“Well, we live in Ohio and obviously it gets really cold. So we don’t have the benefits of some more southern regions that have year-round growth, and people still need to eat. Although you can preserve, can and freeze, there’s still a need for fresh vegetables,” she said.
Liberty Merrill, senior program coordinator at Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, said she sees the importance of season extension techniques through the YNDC’s usage of them at Iron Roots Urban Farm, their community farm and training center.
“Season extension allows us to provide fresh produce for our customers nearly year-round,” Merrill said. “Hardy greens and root crops can be harvested through most of the winter, and we can get an extremely early start on spring and summer crops as well.”
Bill Pennell at Rootstown Organic Farm uses hoop houses and row covers for his crops. He also uses seaweed around the plants in the fall and spring to help combat incoming frost.
“It’s mainly two plastic hoop houses. One of them is doubled, one of them is single plastic,” he said. “The double plastic house is definitely a warmer house. This year actually, the single plastic house is more of just a season extender, while I grow year-round in the other.”
Hoop houses can last a long time. Pennell’s farm has a hoop house that has been around for three years and one that has been around for about 12 years.
During the day, hoop houses utilize the heat captured in the ground and the moisture in the soil to keep the plants warm as the weather outside the hoop house grows colder at night.
“Once that starts getting cold above, the warm ground starts to steam underneath. It gets foggy. The water goes up and hits the cloth and it freezes like an igloo over the bed of, say, lettuce or kale,” Pennell said. “Now you’ve got your lettuce inside of an igloo. It’s holding the heat that’s coming from out of the ground, and the ground is well above 55 degrees, so you’ve actually got this little geo-thermal activity going on at night in there.”
Hoop houses and greenhouses can also be used in the summer months to increase production.
“I grow indeterminate heirloom tomatoes … and I can get at least twice as much production off of a tomato plant in the greenhouse per plant as I can outdoors,” Pennell said.
Pennell said the original investment a farmer puts into building a hoop house can be paid off in as little as a year if plant production — from planting the seeds to harvesting the produce and taking it to market — is kept going constantly.
Usage of hoop houses is not limited to big farms looking for a profit — they can also be used in much smaller gardens, including small plant beds put in backyards.
These smaller hoop houses can be utilized by Youngstown. Curtis Moore, former farm manager at the YNDC, said the smaller space would be beneficial to the city.
“In our region we have a lot of poverty and you don’t have to have a 20-by-80 or a 24-by-80 hoop house. You can build yourself a 4-by-8 raised bed box and do a small hoop house on top of that,” Moore said. “And what this does is it allows people to have fresh produce in their backyard all year round.”
A small hoop house can be installed rather cheaply, running a couple hundred dollars, Moore said. This makes healthy eating throughout the year easier and more economical for families of varying economic statuses who live in the Valley.
“Hoop houses provide a particularly good economic opportunity for urban growers in Youngstown and Warren, given the numerous inexpensive vacant properties and the temporary designation of the structure. A 60-by-20 hoop house with solar-powered vents, roll-up sides and doors can be built by hand for around $2,800. A kit of the same size will cost around $4,000, and you still have to put it together,” Elsa Higby, founder of Grow Youngstown, said. “The real season extension for urban or peri-urban farms is the proximity of the grower to the market and demand during winter months when supply is low.”
Grow Youngstown is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to creating a healthy, socially just, economically viable and inter-dependent local food system promoting the sustainable growth of food, forest, forage and fuel. The organization is dedicated to reducing the carbon imprint, raising local agricultural skills and resources in Youngstown and neighboring communities.
Locally grown crops can be purchased throughout the winter from Farm to You (growyoungstown.org), the Northside Farmers Market — open Saturdays from 10 to 1 p.m. in the basement of the Unitarian Church — Lake to River Coop (lake-to-river.org), Red Basket Farm (redbasketfarm.com), Zaney Pearl Farm (thezaneypearl.com), Iron Roots Farm (yndc.org) and Rootstown Organic Farm (rootstown-organic-farm.com).