Growing Year-Round: Grow Ohio Valley Champions Winter Farming

Grow Ohio Valley Champions Winter Farming

WHEELING –Traditionally, the autumn harvest signals the end of the growing season, but that isn’t the case anymore in the Wheeling area.

In fact, leaders of Grow Ohio Valley and several local farmers are demonstrating that vegetables and herbs can be grown locally throughout the winter. New technology and equipment, coupled with innovative techniques, allow farming to prosper even in cold weather.

Danny Swan, Grow Ohio Valley’s co-founder and head farmer, commented, “GrowOV and other local farmers are ‘cracking the code’ on growing food year-round here in Wheeling. The end of summer no longer means the end of quality produce.”

The nonprofit organization’s urban farm on Wheeling Heights offers a living example of how winter crops can be cultivated, harvested and stored. Located on the west side of Vineyard Hill at the former Lincoln Homes site, the GrowOV farm now contains two high-tunnel greenhouses, with a third greenhouse ready to be erected, along with outdoor garden beds. Temperature, moisture and insect population can be controlled within the greenhouses, he said.

The enclosed, cold-protected spaces allow for an extended growing season for a variety of vegetables. “We can grow all through the winter,” Swan said.

He remarked, “It’s really amazing what you can grow year-round. Pretty much all of the greens and roots appreciate cooler temperatures, and, with attention to detail and proper techniques, many of our common vegetables can thrive and be harvested, straight through the coldest months of winter.”

The greenhouses and outdoor growing areas are pond-irrigated. Swan said a ditch was dug to collect spring water and transport it to a pond on the property; water is then pumped from the pond to the growing area. “It’s better for plants to use untreated water,” such as the abundant supply from springs along the hillside, he said.

An extensive list of veggies suitable for cold-weather cultivation includes squash, cabbage, broccoli, bok choy, several varieties of lettuce, spinach, beets, turnips, radishes, carrots and onions.

“All of those things will grow in the winter,” he said, adding, “Many of the herbs will grow through the winter … There are eight different kinds of winter squash we’ll have this winter.”

GrowOV’s nearby headquarters on Grandview Street features a root cellar and two rooms designed for cold storage of harvested crops.

“We have our own root cellar, where we store winter squash, apples, potatoes and sweet potatoes,” he said. “They will last months in a properly conditioned root cellar.”

As part of its mission to achieve regional food security, GrowOV is working with area farmers to develop “access to safe, affordable food all year-round,” Swan said. A public market, which is set to open next year in Wheeling’s Robert C. Byrd Intermodal Transportation Center, will provide a site “where farmers can sell their safe, affordable crops,” he added.

GrowOV representatives are talking with farmers about erecting additional high-tunnel greenhouses on their farms. Based on sales projections, Swan said, “We need 30 across the Ohio Valley.”

Currently, area farms furnish produce for community-supported agriculture (CSA) weekly subscriptions and for GrowOV’s mobile market summer sales. Local growers also are expected to be a prime source of products for the planned public market.

During the summer, 30 to 40 farmers supplied produce to GrowOV’s food hub. “A food hub is just a place to aggregate and distribute food,” Swan explained.

Food grown at GrowOV’s urban farm supplements the participating farmers’ crops for CSA subscription boxes, market sales and orders from Ohio County Schools. “We can serve those sales outlets, and we’re always trying to grow those sales outlets,” he said.

This past summer, he said, “We needed 1,000 pounds of tomatoes a week. No farmer can grow that (amount) in a week.”

Swan explained, “The mission of our farm is to grow food to fill in gaps in the local food market, and to make sure these markets are supplied really well … We’re always looking to take a noncompetitive stance.”

Looking ahead, he anticipates demand for locally-grown food will increaese when the public market opens.

“We’ll get new farmers on board and expand growing opportunities and expand growing seasons with high tunnels and root cellars,” he said.

Extending the growing season through winter also helps farmers spread their cash flow over 12 months, he noted.

As a nonprofit entity, GrowOV can take risks that individual farmers might be unable to take in their operations.

With a goal to create new markets for local farmers, Swan said, “We’re using existing agricultural support from the West Virginia University Extension Service and West Virginia Department of Agriculture to help these farmers succeed as we’re growing these markets.”

In October, the first apple was picked from an orchard that GrowOV planted on the east side of Vineyard Hill two years ago. A couple of trees are 10 feet tall already, he said, but about two more years of growth is needed before the orchard produces a meaningful harvest.

The group continues to use its site on 18th Street for summer crops and leases land at Sandscrest Retreat and Conference Center, along GC&P Road, to grow pumpkins and other crops that require more space. GrowOV also works in partnership with area schools and other organizations to educate the public on growing and eating healthy food.