Winter Farming in Southwest Montana
By Matt Rothschiller
Matt and Jacy Rothschiller own Gallatin Valley Botanical which is located 3 miles east of Bozeman, Montana on the fertile bottomlands of Rocky Creek. They have been growing produce since 2003. They cultivate a diverse array of vegetables, herbs, and small fruits on 12 acres. They live on their farm with their two young children.
At Gallatin Valley Botanical in Bozeman, Montana, Jacy and I cultivate 12 diverse acres of certified organic vegetables and market to two summer farmers markets, one winter farmers market, one online farmers market, a 115 member summer CSA, a 50 member winter CSA, a dozen enlightened restaurants, and the Community Food Coop. It’s complicated, but as we farm in a relatively sparsely populated corner of the world, we find that our production levels demand a diverse mix of marketing.
Creating Year-Round Farming Opportunities
With an average last frost date of June 1 (and sometimes another one a month later) and last frost date of Sept 5, we are in the business of season extension and storage crops. With the 2008 addition of cold, cool, and dry storage facilities; more greenhouse and cold frame space; and a mortgage, we decided to offer weekly winter CSA shares. We now offer CSA shares from mid-fall to mid-January to round out the cash flow. Just like the up-front investment that comes before our summer CSA starts, the income bump in the fall is much appreciated and necessary. Central to that offering, in our opinion, was the ability to include winter salad greens along with the array of tubers, roots, alliums, and winter squash we had put into storage. We currently have:
- 2500 ft2 under 1 mobile tunnel planted in spinach
- A 2160 ft2 mobile tunnel under construction
- 3000 ft2 of minimally heated greenhouse space dedicated to table-top micro greens production and in-ground lettuce mix, baby kale, and arugula.
Winter greens production and storage crop sales account for approximately 15% of our yearly gross which is an important piece of the year-round cash flow puzzle. This income keeps the two of us and 1-2 employees busy on the farm. In the fall, we typically transition one of our summer interns into our Assistant Grower and we are able to employ that person full-time right through the winter and into the next growing season. Training is thorough and working side-by-side with them all winter allows us to continue to develop a good rapport and communication skills that are an asset by the time the busy spring greenhouse and field season is upon us. Having that third person around the farm over the winter to help with the daily work and farm maintenance allows us to concentrate on analyzing the past year, plan for the next, and brings us closer to that ideal combination of dirt work, paper work, and off-farm personal enrichment that we long for in the busy summer months.
Our Markets for Winter Produce
Maintaining year-round sales also keeps us in touch with our consumers and provides marketing continuity for each change in seasons. Our sales are to restaurants and the co-op, the winter farmers market, and our winter CSA.
- Wholesale Accounts: We continue our summer schedule of twice weekly restaurant and co-op deliveries throughout the winter.
- The Bozeman Winter Farmers’ Market schedule includes bi-monthly markets from October to April. With little competition from other growers, we have a devout return clientele that eagerly snaps up any greens we bring and helps to whittle away at our storage crop excess. In the late winter to spring months, this venue affords us a great marketing opportunity for our summer CSA shares. The every other week format is often enough to bring in meaningful monthly income, but not so much as to burn us out during our “off-season”.
- Winter CSA: The salad greens by and large are dedicated to winter CSA customers and winter farmers markets where we receive retail dollar for season-extended production. We love the direct connection to consumers that CSA offers us as farmers. We are their farmers, and because we are not focused on production like we are in the summer, we can enjoy closer ties to our members in the winter. Winter CSA also lets us plan better use of our inventories and when they will be sold.
Micro Greens: Our Winter Cash Crop
Micro greens keep our greenhouse space productive year round, and restaurant sales typically go up in the colder months as there are fewer other fresh local greens available on a consistent basis with enough volume to satisfy commercial accounts. Production volume does not have to be great to be meaningful for our restaurant accounts, and the seed to harvest window remains short, 14 days in December and less as the days lengthen. We produce about 35 pounds of mixed Brassica micro greens per week, with roughly half going to restaurants, and half direct to retail between the farmers market and the online market. We do vary our production and try to match the ebb and flow of the restaurant business/skiers in town.
An important part of our micro greens production is choosing varieties that grow well in low winter light and temperatures which allow us to keep our greenhouse on the cool side, just above freezing at night. We use our own version of Eliot Coleman’s soil mix, with ultra fine perlite as it does not cling to the harvest. One quart of soil in a 1” deep display tray (1020 size) is spread out and pressed down. In seeding, we aim for perfect distribution and a full canopy that allows for some air circulation, with seeding rates dependent on seed size. For instance, we seed arugula and cress at about one tablespoon per flat, Daikon and other radishes at two tablespoons per flat. We water well with a 1gpm brass mister and send the flats into the pro grow chamber.
We used to start all of our micro greens on heating mats but we found that watering could be tricky since flats tended to dry out quickly. Also, during the darkest 8 weeks of the winter once germinated, some varieties did not stretch much which led to lower yields, slower growth, disease issues, and more difficult harvests. Last summer, we were able to invest in a 70 flat pro-grow chamber. This provides us with an environment that is both humidity and temperature controlled which has given us better and quicker germination rates and more uniform growth outside of the chamber with less electric cost. Brassica germination typically takes from 1 to 2 days, and some varieties are left in the chamber to stretch for another day. We fill it twice weekly.
Our harvest is done with stainless snips with 2” blades. There are many methods to achieve a uniform cut. My favorite way is to clip two 1” strips—one on each side of the middle third of the tray, lengthwise. This leaves three 3” strips of micro greens in the tray. Each resulting strip can be clipped low and gathered in the hand, perhaps palmed twice and then transferred to a picking bin. I prefer to cut at belly to rib height for improved accuracy, comfort, and endurance and strive for a cutting rate of 5# per hour. Typical yields are 1/3 lb. per flat (for finer varieties such as broccoli, Ruby Streaks mustard, and arugula) to 1/2 lb. or more per flat (for radishes, peas, and napa cabbage). We do single varieties upon request, but mix most of our micro greens for a colorful and tasty blend.
We really find this combination works well for our operation and allows us to be on our farm all year long, even in our short and frenzied summer season. Happy growing!