Old-Time Methods Yield Spring Greens All Winter Farmers Zachariah Lester and Georgia O'Neal grow tasty spring greens all winter long using ancient farming methods perfected by Europeans in the 1800s. And they do it without artificial light or heat.
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Old-Time Methods Yield Spring Greens All Winter

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Old-Time Methods Yield Spring Greens All Winter

Old-Time Methods Yield Spring Greens All Winter

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

In Your Health this morning, it is officially spring as of yesterday and time for greens. In a moment, we'll hear about the best ways to cook them. First, NPR's Nancy Shute tells us how one farmer has mastered the unusual art of growing greens through the depths of winter.

NANCY SHUTE: It's a cold wet morning at the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market in Washington, D.C. But here are eight, nine, ten people standing in the rain waiting to buy fresh greens. The farmer's name is Zach Lester.

Mr. ZACH LESTER (Tree and Leaf Farm): I have a curly - a Scottish curly kale. It's like an old heirloom kale. It really deals with the winter. An Italian...

SHUTE: Even in the depths of winter, in the ice and snow, Zach was here selling his greens.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi. Can I get half a pound of the red Russian Kale?

SHUTE: Leafy greens like kale are some of the healthiest of vegetables, full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber. Just picked greens have more of the good stuff, because nutrients degrade when greens are shipped from far away. But most of us live in places where nothing grows in the winter. Or so we think.

Unidentified Woman #2: All right. There you go.

Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you.

Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you.

SHUTE: Zach Lester grows fresh greens outdoors all winter long just 80 miles south of Washington, where it's freezing cold and often snowy. How can that be? I went to Tree and Leaf Farm in Unionville, Virginia to find out.

Mr. LESTER: Let's go walk out there. Let's trod through the mud.

SHUTE; Things aren't looking too springy here. The fields look barren and flat. But as we walk closer I realize that they're not barren at all. There's row upon row of sturdy, dumpy plants.

LESTER: And I have parsley and red Russian kale. And I have (unintelligible).

SHUTE: This form of winter farming is unusual in the United States. To do it you have to know your plants. Those Russian kales can take the cold. But not all greens are that tough. To protect them, Zach has set up arched shelters covered with plastic sheeting.

Mr. LESTER: We have arugula here, so I had to really sow that into the soil right after Christmas. And we've had two harvests off these beds of arugula.

SHUTE: There's no heat in these shelters or artificial light. But Zach's wife, Georgia O'Neal says the winter sun can make it feel like May.

Ms. GEORGIA O'NEAL (Tree and Leaf Farm): It could be February and 30 degrees outside. And if the sun's out you're sweating inside here.

SHUTE: When Zach set out to try winter farming he studied up. It turns out that before the age of jumbo jets flying and salad from who know where, people had figured out how to grow greens in winter. Zach is inspired by the market farmers of 19th century France.

Mr. LESTER: You know, at the turn of the century, Paris had its own food system year around. They farmed on these small plots outside of the city.

SHUTE: Though this system is simple, it's not easy. Georgia says they struggle against the wind and cold.

Ms. O'NEAL: Farming in the wintertime, it is definitely a labor of love. I mean, I cleared snow with Zach this winter. It was a wet snow, and it was night, and it was hard to see. You take brooms and you push them up over your head to push the snow off of your high tunnel. It is one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life.

SHUTE: These two farmers met up in, of all places, New York City. Zach had been working in horticulture and this and that. One night, he went to a party and saw an amazing salad.

Mr. LESTER: In the salad there was one edible calendula flower. And I was like, huh, interesting. Who made the salad? Can I have that edible flower?

SHUTE: Georgia made that salad. She was gardening on her rooftop in Brooklyn. Zach knew just how to win her heart.

Ms. O'NEAL: Zach romanced me with food. He brought me the harvest. You would -I mean, ladies, you would die. He blew me away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LESTER: She felt the love.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHUTE: Zach convinced Georgia to move to his home state of Virginia, so they could make a business of growing greens through the winter. That business is labor intensive, planting and harvesting by hand. That hand labor makes for more expensive greens. A pound of Georgia and Zach's salad mix costs $9, compared to about $6 for organic greens at the supermarket.

Mr. LESTER: People are going to have to pay a little bit more for that hard work.

SHUTE: Are you saying there's a suffering tax there?

Mr. LESTER: Sure. Sure. Sure, there's a suffering tax.

SHUTE: That's a tax a lot of people are willing to pay.

Unidentified Woman #3: Who's next?

SHUTE: Back at the farmer's market people are scooping up pounds and pounds of greens.

Unidentified Man: I'm addicted to the baby Swiss chard.

Unidentified Child: I love all the vegetables.

SHUTE: It's the great taste that's got these people excited. Nora Pouillon is in line. She buy's Zach's greens for her Restaurant Nora, which is just a few blocks from the market.

Ms. NORA POUILLON (Restaurant Nora): Look at this chard. It's beautiful. I think it's called rainbow chard because every leaf has a different color.

SHUTE: Because in early spring, what could be sweeter than a rainbow of chard?

Nancy Shute, NPR News.

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