Home Restaurant Some Farmers Are Skipping Tomatoes and Eggplants. Their Reasons May Surprise You.

Some Farmers Are Skipping Tomatoes and Eggplants. Their Reasons May Surprise You.

Rockwell dry beans, their creamy exteriors punctuated with cranberry mottling, hold a special place in Michelle Burger’s heart. Burger, who owns Bethel Springs Farm on 3 acres in Rickreall, Oregon with her husband, grows copious amounts of Rockwell beans, along with a host of other vegetables most likely to make an appearance in a winter soup. The Burgers are among a modest cohort of small-time growers who almost exclusively cultivate cool-weather and storage crops that they sell in the wintertime.

At first glance, eschewing customer favorites like tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini seems like a risky move. Those crops, which are staples of farmers’ markets throughout the summer, are also profitable for farmers.

“I’ve really come to a place of not being able to work in the summer heat. I couldn’t keep martyring myself.”

But rising summer temperatures, the realities of aging bodies, and financial considerations are driving some farmers like the Burgers to embrace the challenges of running a business centered more on celeriac than heirloom tomatoes. And there are plenty of benefits to shifting away from summertime crops, farmers say: They’re able to work fewer grueling hours and in less extreme temperatures, spend more time with their families, and sell their produce with less competition.

“We can be a little calmer about our season,” Burger says.

Farmer Caiti Hachmyer began focusing on cool-weather crops two years ago. Her decision was prompted in large part by a desire to prioritize her health. As a child growing up in Sebastopol, California, Hachmyer enjoyed summer temperatures in the 70s or 80s, with fog lingering until the late morning. But by 2009, when Hachmyer founded Red H Farm near her Northern California hometown, temperatures had risen noticeably, and the fog no longer blanketed the region. Today, July and August days regularly reach the 90s and above, says Hachmyer. “We’ll have these week-long periods of 100-plus-degree temperatures.”

In recent years, she’s found it increasingly difficult to be outside for long periods of time. “I’ve really come to a place of not being able to work in the summer heat,” she said. The extreme temperatures, paired with more frequent smoke from wildfires in the summer and fall, pushed Hachmyer to rethink how she farmed. “I couldn’t keep martyring myself,” she says.

Farmer Caiti Hachmyer focuses on cool-weather crops to prioritize her health as the summers in her hometown of Sebastopol, California, grow hotter.

The final straw for Hachmyer was losing half of her crops in 2021 to drought. (She was dry farming a portion of her fields, meaning they were unirrigated.) Walking through fields of dying crops was emotionally draining, she says: “It was actually a fairly traumatic experience.” Hachmyer had already started to think about other ways of farming, and her farm assistant suggested the idea of running a winter community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. The time was right for something to shift, Hachmyer remembered thinking. “In order to continue farming, I need to change my model.”

Hachmyer now grows predominantly storage and cool-weather crops on her 1.2-acre site. Her main planting season runs from April through late June, and she no longer spends 10-hour days planting, harvesting, and selling at farmers’ markets in the summer. Instead, she grows storage crops like onions and squash in preparation for her winter CSA. Once a month from December through February, customers pick up roughly 40 pounds of produce. The haul, which often includes vegetables such as onions, potatoes, and winter squash paired with more perishable offerings like leeks and radishes, is designed to nourish a family for several weeks. “Much of what you’re distributing in the winter can be [sold] in larger quantities for consumers to store,” Hachmyer says.

“As we got better, we would grow longer and longer into the season. We realized how much we could do in the winter.”

Her farm’s CSA model is atypical, Hachmyer admits, but it has distinct advantages. Harvesting for and packing the roughly 40 boxes she sold last year takes about four days but only needs to happen once a month. That left a lot more flexibility in Hachmyer’s schedule. She had time to create value-added products such as dried peppers and tea blends, which she tucked into CSA boxes. The model also makes it possible to pursue off-farm work, which, for both beginning and more established farmers, pays the majority of the bills. (Hachmyer teaches agroecology part-time at nearby Sonoma State University). Last month, she even took a vacation. “I came back to the farm, and I’m not feeling stressed out,” she says.

Other farmers have followed different paths to winter growing. For Michelle and Steven Burger, farming is a second career for both, and they’ve relished the opportunity to improve their skills every year. “As we got better, we would grow longer and longer into the season,” Michelle Burger says. “We realized how much we could do in the winter.”

That was a welcome surprise for the Burgers, who, at the ages 59 and 61, were beginning to question how much longer they could embrace the go-go-go mentality of summertime farming. “You’re trying to grow everything, and at the same time, you’re taking three or four days out of the week to also harvest it and sell it,” Michelle Burger says.

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