• High tunnel program’s impact beginning to be felt with more growers selling this year
By Carey Restino
Back in early March, Christina Castellanos took some advice from Bethel’s gardening guru Tim Meyers and threw some seeds in the ground in her Diamond Ridge high tunnel when the first few inches of soil warmed enough to thaw. The seeds germinated slow and grew slowly for the next two months, despite frequent nighttime temperatures that dropped below freezing. Using plastic and row covers, Castellanos kept the plants alive. It all paid off when the temperatures started to climb a few weeks ago. All of a sudden, a bounty of fresh greens emerged almost overnight, she said.
Two weeks ago, Castellanos was the first farmer to sell fresh greens to the public at the Saturday market, several weeks before the official opening of the Homer Farmer’s Market. Today, when many gardeners are just putting their first starts in the ground, Castellanos’ high tunnel is overflowing with market-ready greens.
“I was really hoping it would work,” she said, while picking some of the abundant and sweet lettuce in her tunnel. “One day it was like ‘pop’ and there it was.”
With more than 250 high tunnels (large metal greenhouse-like structures covered with plastic) granted and over 100 up and producing already in the Homer and Anchor Point area, the opportunity for earlier greens and a wider variety of fresh vegetables being available had many veggie lovers rubbing their hands together. A Natural Resources Conservation Services grant program that paid for most of the cost of the high tunnels has been giving out grants for three years now, but the surge of greens many had expected was slower in coming than some thought it would be, said Kyra Wagoner, a volunteer with the Homer Farmers Market and avid high tunnel grower.
“At first we thought we would get swamped, but that didn’t really happen,” Wagoner said.
While the town’s longtime commercial gardeners have been working hard to keep up with the town’s lust for greens, new gardeners with high tunnels were still learning the ropes, Wagoner said. This year, however, there are several new full-season vendors, and gardeners like Castellanos are pushing the envelope of when gardening can be expected to produce anything in Homer.
“It was an experiment for her,” Wagoner said. “I think that was really a wake-up call to the possibilities of growing earlier here.”
While commercial growers may be more likely to stick with tried-and-true techniques for growing the large quantities of produce they know the town wants, new growers may be more likely to take a chance and try things that were not traditional growing methods for the area. Last year, farmers showed up with carrots, peas and beets much earlier than ever before, not in any quantity that could meet demand, but the fact that someone could produce a beet in Homer in June caught many growers’ attention, Wagoner said.
“There are more people experimenting,” she said. “That’s why the market did see a jump in seasonality.”
Market opens with new offerings
The market officially kicks off this Saturday starting at 10 a.m. on Ocean Drive. Robbi Mixon, the Homer Farmers Market manager, said the market continues to expand.
“We have more vendors and booth spaces than ever before, and more full-season farmers,” she said.
The market, which has been growing in popularity in recent years and added a Wednesday market in July to meet demand, will have more food vendors than before, Mixon said, including a wood-fired pizza vendor, fish tacos, snack food, coffee and fish and chips.
“It has definitely become a spot to come and have lunch,” Mixon said.
The season’s first market will feature music by one of Homer’s marimba groups, Shamwari, and the market will also continue with last year’s effort to bring in more nutritional education programs, including demonstrations on food preserving and storage. Youth vending opportunities are being expanded to the first and third Saturday of each month, following the same rules as the adult vending opportunities. Mixon said the idea is to allow youth the chance to experience the entire cycle of growing and creating your own products from planting seeds to selling your produce.
The market will also feature kids activities and a wide range of vendor booths, including some new full-season crafters. A dedicated market greeter and a Vista volunteer will round out the market experience.
As for the availability of greens, if Castellanos experience is any indication, the flow of fresh produce will only continue to expand as growers try new techniques.
Wagoner said while it may take a few more years for the high tunnel owners to develop their soil and hone their gardening skills, she said she’s already seeing the impact, whether its with more produce at the market or with more people being able to supply their own food or giving food to friends and family.
“I just see the whole baseline broadening,” Wagoner said.
For more information about the Homer Farmers Market, visit www.homerfarmersmarket.org.
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