Sterling farmer plans winter season

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Sterling - posted Mon., Sep. 23, 2013
Andy Meeks shows off some yard-long beans. Photos by D. Coffey.
Andy Meeks shows off some yard-long beans. Photos by D. Coffey.

There are still green tomatoes on the vines, ground cherries growing, and yard-long beans lengthening at Spring Lake Gardens in Sterling, but Andrew Meeks is already planning his winter crop. The Sterling farmer is heading into his second winter growing season and expects 15 different crops, as well as herbs, to continue to grow through the coldest part of the year.

Meeks is an organic optimist. He believes that with the right approach, some vegetables can be grown in the New England region during the winter season. The days will be shorter. The weather will be a lot colder. His space will be constricted to three wooden frame greenhouses, but he expects to grow food to spare. He’s so confident that he’s offering 30 Community Supported Agriculture shares for people who might want to have the pleasure of eating locally-grown food from November through March.

The CSA shares entitle members to fresh greens and root vegetables through the winter. They come at a price. Produce at grocery stores may be cheaper, and shares mean a member takes on the same risks a farmer does. If something doesn’t grow one week, that’s reflected in the bi-weekly allotment. If there is a bumper crop, the member also reaps the reward.

For Meeks, having fresh, locally-grown produce isn’t just a good food model; it’s a good business model. He listed the reasons for that in short fashion. It removes middlemen and drastically cuts transportation costs. It keeps food money local. And Meeks believes it just might help create a new system of agricultural development.

CSA shares are an investment in the farm, the farmer and a method of production that’s far different than that used at large commercial farms. Meeks said the benefits extend beyond the healthy freshness of local crops. It allows consumers to be connected to the source of their food and the people who harvest it. And small farms improve the resilience of the food system in general, he said. Agricultural risks such as bugs, diseases and floods are less likely to spread out of control. Diversity is good, and that goes for crops, bugs and farms, as far as Meeks is concerned.

A case in point is a 100-square-foot plot at his farm where more than 20 different vegetables and herbs can be seen. Interspersed with them are a collection of flowers. Meeks used them as a way of providing food and habitat for “good” bugs so that the “bad” bugs don’t get out of hand. He’s planted cosmos, sunflowers, marigolds, zinnias and asters. He’s planted dill, fennel and cilantro. The flower “breaks” provide habitat for bugs when he clears the ground.

Of course, he’s been learning as he goes. This summer, a row of eggplant was getting eaten by a bug until he planted something that he hoped would lure the pests off. For some reason, both plants ended up doing well. But another row of veggies suffered when his cosmos grew so tall they nearly blocked out the sun. He had to take the cosmos out.  

His winter farming will be different, but he’ll have to remain vigilant. Cold weather will mean fewer bugs, but he’ll need to watch for aphids and slugs. He’ll need to keep his greenhouses tight. He’ll need to cover his crops with layers of insulating material. He intends to remove any woodchips that might harbor mice or slugs. Winter sunlight will mean plants won’t grow huge, but he expects good crops. And he intends to make his efforts pay. “If people embraced small farms, it’s a job for somebody,” he said.

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