On a brilliant October day, Chris Grant shows off his chickens, pecking and clucking in a spacious plastic-topped greenhouse that will be their winter home.
In years past, Grant and other New England farmers would be winding down the season about now, hoping they’ve made enough money to get through the quiet winter ahead.
But because of the growing appetite for locally raised food, Grant expects to be selling his fresh eggs right through the cold weather at winters’ farmers markets, restaurants, and in small retail stores, and enjoying a tidy boost to his income as well.
Now that he can supply more eggs year-round from his farm in Essex, Grant said he can barely keep up with customer demand.
The greenhouses also reduce downtime in the spring preparing the hens for summer markets.
The additional income not only means the 25-year-old Grant can pay his bills, but allowed him to give up his second job.
“It means I can be a full-time farmer,” Grant said.
At his Not Enough Acres farm in Dennis, Jeff Deck expects to sell as much spinach and other greens through the winter in two new greenhouses that were funded in part by a federal program to help farmers extend their growing seasons.
He can now grow indoors into December, and just as important, get a head start on the next season by harvesting crops in March while other farmers are just getting started with spring planting.
“During the winter months I may not be getting rich, but in March where other farmers are planting [in the fields] I’m already selling,” Deck said.
Deck, whose farm has been in his wife’s family back to 1710, grows lettuces, kale, spinach, mache, and other produce in the greenhouses, and sells at several farmers markets, his own farm stand and to restaurants such as the Red Pheasant and Pain d’Avignon.
A big jump in the number of winter farmers markets—some 47 projected for the coming season, compared to none just eight years ago — has been accompanied by a rapid increase in the amount of crops and livestock raised under the plastic sheets of the modern greenhouse.
The greenhouses are known as high tunnels by the US National Resources Conservation Services, which since 2009 has provided $1.4 million to Massachusetts farmers to build the structures.
Christine Clarke, the agency’s conservationist for Massachusetts, said there are 171 high tunnels being used by small farmers around the state, which have “changed lives” of some farmers.
The agency requires these greenhouses be unheated, on land that was previously used for crops, that the crops be planted in the ground — not in potted plants — and be for food consumption.
Deck’s greenhouses have a double layer of plastic covering and are heated by the sun.
He uses a tiny duct fan to circulate air between the layers.
“It can be 5 to 10 degrees outside,” Deck said, “and 70 degrees inside.”
Some farmers, such as Richard Rosenburgh of Middle Earth Farm in Amesbury, financed their greenhouses on their own.
Rosenburgh bought the first of his three greenhouses 10 years ago — “as soon as I could afford to.”
Through the winter, Rosenburgh grows microgreens, lettuces, kale, and spinach to sell to restaurants and at winter farmers markets. One of the greenhouses is heated.
He starts his crops in the unheated ones and they go dormant in the low-light months of December to February and then revive in the early spring.
He can also plant heirloom tomatoes that will be ready in early spring long before field tomatoes are ripe.
Although he had to shovel snow off the houses last winter, the biggest problem wasn’t the cold, but the lack of sun which means the plants don’t warm up during the day.
“If it’s been cold, the plants are actually frozen,” Rosenburgh said, “and we have to wait until the sun thaws them out” to harvest.
The extended season means Rosenburgh can make a living growing produce.
Now in its sixth year, the Somerville Winter Market is up to 30 stalls, and its manager, Mimi Graney said she would add more if there were only room.
Her company, Relish Management, estimates 2,000 people shop there every Saturday.
Last year, Graney said farmers wanted the market to remain open into April because so many were growing under cover.
That wasn’t possible, but Graney said she is exploring that for future years.
“We’re kind of moving to a year-round” market, Graney said.
The hens at Grant’s farm in Essex are also working longer. But the young farmer, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Stockbridge School of Agriculture, said at least the chickens don’t seem to mind their winter accommodations.
“If they weren’t happy,” Grant said, “we wouldn’t be getting eggs.”