PORT TOWNSEND — Local farms and the businesses that rely on them struggle to meet the demand for organic produce during the winter months, but the Organic Seed Alliance is working with farmers to find new crops that can stand up to winters on the Peninsula.
“In the middle of winter our local food variety is greatly diminished,” said Micaela Colley, the program director of the Organic Seed Alliance in Port Townsend.
“A lot of work has been on increasing winter crops. It was something the farmers expressed they needed, and all our research is very much driven by local farmers and their input.”
In 2009, the OSA began working with the Port Townsend Co-Op, one of the businesses that relies on local farmers, to find which crops and which varieties grow best in the Pacific Northwest.
The first trials experimented with varieties of kale, cilantro and chicory among other cold-resistant crops.
“We focused on variety trials since we know what grows here; we’re just looking at what variety grows best,” said Colley.
“In kale, what we’ve seen is some varieties continue growing and producing leaves during the winter while some don’t die, but they don’t produce anything.”
The OSA has continued its research thanks to partnerships with universities in Oregon and Washington and through grants from the Washington and Oregon state departments of agriculture.
According to Colley, the nonprofit works with universities to modify seeds, then works with farmers to continue collecting and breeding seed varieties so they are best adapted for growing in regions such as the Olympic Peninsula.
“We like to do these trials on organic farms so these seeds will be best suited for growing in organic farming conditions, contending with pests and that kind of stuff,” Colley said.
One of the 2009 crop varieties tested that has been successful is Castelfranco chicory, which has now become a crop harvested every winter at Midori Farm in Quilcene.
“It’s now one of the crops sold at the Co-Op,” Colley said.
The OSA also has been encouraging farmers to grow purple sprouting broccoli, a crop planted in the summer and harvested in late February and early March.
“It’s around that time that those storage crops tend to peter out so it really fills that gap in late winter,” said Laurie McKenzie, a Northwest research and education associate for the OSA.
The OSA also has been working on growing varieties of “storage crops,” such as onions, squash and cabbage that keep well over long periods of time.
“At Nash’s Organic Produce in Sequim, we have one purple cabbage that’s a cross between a cabbage that keeps really well and a purple variety with more flavor,” McKenzie said.
Flavor is important, according to Colley, because it’s one thing to find crops that grow here, but farmers also need to be able to sell them.
“That’s where we start working with chefs,” Colley said. “It’s all about getting people to try new things.”
Colley said winter produce is wrongly assumed to not have good flavor, when in fact the opposite is true.
“Plants tend to concentrate their sugars in winter, making them more flavorful,” said Colley.
However, some of the winter plants are a harder sell than others, according to McKenzie.
“Chicory is kind of hard because it is a bit bitter,” McKenzie said.
“That’s where chefs come in though,” Colley said. “They teach us to use balsamic to cut that bitterness, but chicory is actually one of my favorites.”
Colley said the OSA continuously works with farmers to keep breeding better winter crops that will hopefully become staples of the winter season and continue to show up at the Co-Op, farmers markets and on dinner tables as the weather gets cold.
Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Cydney McFarland can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 55052, or at [email protected].