- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

ATLANTA, Ill. (AP) - The sky is overcast, with a hint of mist and fog. The world seems devoid of color - until you open the door to one of the “hoop houses” at PrairiErth Farm in rural Atlanta.

In one, there is a “field” of colorful lettuce, with leaves of green, purple and white. In another, there’s a mini-forest of small kale “trees.” Most of their leaves have already been harvested, with their tops giving them the appearance of something in a Dr. Seuss book.

It may be mid-winter in Central Illinois, but produce is still being produced.

“We have some of the best soil in the world. We should use it year-round,” said Hans Bishop, who operates the 300-acre farm with his father, Dave, and wife, Katie.

Growing food in winter is a challenge, Katie Bishop admits, but “that’s kind of the fun part. We’re defeating the idea that you can’t grow good food in the winter in the Midwest.”

A lot of people still don’t realize locally produced food is available in winter, Hans Bishop said. That’s starting to change, with the help of outlets such as the monthly indoor farmers’ market at the U.S. Cellular Coliseum in downtown Bloomington during the winter.

In addition to PrairiErth Farms Certified Organic, Ackerman Certified Organic and Dearing Country Farms, which follows organic practices, are selling produce at the indoor market, according to Marisa Brooks, farmers’ market manager.

This is the fourth season of the winter indoor market, which goes from 10 a.m. to noon on the third Saturday in December through April. In addition to produce, vendors at the indoor market also sell meats, eggs, cheeses, indoor plants and baked goods.

“There was a significant rise in the amount of farmers, more specifically growers, that had product available all year-round,” Brooks said, but “many of them didn’t have an outlet to sell any surplus they had throughout the winter.”

When that, combined with farmers’ market customers saying they wanted more access to local foods, work began on organizing an indoor market, she said.

Extending the growing season into the winter carries additional challenges, the Bishops say.

Hoses used for washing vegetables can freeze. Storage units for harvested root crops must be maintained within a certain temperature range. Excess humidity and minimal sunlight can lead to plant diseases.

“It adds a different level of stress,” Katie Bishop said.

By mid-November, this area only receives about 10 hours or less of daily sunlight and it doesn’t get above 10 hours until late January.

During those two-plus months, the plants stop growing or grow very slowly, Hans Bishop said.

“They just hang out during that time,” he said. “The plants are in survival mode.”

The plants are grown in large “hoop houses.” Hoops with two layers of plastic cover the ground where the crops are grown. The two layers of plastic combined let in about 94 percent of the available light. Small fans blow air between the layers of plastic, providing additional insulation.

On a sunny winter day, it can be 20 degrees outside and 70 or even 80 degrees inside the hoop houses, Hans Bishop said. Once the sun begins to set, the temperature starts to drop, sometimes quickly.

At that point, a woven fabric can be placed over the plants to help hold the heat close to the ground.

“What they do is add one more layer of protection,” he said.

The Bishops and other winter farmers choose vegetables and greens that are tolerant of freeze-thaw cycles and limited light.

Bishop said he has a lot of loyal customers he knows will be at the farmers’ market “rain or shine - or ice in the winter time.” They also have customers who are members of their Community Supported Agriculture program, which he describes as a subscription program in which people pay in advance to pick up assorted vegetables from the farm.

Katie Bishop said, “A lot of people have discovered all the benefits of buying from local farmers,” such as the food being fresher and, she argues, tastier.

Knowing who the farmer is “adds an extra layer of interest,” she said. “It’s more than a trend now.”

Brooks agrees that those relationships are among the reasons for the market’s success and growth.

“While some people come to the markets simply to buy products to ‘eat healthy and eat local,’ I think more of them become invested in the lives of the people who help make eating better possible.”


Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, https://bit.ly/1zDWluR


Information from: The Pantagraph, https://www.pantagraph.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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