Valley Bounty: Winter Moon Roots
By JACOB NELSON
For the Gazette
Winter Moon Roots, on 20 acres in Hadley, is known for some of the tastiest roots out there. I caught up with farmer and owner Michael Docter to talk about what makes their farm unique, the legacy of farm ownership in the region, and how some turnips are sweet enough to snack on raw.
The farm focuses entirely on growing tasty tubers for a winter harvest, supplying a bounty of local food during a season when fresh local crops can be scarce. This year they grew a rainbow of carrots, turnips, rutabaga, beets, and radishes of all shapes, sizes, and colors.
As Michael explains, “We started the farm 12 years ago is because there really wasn’t a lot of produce available that was local in the winter, and we wanted to try and provide food that wasn’t trucked in from afar and didn’t cost a fortune in carbon pollution to get it here.”
For Michael and his team, the work for this winter harvest begins with planting in the bright days of late spring and early summer, when Michael and his team plant dozens of varieties of root veggies. Once cold weather sets in, they begin uprooting crops and transferring them to the farm’s simple but ingenious storage barn.
“Our storage system is designed to use the cold nighttime temperature, instead of energy-intensive refrigeration. We use a computer and a fan and a door to cool our crops. Basically, the computer tells the door and the fan what to do,” Michael says.
A desire to “keep things simple and straightforward” is how Michael refers to their penchant for low-tech solutions and the decision to specialize in one family of crops. That doesn’t make the work easy — last weekend he and his team brought in over 25,000 pounds of beets one day, and a similar amount of carrots the next day. The race to bring things in before the ground freezes is relentless.
With the bulk of their harvest safely chilled, Michael and his team sell through the end of March, when their spring-dug parsnips are the last crop to come out of the ground. They sell to grocery stores around the region, and most years to several college dining halls.
With few institutional customers buying this year, they’ve adapted to offer produce through the Sunderland Farm Collaborative and Mass Food Delivery, whose online platforms allows anyone to shop for farm products from dozens of local businesses across the region, with orders available for pickup or delivery in a single package.
Winter Moon Roots also offers winter CSA shares distributed through Clover Food Lab, a small chain of locally minded restaurants in the greater Boston area that connect farms to a wider customer base by facilitating CSA pickups at their locations.
Shifting gears from the nuts and bolts of the farm, Michael steers the conversation toward the contribution of newcomers to the Pioneer Valley farming community. This is personal for him, as he gets ready to transfer full ownership of Winter Moon Roots over to a close colleague, Rosendo Santizo, who is currently a farm manager. Originally from Guatemala, Rosendo has worked with Michael for over a decade, starting as a farmhand and eventually becoming a farm manager.
“The farm is gonna be his baby pretty soon. He’s already running the show,” Michael says.
Michael sees his and Rosendo’s story as part of a longer, and sometimes fraught, history of immigration and farm ownership in the region.
With minimal access to land and affordable financing, most beginning farmers face a steep climb toward owning their own farms. First-generation immigrants have an even tougher row to hoe as they navigate added cultural and political hurdles. Yet over time, yesterday’s newcomers become today’s old-timers.
“We’re just doing what’s been done in Hadley and the rest of the valley for over a hundred years now,” Michael reflects. “Every generation of this country has been built on the hard work of people that have come here from far away and bring with them a powerful work ethic. They know how to work the land, they’re not afraid of hard work … It makes sense that they should eventually own their own farms.”
You can find Winter Moon Roots’ fine produce this winter at River Valley Co-op in Northampton, Green Fields Market in Greenfield and Whole Foods in Hadley. Starting in December, you can also order online through the Mass Food Delivery or Sunderland Farm Collaborative for pickup or delivery in Franklin and Hampshire counties.
If you live closer to Boston, winter farm shares are still available through Clover Food Labs for pickup or delivery (visit these organization’s websites for more details).
So, what kind of turnip is so sweet you can munch on it straight out of the ground? Answer: the famed Macomber turnip, Michael’s favorite of what he grows. They’re delicious prepared many ways, but as he confesses, “I just chop them up and eat them raw. That sounds crazy unless you’ve tried it, but they’re not like anything you’ve ever had.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.
For help finding more local food for holiday celebrations and beyond, check out buylocalfood.org/farmguide.