Valley Bounty: Plant Starts
It feels like the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to a grinding halt. But nature is oblivious to national emergencies.
Nowhere is that more apparent than on farms across the Valley.
Julia Lemieux, who owns Windy Ridge Farm in Hawley, started seeding plants in mid-February. Her farm’s main product is plant starts, which she sells wholesale to farmers throughout the region and retails at farmers’ markets in Boston and Pittsfield.
After a month in her heated greenhouse, Lemieux’s plants are demanding her attention.
“It’s a lot of transplanting in the greenhouse this time of year, and getting everyone’s orders together,” she explained during a recent conversation.
But with people across the state socially distancing themselves to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Lemieux is deeply concerned about finding those freshly transplanted starts a home.
“As a plant grower, I really just have the month of May to make most of my sales,” she said. “So if we’re looking at a situation where large groups of people aren’t getting together at places like farmers’ markets, I’m looking at a really heavy loss for the year.”
Lemieux has over a month until her main sales season picks up, but it’s impossible to know where things will stand when farmers’ market season would typically hit full stride.
Fortunately, Lemieux offers community supported agriculture (CSA) shares.
“It’s like the model of a vegetable CSA but we offer plants for your garden instead,” she explained.
CSA members pay a flat fee ahead of time, and then receive a delivery of cold-hearty plant starts at the beginning of May and warm-weather plant starts around Memorial Day weekend.
Share sizes range from a small garden up to a large garden share, which is designed to meet most of a family’s produce needs throughout the summer. All share sizes include a variety of vegetables and culinary herb plants.
Because Windy Ridge Farm’s plants are edible, they are all eligible for purchase with SNAP benefits, or with Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) incentives.
In addition to the plant CSA, Lemieux has recently invested significant energy into improving her online store, where people can purchase plant starts à la carte for delivery anywhere in Franklin, Hampshire, Hampden, and Berkshire counties.
It’s been challenging to find the time to focus on the online ordering system during the peak of her greenhouse transplanting season, but Lemieux needs to set herself up to be agile as the COVID-19 emergency unfolds.
“I can’t really wait until May to make these decisions. I have to do it now,” she said. “Because I only have a few weeks where the plants will sell. And then I have no choice but to throw them away. They have a really limited shelf life.”
Lemieux grew up on a farm in Worthington and has run Windy Ridge Farm since 2009. Over that decade of running the business, she has gotten a feel for the rhythm of the seasons. And every time there’s a warm spring like this, she explained, people are eager to jump the gun on getting their plants into the ground.
“I’m always needing to remind gardeners still that even if we’re having an early spring, it’s not a good idea to plant your tomatoes at the end of April,” she said with a laugh. “Sometimes that’s hard as a greenhouse grower. During these early spring years, I have to talk down a lot of people who want to get an early start on all these things.”
But even with the challenges of an early spring combined with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 emergency, this is a special time of year for Lemieux.
“Every spring I get to see those little seeds germinate out there, and I get to say hello to them again,” she said.
She lives on the farm with her two sons. Tristan is eight years old and Nico is 11, and they have gotten to share her joy each spring.
“It’s been rewarding to have my kids grow up over the years and get to watch that process of germination again each year,” she said.
That annual rebirth of spring is happening right now. And despite our public health emergency, farmers across the Valley are working to grow the starts that will fill our gardens this summer. So give yourself a few moments to pause, think about what you’d like to plant in your garden this summer, then visit your local seedling farmer’s website to see how they’re accommodating customers during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Farms and small businesses are going to be hit hard by the spread of COVID-19, and they need your support now more than ever. Visit CISA’s website to find farms near you, as well as the latest COVID-19 updates relating to local farms and businesses, at buylocalfood.org. Windy Ridge Farm is online at windyridgeorganics.com.
Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)