Peas in February? In Maine?

Campus farm turns four-season

Can peas really grow in the winter in Maine?

hoop house

Hoop dreams: The campus greenhouses held lettuce and spinach plants, covered to protect them from winter’s chill. Not far away, in a sign of hope and a vote of confidence, a farm hen laid its first egg in February. Faculty from ecology classes have assigned their students to visit and volunteer at the farm, and Bon Appétit has agreed to underwrite a second year of operations to co-sponsor the farm.

They did at Saint Joseph’s, where farm manager Michial Russell and his team worked hard to preserve life on the farm, even if it meant keeping an indoor “secret garden” and shoveling their way to the outdoor greenhouses.

Russell and his crew of interns and volunteers grew a variety of leafy greens, lettuce, sugar peas, carrots, and herbs that were used in many of the dining hall’s dishes throughout the cold months. “They made a nice reminder that there can be life in the heart of a Maine winter,” he says.

Last summer, interns helped Russell to build two greenhouses nearby the farm fields across from the main campus. Over the winter, they housed lettuce, spinach and other greens. After each snow fall, their “roofs” were shoveled off to let in the sun. At a separate indoor basement where temperatures reached just 50 degrees, peas, carrots and herbs were nourished with grow lights. Russell calls it the “secret garden” because nobody knows about it, he says.

“Right now, the farm is producing a majority of the herbs and greens used in many of our entrees,” says Stuart Leckie, general manager of campus food service vendor Bon Appétit. One dish even made use of the farm’s pea shoots – grilled tuna served on a marinated julienne salad – with the shoots as a garnish. The crew is also using the grow lights to raise vegetable seedlings that will be transplanted to the greenhouses for spring growth.

Alyssa Dolan tending to peas

Alyssa Dolan ’13 of West Townshend, Vt., inspects a pea plant in the winter “secret garden.” Her work-study assignment is to work on the campus farm, where she especially loves composting and building up her muscles from lugging 5-gallon buckets filled with dining hall table scraps to add to the soil-building compost heap.

Composting continued right through the winter, requiring about one-third of the farm’s labor in the form of tossing dining hall’s leftovers into 5-gallon buckets, dumping the buckets onto the compost pile, and covering with a tarp to retain the moisture and heat. The crew took the shovel to the pile to turn it over every few weeks in order to add oxygen. By early spring, it had become rich black soil.

After reading volumes about winter harvesting and taking the advice of premier gardener Eliot Coleman, Russell learned that greens can actually withstand the cold and go into a hibernating state until they are ready to bloom. He set out to prove that winter harvesting is possible, even with the burdens of snow, frost and mice. Russell says it’s rewarding to see progress being made on the farm under such conditions, even if the plants do grow a bit slower than in summer.

With Bon Appétit’s emphasis on freshness and local produce, you can’t get much more fresh or local than the campus farm. In February, no less.

by Kayla Collins '11