Winter's greens catch on with schools, restaurants
Vic and Gail Vanik talk with the fervor of evangelists about their greens. But when you consider that these unassuming crops have proven both money maker and miracle cure for the couple, it's easy to understand why.
Two years ago, Vic learned his cholesterol was dangerously high. His doctor recommended cholesterol-reducing drugs, but the couple asked first to try bringing it down through a change in diet.
As owners of the Four Seasons Greenhouse & Nursery in Dolores, they grew countless plants through the depth of winter but none of them were intended for eating. That year, however, they started a little spinach and lettuce for their own personal consumption.
After Vic's cholesterol made a precipitous decline and visitors to the greenhouse kept asking to buy their dinner salad, they decided they might be onto something. The following year they planted a lot more greens, this time to sell to the public.
"We've kind of been blown away. We were not expecting the response we got," Gail said.
This year, they have 23,000 square feet of greenhouse space dedicated to produce. They are harvesting nearly 500 pounds of greens a week and up to 30 pounds of tomatoes a day. They are also growing eggplant, broccoli and herbs. Their produce is sold to three area school districts, including Durango, restaurants and direct to the public at their store and through a weekly Winter Farmers Market they hold at the nursery. The event has attracted dozens of venders and hundreds of shoppers, who jam their parking lot to capacity.
In 2013, Today's Garden Center named them the No. 1 most revolutionary garden center in the country.
"We started just playing with it," Gail said. "We had no idea what was going to happen."
Gail says she and Vic belong to what she calls the "Jell-O generation." As baby boomers, they grew up in an era when innovations like Jell-O, Wonderbread and other processed foods swept into homes promising housewives liberation from the kitchen through technological advances.
Throughout her adult life, particularly as a busy business owner, she turned to meal solutions that got dinner to the table quickly and easily. Frozen, fast and instant foods all fit that bill.
"We were probably the least likely people to be jumping on this bandwagon," she said.
How big a bandwagon is the local food movement? The U.S. Department of Agriculture says there are few studies on the matter. While the Vaniks' have experienced a near insatiable demand for their produce, they also are the only large-scale, off-season producer in the area. When you are the only person selling locally grown tomatoes in the dead of winter, you can charge $8 a pound.
That high price seems to relegate locally grown food to the category of luxury item, at least when the leaves and snow are falling. And the Vaniks are uniquely positioned to take advantage of the demand: they already had all the infrastructure needed to grow in winter, including half a dozen heated greenhouses. (Tomatoes and other plants are grown on long tables with a web of tubes underneath that circulate heated water, keeping the roots nice and toasty.) Even still, Vic Vanik acknowledged that, were the price of natural gas not so low, growing produce in the winter might not be economically viable for him.
Nestled in between a day care and residence on historic Third Avenue sits Turtle Lake Refuge's in-town location. In the backroom and upstairs sunroom of the converted house, however, tall racks of flats line the walls receiving a combination of natural and electrical light. Among the crops are sunflower and mustard greens, buckwheat, wheatgrass and pea shoots. The environs couldn't be more different than the Vaniks sprawling complex along a dirt road in rural Montezuma County. Nonetheless, around 35 pounds of greens a week are produced there for commercial sale. The refuge supplies not only local schools and natural foods stores, but also a variety of downtown restaurants.
Refuge founder Katrina Blair said the demand for their greens has steadily increased.
"There's such a great local food movement in Durango," she said.
The greens fetch $10 a pound or tray.
Again, scarcity is a major factor. At the height of summer, Turtle Lake Refuge's booth at the Farmers Market sits alongside a dozen others with tables stacked high with everything from bok choy and beet greens to mizuna and chard.
But this time of year, most growers are either shuttered for the winter or selling root crops out of their cellars. A few others are stringing along carefully tended greens in unheated hoophouses for sale at the holiday markets.
Time will tell whether the economics make sense for more growers to jump into the winter market, driving down the price through competition. But for those hankering for a plate of fresh cut greens without laying down a big wad of green, there is another option. Any sunny window sill is a candidate for growing space.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I filled a couple dozen containers with organic soil from the hardware store and planted micro and mixed-salad greens from Botanical Interests, a Colorado-based seed company. My crops are aided by grow lights, but if they were next to a south-facing window, this probably wouldn't be necessary. Already, I have enough to make a sandwich with homegrown greens every day of the week. When it comes to farm-to-table, you can't get more local than that.