Local farmers Bernie and Denise Szarek are willing to take a risk.
This winter — encouraged by a commercial account with The Tailor and the Cook in Utica — the Clinton farmers will occupy their largest greenhouse with rows upon rows of leafy greens.
"It's expensive now because we still don't have it down to be economical," Bernie Szarek said while pointing to purchased light fixtures hung in the 100-foot by 30-foot greenhouse. "Our intentions are to get it to be economical."
Greenhouses are one of the ways local farmers are helping extend or continue the growing season beyond the typical months of March to September, depending on the location. Many other farmers, including the Szareks, also have pursued high tunnels to add a few extra months to providing local produce to area residents.
High tunnels are similar to greenhouses; however, they're typically larger and don't have a heat source.
But these ventures can be costly and don't always bear the fruits of the labor.
"There aren't many willing to take the risk," said Jeff Miller, an educator for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County. "Those people who have tried it, they haven't continued it. That tells me that the increased cost has not (come) with increased revenue."
Furthermore, Bernie Szarek said even with a heat source, the lack of natural sunlight keeps the leafy greens from growing as quickly as they would in the summer.
This means that The Tailor and the Cook, which is receiving its leafy greens from Szarek Greenhouses LLC, don't receive produce every week.
"I do my very best to find what I can locally and what I can't find locally, I try not to use," said restaurant co-owner Tim Hardiman. "You can't cellar lettuce, so you have to have people who are willing to take a chance like the Szareks."
Gambling on goods
If it's such a risky business, why do farmers take the chance?
"The reason that we've done it all along is to keep ourselves out in the public eye," Denise Szarek said.
With the farm feeding a restaurant, they've upped the ante.
"We decided it was a good time to take the challenge," Denise Szarek said. "Is it profitable at this point? No, probably not, but we're hoping that as we learn more and we get going, that we can make it a profitable endeavor."
For restaurant owners such as Hardiman, it allows him to continue his mission to be farm sustainable.
"Unconventional methods of farming: hydroponics and aquaponics, indoor farming," he said. "That stuff is limitless on how much it benefits me, and I wish there was more of it. It requires farmers to think outside the box a little bit."
Page 2 of 2 - And over the years, producers have been creative.
In August, Aqua Vita Farms, the only commercial aquaponic farm in Central New York, closed due to financial strains.
"We needed to undergo a redesign, but it cost us a great deal more than we had budgeted," owner Mark Doherty said.
It's not all doom and gloom; the demand, the benefit and some assistance is out there.
Paul Bunnelle, who owns Fairhaven Farm in Fairfield with his wife, Patti, said last winter they applied for a U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources and Conservation Service program that would fund the majority of the about $7,000 cost for a high tunnel.
They shelled out roughly $600 from their own pockets for the purchase.
"We're hoping to extend the growing season on both ends," Bunnelle said. "And also in the middle there, we're hoping to get a tomato crop to come to fruition."
Since they've begun growing, Bunnelle said their tomato crops have been lost to disease.
While it won't allow them to grow all year round like a greenhouse, the cost is less because there is no heat source. Plus, it provides protection for disease-prone produce.
It does extend the growing season from three to four months to about six or seven, Bunnelle said.
"That's a game changer if that's the way you make your living," he added.
Now consulting with individuals who want to pursue controlled environment agriculture, Doherty said these unconventional methods have a great deal of benefits to food security as well as stimulating the local economy.
"When we can find a way to grow locally and grow local produce year round, I think that's a huge benefit economically," he said. "The more we can keep our dollars local, I think that's a widely understood benefit to our economy."
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