That's why it was so fascinating to visit Monroe Organic Farms on the plains of eastern
Colorado. There we discovered the key to surviving winter's long dark days:
Storage vegetables and the know-how to store them.
Organic produce has been raised on Jackie and Jerry Monroe’s family farm since 1936,
including all sorts of storage vegetables like beets, celeriac, carrots, potatoes,
squash, cabbage and, of course, leeks. But one autumn the Monroe’s faced the kind
of weather-induced financial crisis that is never more than two steps from a farmer.
So this clever couple decided to go one step beyond growing, to commercially storing
and selling their storage crop all winter! The concept worked and they were able
to pay the farm's bills.
A Daring Experiment
The Question: Why Do Leeks Get So Dirty?
As explained in the prepping section, dirt doesn't just get on leeks, it gets embedded
deep within a leek’s layers. Anyone who has wrestled the dirt from a bunch of leeks
has surely wondered how they get so darn dirty.
The Answer Leeks grow layer upon layer, so any dirt surrounding a layer, gets trapped
inside as the leek grows outward. It doesn't help when wind blows or rain splashes
more dirt inside the layers. Nor does it help if the leeks are blanched, a process
described below, where dirt is piled around the leeks.
Harvesting From the Past
In December, just after a sub-zero freezing spell, we had a chance to tour the amazing
storage setup Jackie and Jerry have created. There are deep trenches and shallow
pits, straw bale structures and cold frames. How did they know which vegetables
to store where, how much humidity was optimal, how to keep them from freezing in
the plains' sub-zero weather, how deep should trenches be, what kinds of squash stores
best, and so on?
Jackie and Jerry reminded us that people survived at least a few millennia without
the benefits of California produce shipped to a grocery store down the street. Storage,
along with food preservation, were key skills people perfected and utilized to survive.
Fortunately, there are still people around who remember life before refrigerated
rail cars, like the Monroes' parents, who were a big source of know-how for Jerry
Combining past practices with modern research on vegetable storage, Jackie and Jerry
have been able to piece together a patchwork of winter storage methods that are as
promising as they are effective. Of all the clever systems they have devised, however,
the leek operation is the most interesting.
Making Leeks Last Until March
"Cold Frame Sauna" The leeks’ storage structure looks like a greenhouse but because
it's unheated, it is called a "cold frame." Even without heating, however, the temperature
inside is almost balmy–and the air is rich with the earthy, humid scent of leeks.
The leeks are grown in outdoor fields until the are harvested in September or October.
They are then "re-planted" in the cold frame in trenches about 4" deep. Inside the
cold frame, the leeks go into a maintenance stage: they don't grow any more, but
neither do they die. They can continue in this "hibernation" state for four to five
months, until March. Throughout the winter, the leeks are re-harvested for CSA members.
All in all, producing leeks year-round in snow country is a labor intensive process,
since they are essentially planted twice and harvested twice. Adding to the labor
element, the leeks must be cleaned of any withered leaves before going into the CSA
boxes. Many growers will also "blanch" their leeks, another labor intensive process
The article "Who Is This Vegetable and Why Don't We Know It Better?" asked why leeks
aren't as common in our country as in Europe. Part of the reason lies in the labor-intensive
growing methods they require. Without the potential savings offered by mechanical
harvesting and cleaning, industrial growers have little interest in the crop,which
limits its availability in conventional stores. Of course leeks are always a favorite
at farmers markets and can also be found pretty readily at health foods stores.
Seasonal Eating in the Depths of Winter
Seasonal eating always sounds like a great thing to do--in the summer. Maybe, stretching
the imagination, we can envision eating seasonally and locally through autumn. Maybe
we could even start in spring. But for anyone north of the 40th Parallel, winter
is a time to be thankful for produce from Mexico and California.
That desperate experiment has now, eight years later, grown into a large and successful
Winter CSA program that feeds 150 families in the Denver metro area. While it may
not feed those families completely, it can provide 40 to 60 percent of a family’s
Monroe Farm’s Patchwork Storage System Can you guess where the vegetables are stored?
Low-Tech Ingenuity The Monroe storage operation requires no external energy inputs,
only nature's warming, cooling and venting capabilities. Good news in a global warming
Ask the Grower
The Question What Is Blanching?
Most of us have heard of blanching in a cooking sense, where a food is briefly cooked
in a big pot of boiling water. But there's another kind of blanching that happens
in leek fields. Dirt is piled up around the leeks’ stalks so that, robbed of light,
they become creamy white.
Why do growers go to all that trouble? Because traditionally, the white part of
a leek was the most prized part. As explained in "Separating the Wheat form the
Chaff," most recipes call for just the white parts of the leeks. The remaining green
parts were either thrown in the stock pot or simply thrown away.