Farmers and producers in mid-Missouri continue to grow crops during the fall and winter months thanks to hardy plant breeds and the use of greenhouses and high tunnels, allowing consumers to purchase and prepare fresh produce as the leaves fall.
Molly Kea works at her family’s produce and grocery store, Kea International. She said in the fall months, some of the crops they produce include cilantro, mustard greens, baby bok choy, onions and spinach. They continue to grow a lot of the plants outdoors during the fall and then cover with a sheet of plastic at night to protect from the frost.
“We really watch the temperature, and once it falls below 32, we cover the plants at night,” Kea said.
Greens such as bok choy, spinach and mustard greens are popular to grow during the colder seasons in Missouri due to their hardiness. The cooler temperatures help the vegetables keep their flavor, whereas warmer temperatures can cause them to taste bitter. Kea and her family also have a greenhouse they use to grow crops.
Marcus Monroe, of Manitou Farm, has some unusual crops that he grows during the early fall. Some of his crops include figs, jujubes, papaws, and a variety of colorful and flavorful peppers.
Monroe grows figs in his high tunnel from the beginning of August through the end of October.
“They are Missouri’s forgotten fruit,” Monroe said.
One of the more unusual item Monroe grows is jujubes, a fruit originally from China. This unusual looking fruit is described as tasting like a mango-banana custard, and is native to Missouri. Monroe is also the only vendor at the Columbia Farmer’s Market that has papaws.
“I just experimented with growing lots of different fruits,” Monroe said.
Among the produce Monroe sells is a variety of peppers, whose harvest life extends into the fall.
“I try to grow a lot of colorful peppers,” Monroe said.
Not only are his peppers colorful, but he sells a wide variety of hot peppers, both dried and fresh.
While Kea uses plastic sheets to protect her crops from the cold, and Monroe uses a high tunnel to grow his figs, the Columbia Area Career Center grows plants during the colder months on a larger scale. The CACC currently has three greenhouses that were built in 2010, and one high tunnel.
According to Sheri Rodekohr, a horticulture instructor at CACC, the center’s biggest fall crop is poinsettias. The poinsettia crop is started in late July or early August, and sold on Dec. 13. Rodekohr said that this is her 26th year at the Career Center, and they were growing poinsettias for sale each fall even before her time. There are currently 400 poinsettias being grown in the greenhouses, and are all expected to be sold during the December sale.
All proceeds from the sales go directly to funding the horticulture extracurricular activities and purchasing any materials that might be needed.
“We are mostly self-supporting,” Rodekohr said.
The greenhouses all have heaters, and are kept at a consistent temperature year-round. The thermostats are set on automatic and during the winter, the temperature is usually kept between 55 and 60 degrees.
“Even though 65 is preferable, we really try to conserve as much energy as possible,” Rodekohr said. “We keep it just warm enough for the most temperature sensitive plants.”
Some of the concerns regarding winter in the greenhouse include vents being left open and heavy snowfall. If a vent is left open, plants nearest it freeze and die. However, the biggest concern is if they get a heavy load of snow and the greenhouse roof collapses or if the weather causes a power outage.
Growing lights are used in the greenhouses for flower bud initiation for the poinsettias. Rodekohr said that they only use the lights to help with vegetative growth or else the plants will be too short and will have trouble with flower bud initiation. They use the lights during cloudy days, but they are 10,000 watt bulbs so they are very expensive.
The CACC students are also planting flower bulbs during October, and these bulbs will be placed into the cooler until the first or second week of January, and will bloom in time for Valentine’s Day.
Other plants grown in the greenhouses year-round include tropical plants that are maintained for the floriculture Career Development Event contest. The CDE contest is a part of the National FFA Organization, and maintaining these plants helps the students be better equipped for the plant identification portion of the contest.
“Students participate in the CDE contest because it’s fun and they want to learn,” Rodekohr said.
The Culinary Arts program at CACC grows herbs during the summer and then places them in the greenhouse to continue growing over the winter. Some of the herbs they grow in the greenhouse include chives, sage and rosemary.
Cold weather vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower have a hard time growing during the late fall because there isn’t enough sun, which results in etiolation. Etiolation is when plants stretch to try to get more sunlight and end up being too tall and weak. This is one of the biggest concerns when growing plants during the fall and winter months.
A very wide variety of plants are grown and maintained in greenhouses in Missouri during the fall and winter as well as grown with the help of high tunnels or plastic covers. Just because the temperatures have started dropping does not mean that crop production has to.
> Photos by Olivia DeSmit