It was the second week in February and we had all just finished digging out from the third consecutive early week snowstorm when I made the trek from Great Barrington to Hadley to visit Winter Moon Farm. I guess it was appropriate that this visit came at a time when everyone seemed to be working harder than usual to defy the forces of winter. That’s what Michael Docter, owner of Winter Moon Farm, does every day at this time of year.
Winter Moon Farm specializes in winter storage crops. So, when people in the Northeast are buckling down for the winter and farms are closing up shop for the season, Michael is getting ready to sell them locally grown food.
A Modern Renaissance Man
To say the least, Michael is an interesting guy. After growing up outside of Washington, D.C., he graduated with a master’s degree in community development and started doing community land trust work in Pennsylvania and New Jersey before he landed in the Pioneer Valley for good. But, in the end, nonprofit work wasn’t for him. “I needed to get outside in the dirt,” he said, “and I knew that you could do just as much good in the for-profit world as long as you kept your priorities and your values straight.”
It was that philosophy that led him to strike a deal with the Western Mass Food Bank to buy a 30+ acre farm in Hadley and convert it the Food Bank Farm. This was a unique agreement that allowed Docter to run a community supported agriculture, for-profit organic farm while also growing food for the Food Bank and the many hunger support agencies they served.
For a variety of reasons, the Food Bank Farm unfortunately closed its doors in 2009 and Docter found himself looking for ways to make a living. “My kids were going to college and I had to pay the bills,” he told me. So he did what he knew best. He started a farming business that served a community need. That business was Winter Moon Farm.
Winter Roots at Winter Moon
Winter Moon is a ten-acre farm with a 4,500 square foot former tobacco barn that produces 150,000 to 180,000 pounds of beets, carrots, parsnips, radishes, and turnips to stores, restaurants, and farmers’ market customers from December to March. And, in case you were wondering, the Co-op is one of Michael’s customers and the vast majority of the winter roots we sold you this year came from Winter Moon.
With the ten acres covered in two feet of snow, this farm tour focused on the barn. Michael opened up a big garage door that led to the processing area and another one that led to the storage. That space contained stacks of large wooden crates, each holding about 1,000 pounds of food. “Basically the storage consists of a computer, a fan, and a door,” Docter explained. “In the wintertime the computer opens up the door when it’s the right temperature and the fans mix the air through all the roots.” This method uses far less energy than the compressors used in conventional storage methods and keeps the storage area at optimal conditions all winter long.
All About the Power
Energy conservation is an important part of the Winter Moon operation. Michael Docter is a dedicated environmentalist. One of the first things you notice about the barn is that the roof is covered with solar panels. As we talked, there was still a significant amount of snow covering the panels and Michael was eager to see it fall. “We don’t get any power when the panels are covered like that,” he told me.“ Normally it falls off the next day, but it’s been so cold that it’s taking longer than usual.” Even with the snowy winter, the farm produces about seven times the electricity it needs with the solar array. The rest is returned to the grid. Michael is very conscious of energy usage and does everything he can to reduce it where he can. He even delivers about 25,000 pounds of food each year by bicycle to Amherst and Northampton area customers.
Solar energy is a resource for Docter in another way as well. When the Food Bank Farm closed, he started another business to help make ends meet. Solar energy producers receive a renewable energy certificate from the state. Utility companies are required to have a number of them by law. Michael’s panels don’t produce enough on their own to be a part of the process on a significant scale. But Docter, with all his experience in the bureaucracy of his past, has the talents to bring together friends and colleagues in similar situations to act as one to get income from their environmental conservation. He charges them a small percentage for his work and he truly seems to like it. “It lets me use a different part of my brain than farming and it keeps me balanced.”
Speaking of balance, Docter is involved in yet another business that sells food at the Co-op. Mi Tierra, a family-owned Mexican restaurant down the road from the farm, was looking for help sourcing corn for and marketing their tortillas, and Michael was helping them on a volunteer basis. Then, tragedy struck when the restaurant was burned to the ground in a 2013 fire that also claimed a dozen other businesses and a couple of residences.
At first, the family was making tortillas by hand and Michael was selling them at his farmers’ markets. Then he decided to become a 50/50 partner in the tortilla business to take it to the next level and sell the high quality product to retail stores. “They handle production and I handle marketing and sales,” he told me. The business continues to grow and has seen great success. And, just recently, the restaurant reopened and the family is stronger than ever.
What started as a quick visit to meet the man who has supplied my dinners with local food all winter turned into a fascinating conversation with one of the true Renaissance men of the food world. In our thirty minute conversation, he told me about three businesses; we sampled some delicious storage carrots; he got a phone call from a utility company about renewable energy certificates; we were visited by some workers to whom he spoke fluent Spanish and, at the very end of the visit, we saw some more snow fall off his solar panels.
With spring on the way, the storage season will soon come to an end. In the meantime, take a look at the roots shelf in the Co-op’s produce department and try some rainbow carrots or purple top turnips. And next year, when the ground inevitably freezes over again, remember Winter Moon Farm and keep buying local all year-round.