THE BLOG
03/20/2013 08:55 pm ET Updated May 20, 2013

Preparing for Spring in New York

For those of us whose shopping lists vary by the season, our taste buds can grow a bit frustrated around this time of year. During chilly, wet March, New Yorkers wake up longing for Sunday brunches al fresco, root vegetable-weary locavores anticipate the arrival of spring peas and summer corn, and chefs across the country begin planning their seasonal menu changes. But no one is looking forward to spring as much as farmers in the tri-state area. After what feels like three months of hibernation, preparation and cold weather, farmers have been gearing up for three seasons of harvest that begin around now and last through November. Although farmers like Ken Migliorelli, a third-generation farmer whose family owns and operates Migliorelli Farm in northern Dutchess County, can picture their farm stands overflowing with the season's bounty, this period right now at the end of winter represents one of the most financially difficult times of the year for small farms. Farmers need to invest in seeds, planters and other supplies to prepare for spring, summer and fall harvest, but income is reduced and cash flow is an ongoing issue from mid-winter to early spring. Since around the end of December most farms stop picking as snow makes the ground too moist to plow and work the soil, farmers often rely on selling storage apples, pears, root vegetables and value-added products that have been prepared and harvested earlier in the year in order to maintain sales year-round. Produce is stored in root cellars built with thick walls down into the ground to preserve peak freshness. Moreover, while groundwaters are replenished by snow and frost, farm operations are reduced to maintenance needs.

"From December to March our workforce usually goes down from 40 people to 10 people," explains Migliorelli.

Now that the soil is beginning to dry, farms across the state are starting to put seeds into the ground and harvest the land for the first time since 2012. Five or six different greens -- including spinach, kale and swiss chard -- that were planted on Migliorelli Farm in the fall and remained dormant over the winter have root systems in place and have begun emerging from the soil. Cool weather crops that include peas and Migliorelli's famous broccoli rabe have been planted for late March harvest. However, days are shorter and working conditions are subject to weather this time of year.

"Thursday night it was down to 25 degrees, so we had to wait until late morning when the frost had melted before getting to work", Migliorelli said last week. "There is only so much work that can be done when we are dependent on the weather to ensure our goods get to market soon."

In New York, chef Abram Bissell of The NoMad, the acclaimed restaurant in The NoMad Hotel, is ecstatic to have received his first young lettuces, spring garlic and fresh green garbanzo beans that his team has begun tasting and testing in new seasonal recipes.

"How we develop and determine what goes on our menu is dependent by what is going on in farming," says Bissell, who keeps in contact with his suppliers"to find out what is starting to taste good and what we have to look forward to."

With the start of March and demands from diners for dramatic menu changes, it is difficult for chefs in New York to rely entirely on local produce as colder weather in the northeast results in shorter harvest periods for farmers. As a result, it's not uncommon for chefs to source from vendors in California or southern states that experience longer growing seasons in order to get a head start on menu development and offer a variety of choices early. However, the emphasis in New York on supporting local to ensure freshness, taste and quality is made easier by the warming weather. Of course local meats, poultry and dairy items are available year round. But for produce, chefs and wholesale buyers begin shifting buying habits to the immediate region once it begins popping up at local farms. For now, Bissell says,

"Iconic spring ingredients are not there yet, but we think Easter will mark a great transition for us."

So do farmers -- Ken Migliorelli is betting his peas on it. If you are looking to get more involved in the local food movement and support small farms in the New York area, consider checking out The Just Food Conference March 29th & 30th, or Slow Food NYC's annual fundraiser next month that supports small working "educational" farms in under-served NYC neighborhoods.

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