With our first snowfall hitting mid-November, it has been another long winter this year. In that same week in November, River Bell Market Garden in Dresden started delivering the organic vegetable winter box program to seventy Chatham-Kent residents. Into its second year, the winter box is an extension to customers who enjoy organic produce from the summer box program launched by River Bell owner Joe Grootenboer in 2013. The winter box program will continue until April as the cold storage vegetables near depletion; by early June, the summer box will restart with a new batch of spring vegetables coming off the farm.
The summer and winter programs are separate and, by paying a subscription fee for each season, customers can opt for home delivery, convenient drop-off at several depots, or direct pick-up from the farm. The summer box is delivered weekly. The winter box delivery is every two weeks. The winter box contains heartier vegetables that have a longer shelf life and do not necessarily require refrigeration.
The Winter Line-up
Grootenboer’s strategy with the box programs is to deliver certified organic crops to the kitchens of local customers who want a steady supply, but are not able to get to the farm as often as they like. With that supply continuing into the winter, customers have been consistently receiving white and red potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, beets, onions, rutabagas, cabbage, and garlic. The first few deliveries of the winter schedule had additional surprises of squash, celery, radish, and leeks carried over from the farm’s summer refrigerated storage. Even into January, Grootenboer included leafy vegetables, like kale and spinach that actually grow in the ground over winter under unheated, plastic, hoop greenhouses.
The Colour Purple
The boxes allow for the discovery of new vegetables not typically stumbled upon in grocery store foraging. Carrots are hearty vegetables that last for a long time in winter. River Bell’s carrots come in three colours — orange, purple, and white — all with their own distinct flavours. The purple carrots look unusual at first, but when the outer purple layer is grated off, they are orange inside with the healthy beta-carotene alongside the additional health benefits of the purple skin which contains the same antioxidant as blueberries.
The Beet Goes On
The colour variations continue with beets, which we expect to be purple, but River Bell also grows golden beets and candy cane beets. Roasted in the oven and topped with oil and vinegar, each variety is a soft, juicy, sweet treat. Nadia Moore, owner of Hungry Vegan in Chatham, credits the quality of River Bell’s beets for the most delicious borscht she has ever made. Freshly pressed beet juice is also uniquely used as flavouring in a vegan Red Velvet Cheesecake prepared by Emily Meko at Eat What’s Good in Chatham.
Onions, Garlic, Potatoes … Oh My!
It is always a good idea to have onions on hand, and the winter box supplies yellow and red cooking onions to keep a pantry stocked over the winter. Grootenboer has also given customers a garlic lesson throughout the seasons. The summer box introduced garlic scapes, the green stalky portion of garlic plants removed before the bulbs are ready; used in cooking, they add the same garlicky flavour. Garlic bulbs start arriving in the winter box after being harvested in July and going through a curing process at the farm for a few months. The only winter box items not grown at River Bell are the organic sweet potatoes brought in from Watson’s Farm in Tupperville, and white and red potatoes from Pfennings, an organic distributor in Kitchener. This allows Grootenboer to focus on what he grows best, while engaging nearby farmers in cooperative efforts to support quality food going out to the community.
The Gift of Produce in Any Season
Before each delivery, Grootenboer sends an email about what will be included. Even with this upfront information, the box is always like a surprise gift. River Bell grows thirty different fruits and vegetables, most of which find their way into a box program in one season or the other. The harvest may wrap up in November but, aside from a small gap before the first spring yield, River Bell’s box programs offer a nearly continuous conveyor belt of local produce throughout the year. A bounty of local produce is expected in the summer, but the addition of the winter box program to River Bell’s operations reminds Chatham-Kent that vegetables produced locally and organically are available in any season, even with the winter months upon us in full force.
Picked, Then Pickled
River Bell extends the life of some of the vegetables to last throughout winter by pickling them. Grootenboer does this with a variety of fresh veggies — green beans, carrots, beets, and radishes — soon after they are picked. This prolongs their usefulness and freshness. Organic veggies usually associated with summer taste great in the dead of winter coming from the pickling brine of a Mason jar. The jarred veggies are available from the farm, or at Hungry Vegan in Chatham and James Street Eatery in Wallaceburg. Both local eateries carry jarred River Bell products that can be purchased all year long.
River Bell Market Garden
559 Sydenham Street, Dresden, ON
Darin Cook is a regular contributor to eatdrink who works and plays in Chatham-Kent.