By Annette Hinkle
Renato Stafford showed up at a recent Fair Foods Farmers Market in Sag Harbor with a big bowl of homegrown salad greens and some garlic bulbs.
And when people approached him to buy it, Stafford responded with a most unexpected retort.
“I’m not selling it … but I’ll show you how to do it.’”
Stafford lives in Peconic on the North Fork and doesn’t have much use for supermarkets. Instead, he lives quite happily off the land and sea. With the exception of the few food items which can’t be grown here (olives the notable example), he raises or catches most everything he needs to feed himself and his family (including four children) throughout the year.
For Stafford, this lifestyle choice is not related to off-the-grid politics or a self-imposed challenge to eat food sourced within 20 miles. Instead, eating local is about something much more basic.
“I wanted to eat the healthiest food I can eat and cook with the freshest ingredients I can get,” explains Stafford, who is also a chef. “So it came from my desire to cook, eat and feed everyone.”
The way in which he accomplishes that is by growing greens all winter long in a 12’ x 20’ dugout style hoop house which he has constructed on his property.
“The hoop house is below the frost line and passive geo thermal convection keeps it a little warmer in the winter and cooler in summer,” he says. “That means when you go into it, you’re stepping down. The garden beds are at waist level, so you’re not bending over to work. You can work standing upright, so it’s not exhausting..”
“Right now in my front yard – it’s full of greens,” he adds. “What I’ve managed to do is grow these cool weather plants through the winter with no energy, other than my own and the energy from the earth.
And every single day, Stafford goes out to his greenhouse with a big bowl and brings in a gourmet salad for dinner.
“I couldn’t buy it at any price — and if I had to, I’d go broke,” he says. “A little bag of greens with 40 leaves in it is $6 at the market. I’m out there with my shears and every time I clip I go, ‘That’s six dollars right there, six dollars, six dollars…’”
“A couple days later, you can’t see where I cut. It grows back.”
Greenhouses are certainly nothing new in the world of farming. Most farmers rely on them to give summer seedlings an indoor head start in early spring. In Stafford’s case, what is unique and a twist on tradition is the notion of using a greenhouse to provide fresh greens through the coldest months of the year.
“I learned this from an elderly Italian gentleman on the North Fork,” notes Stafford. “He had these tiny hoop houses on his property and I thought, ‘What can he be growing in here?’ I walked in and it was amazing. He was producing so much in a small space – I thought that’s what I have to do.”
And through his company, Homegrown, that’s exactly what Stafford has been doing for the last three years — setting up complete hoop house systems for backyard gardeners, schools and even restaurants.
“I come and do the construction of the hoop house and I leave it growing,” explains Stafford. “I spend a lot of time teaching people what I’ve learned in the 25 years I’ve been doing this. Three or four days later I call them and when the seeds start germinating, I’ll do another consultation. People continue to call throughout the year with questions.”
“Anybody who has a piece of land and a good spot can do it,” he says. “My business is helping people by teaching them to grow their own food. It’s fascinating and I love teaching people to do this. In the end I’m helping my community become self sufficient and strong.”
This Saturday, April 6 from noon to 1 p.m., Stafford will offer “Foods From Your Garden All Year Long” as part of the Fair Foods Farmers Market in Sag Harbor. In addition to explaining how the hoop house works, topics will include making soil through composting, choosing a greenhouse site, seeds, weeds, succession planting, crop rotation and food storage.
Maintaining a traditional summer garden on the East End can be challenging — especially for residents plagued by deer and shade. But Stafford notes that hoop houses work well even in backyards surrounded by fairly dense woods — that’s because the winter sun has no trouble penetrating once the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves. Though temperatures inside the hoop house don’t get too extreme one way or the other, making it an ideal growing environment, Stafford explains it’s still very important gardeners choose the right crops for the time of year.
From summer to early fall, for example, Stafford grows most of his crops outdoors and uses the hoop house to cure his garlic, which is also planted outdoors in November and harvested in July. In fall, once the garlic has cured, he removes it and starts planting the hoop house for winter.
“I grow arugula, baby spinach, French lettuce, kale, radicchio, escarole, Swiss chard, red leaf lettuce,” says Stafford. “Some varieties you can cut and they’ll regrow, others you have to replant. Basically you have warm weather and cool weather greens. The height of the sun determines what you can grow. Don’t try to make something happen that shouldn’t.”
Another vital part of the process is composting. Stafford believes it’s the best thing gardeners can do to make their hoop houses a success.
“Making soil is the secret to it all,” says Stafford. “If you have fertile, healthy soil you’ll have healthy plants. If we eat good, healthy food and are not stressed out, when illness comes around we’re strong enough to fend it off.”
Ultimately, Stafford finds that desire for healthy living is the primary motivator for people interested in creating their own backyard hoop house.
“Many people have called who have health issues or something that requires them to change their diet,” he adds. “In order to do that they have to grow their own because buying it is not an option – it’s too expensive.”
Stafford notes the one caveat of hoop house production is making sure gardeners have plenty of hungry family members and friends to partake of the bounty. With officially here and the sun staying up longer, Stafford notes his greenhouse production is in overdrive.
“Now is the best time of year for my hoop house with the cool nights and the warmer days and no leaves on the trees,” he says. “I have a salad factory for the next two months.”
“All my family, my neighbors, my friends — I feed everyone I come in contact with,” he adds. “The volume that comes out of it is mind boggling. Every year I’m amazed how much I’m producing and none of it goes to waste.
“I’m like the green Santa Claus…”
Renato Stafford presents “Foods from Your Garden All Year Long” on Saturday, April 6, 2013 from noon to 1 p.m. at the Fair Foods Farmers Market at Christ Episcopal Church, 4 East Union, Sag Harbor. For more information on Renato Stafford’s Homegrown, visit www.homegrownorganic.net or call 514-5315.