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Review: Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman

2012-02-05

The full cover title of this book, published in 2009, is  The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year-Round Vegetable Production Using Deep-Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses.

One of my ongoing interests is food security and the evolution of our current predominantly industrial food system as we move towards a post-peak-oil and eventually a post-fossil-fuel future.  For long-term food security our future food system needs to be healthy, affordable and sustainable.  Obviously, our current highly energy and fossil-fuel intensive food production and distribution networks are going to have to change significantly as the energy they require becomes too expensive or simply unavailable.

Living in Canada, a major focus of my interest is on the cold, dark winter months during which the farmers’ fields are dormant and the produce section at the local supermarket is full of imported food sometimes from halfway around the globe.  My initial assumption was that most of the fresh vegetables that we now expect year round would no longer be affordably available much of the year (if at all) and there would be a higher dependence on storage crops, preserves, grains and meat in the winter time.

Quite by accident, I discovered Eliot Coleman’s Winter Harvest Handbook, in the new-book section of the local library and borrowed it out of curiosity (I now have the Kindle version on my iPad).  This book has convinced me that many of my original assumptions were wrong and my concerns were unfounded.  Eliot Coleman shows how, on his small farm in Maine, he is able to grow many vegetable crops year-round with the help of specially designed unheated or minimally heated greenhouses.  Based on several years of research he describes how, through careful planning and an understanding of the local climate, he can keep his vegetable production economically productive all year sometimes harvesting 5 to 6 crops from the same piece of land while maintaining soil health.

I particularly enjoyed the second chapter ‘Historical Inspiration’ which describes how intensive year-round farming was common in pre-oil times in Northern Europe.  For instance, in the late 1800’s, the city of Paris was self-sufficient in vegetables year-round and even exported vegetables to England, all from roughly 6% of the Parisian land-area which I suspect is substantially less than the paved area of many modern cities.

We’re pretty much city people so it is unlikely that I personally will put Eliot Coleman’s winter farming methods into practice however that is not why I read or recommend this book.  Eliot Coleman shows that with research, ingenuity and a good knowledge of how selected crops grow, it is possible to economically produce vegetables year-round in many cold climates.  If more farmers applied Eliot Coleman’s methods, it would provide their communities with improved local food security with a low environmental footprint.

Of course, the consumer is going to have to change their expectations though they will have more choice than if we try to drag our current far-away, anything-you-want-anytime-you-want-it, fossil-fuel-intensive, mega-farm agriculture into an age of scarce oil.  In a future sustainable world some hot-weather crops such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers will be unavailable part of the year however in this post-fossil-fuel world there will be many things that we will have to give up as we are forced to live more locally and less energy intensively.

If I had some land and planned a small scale farming operation, I would find the Winter Harvest Handbook to be a valuable resource.  As someone concerned with sustainable agriculture and future food security, I find it a source of hope and inspiration.

For more information on Eliot Coleman, his farm and other books that he has written see the Four Season Farm web site.

(A version of this review is also posted on GoodReads)

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