Stayin’ Alive

Words by Tom Hallberg, Photos by Camrin Dengel

At any given time, Dave Ridill is growing nearly twenty-four thousand individual plants. Even when the snow stacks several feet high outside his door, he keeps a bevy of lettuce and other hearty greens alive and thriving. Dave is one of a few intrepid farmers attempting to keep us all a little happier when the sun stays far to the south for months by providing healthy, locally grown produce. The idea of winter farming conjures images of bundled-up agrarians trudging through the snow to shovel out greenhouses, and blasting heat lamps around the clock to keep the tomatoes from freezing. But the reality is a bit different and, for the farmers’ sake, a lot more comfortable.

When I went to visit Dave’s Tetonia farm, Clawson Greens, I had the address, but I was looking for giant greenhouses and initially drove straight past his operation to his neighbor’s house. Finally, Dave came out and directed me to a parking spot in front of the garage on his otherwise typical-looking property.

“People are always looking for greenhouses,” he says as I exit the car. “It’s not what you expect it to be.”

Behind Dave’s garage are the tools of his trade, a trio of shipping containers that from the outside belie nothing of their contents. But inside, each can yield the equivalent of one acre’s worth of produce in its 320-square-foot space. We stepped from the snowy exterior of the garage into a hallway with three doors, each leading into one of the containers. To keep the operation clean, we slipped off our winter boots and put on “farm Crocs.”

Through the door and into the dark container we went. Dave flipped the lights to start rows of soft pink hues humming. Vertical planters hung from floor to ceiling across nearly two-thirds of the container, from wispy leaves just emerging to full heads of chard sagging under their own weight. The hydroponic system runs on a series of timers that control when the lights run—at night to create a heat source—and when the nutrient-infused water is given to the roots of each plant.

The whole thing sits at a slight angle, so any water the plants don’t use travels through runnels in the floor to the back to be collected and pumped back to the front.

“We use between one and five gallons of water a day to feed all eight thousand plants per container,” Dave says. “So that’s flushing your toilet once, maybe twice.”

Dave’s setup is the model of efficiency, requiring him to plant seeds and harvest by hand but doing most other tasks automatically. Just down the road from Clawson Greens, however, another year-round farm makes do with a much more labor-intensive process.

Sarah and Patrick McDonnell startedMorning Dew Mushrooms a couple of years ago with a simple goal: figure out how to cultivate mushrooms and take a crack at becoming farmers. Both had worked on farms before, and with Sarah working at MD Nursery and Patrick being a carpenter, they had the requisite skills needed for the trial and error necessary to build an indoor farm.

What started in a tiny fruiting room in their garage has grown into a two-story operation that can grow up to three hundred pounds of oyster mushrooms, lion’s mane, and other varieties each week.On the top floor of the garage, the duo starts the mushrooms in plastic bags filled with a substrate of soybean hulls and Douglas fir wood pellets. They inject spores into the bags of substrate, which they then sterilize. After a day or two in the lab, they move the bags to the inoculation room, where the mycelium wend their way through the substrate.

Once the mushrooms sprout, Sarah andPatrick carry them downstairs one by one to their new and improved fruiting room, a strictly controlled climate that hovers between 80 and 95 percent humidity and is a lot larger than their original space.

“We plan on building a slide from here to the fruiting room,” Sarah says.

The thought and work that went into their setup, with its built-in filtration and humidity control systems, is apparent.But because business has grown much faster than anticipated, the operation isn’t as efficient as it could be, given how they are limited by the space in their house.

“If we were to ever be able to move out of here and have a dedicated space, it would definitely be one story,” Patrick says.

While Clawson Greens and Morning DewMushrooms are home operations, Delancy Hively and her husband, Matt, of MadMountain Greenery, have chosen a slightly different path. They started their microgreen farm in their house in Tetonia, but as Mad Mountain grew they opted to rent a space that separates their business from their home life.

In a second-story office above MainStreet in Driggs, rows of wire shelving hold trays of tiny, curling leaves.Pink amaranth, fava beans, broccoli, and cabbage stretch toward the weak late-winter light streaming through the windows. The farm is clean and simple, just a few fans and an AC unit standing ready for the warmer days of summer.

Matt had a college professor who researched how well plants like broccoli and kale—which are in the Brassicagenus—did in various mediums like soil or a hydroponic system. She found no substantial difference between them, so Delancy and Matt decided to keep their setup simple.

“We did our first few test trays with the soil, and it worked out great,” Delancy says. “So, we haven’t really changed.”

Mad Mountain’s process is simple: Plant seed, let it germinate, then move it onto the shelves so it can snag the small amount of natural light the office’s windows let in. Grow lights hang above each shelf to supplement the sunlight. When the greens are ready, Delancy andMatt harvest them, package them in compostable plastic clamshells, and deliver.

Though each farm has its own approach to selling product, restaurants are the foundation for all three. During a meal atForage or Warbirds, among other local restaurants, you’d likely find one if not all of these local growers’ produce showcased in any given dish. With chefs in both Teton Valley and Jackson Hole who value locally grown products—as do hordes of summer and winter tourists—the farms have ready made cus­tomers, so much so that Clawson Greens and Morning Dew Mushrooms don’t even sell at the farmer’s markets, a disappointing fact for any­one looking to pickup a pound of locally grown oyster mushrooms.

“You’re never going to have a chef that says, ‘I want a ten-day-old product,’” Dave says, referring to the greens that restaurants can buy through delivery services. “A chef always wants the freshest product and the best tasting product they can get.”

Finding customers like restaurants is key to the survival of these kinds of farms. Clawson did a winter community-supported agriculture share system (CSA) last year, but now Dave is refocusing on the restaurant component of his business. He supplies a dozen restaurants in Teton Valley and Jackson with greens weekly.

Learning to farm year-round in a place that receives well over a hundred inches of snow per year on the valley floor isn’t an easy task. But the proprietors of these farms have banded together, forming a community bonded by a shared interest in cultivation and the desireto see each other succeed.

“We want them to do well,” Morning DewMushroom’s Sarah McDonnell says, as we talk about Mad Mountain Greenery and Clawson Greens.

Dave Ridill, because he has operated Clawson Greens for several years, is almost the de facto guru of the winter farming community. To some degree, he has navigated the pitfalls of the trade, the off-season challenge chief among them. For the uninitiated, Teton Valley and Jackson Hole have a pair of off-seasons, spring and fall, during which tourism numbers decrease substantially, and many restaurants either cut back on staff and purchasing or take a short hiatus altogether.

For small-business food cultivators, that abrupt shift in demand can be difficult. Sarah and Patrick say they were left with pounds and pounds of mushrooms during their first off-season, which“killed us,” Patrick says. Rather than needing to plan for the off-seasons, which for mushroom growing requires planning months ahead of time, options like farm-direct sales and regional distributors bolster sales during the lean times. Morning Dew has found a distributor, Quality Foods, that is already selling their mushrooms to restaurants in places as far away as Bozeman andMissoula, Montana. They are currently navigating getting a USDA certification, called a Good Agricultural Processes or GAP, that would allow them to be distributed to bigger grocery stores like Broulim’s. Dave’s greens have a shorter growing period, making it easier to plan accordingly and cut back if needed to accommodate the slow seasons.

As a community, the farmers are all at an exciting point of transition. Dave left his long-time job as a ski and bike patroller at Grand Targhee Resort, Delancy left her Idaho Falls job to cut down on commuting and devote herself to growing greens, and Patrick gave up his carpentry gig to focus fully on raising mushrooms.

Each individual acknowledges a bit of apprehension at leaving a “sure thing” to embark on something totally new, butTeton Valley seems ready to support some year-round farms and each business has found a niche that seems sustainable. And despite a bit of nervousness, playing in the dirt and working with crops is a great substitute for punching a time clock.

“I love it. You know, I can be my own boss,” Delancy says, “and I can just tend to my …”

She trails off, looking for the word.

“Babies,” Matt says with a laugh.

“Yeah,” she says, “tend to my micro-babies.”