Noah Sheetz, photography by Jane Feldman
As winter transforms the region into a chilly landscape of ice, sub-zero temperatures, polar winds and snow, the ground becomes hopelessly frozen, unable to sustain even the hardiest of winter vegetables. While some farmers perfect newer season-extension techniques like heated high and low tunnels and indoor aquaponics, others focus on old school cold storage options. Schoharie Valley Farms has long maintained a temperature and humidity controlled warehouse that prolongs the quality of their signature tricolored carrots, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, and rutabaga throughout the harsh winter months. The Farm at Miller’s Crossing holds an end-of-season sale on its leftover roots and winter squash and offers self-serve cellar storage for customers who need a place to keep their veggies in the winter.
Over the years, the art of keeping a root cellar – a charming and mysterious holdover from the post-world war victory gardens of the 1950’s and 60’s – has unfortunately waned. In its heyday the reliably cool conditions of a sub-ground root cellar provided a reliable form of refrigeration in the spring, autumn and winter seasons for storing any number of fruits and vegetables as well as processed foods like fruit preserves, lacto-fermented vegetables, cured meats, aged cheeses and home-made wine.
In its simplest form, a root cellar is a storage space built partially or entirely underground. The goal of a well-insulated root cellar is to maintain a constant cold temperature (just above freezing) and a moderately high level of humidity, conditions that are ideal for storing hardy end-of-season vegetables and fruits.
Building your own root cellar is as easy as digging a deep hole in the ground, or in the side of a hill, and framing the entrance with a shed and a door. You can also build a shed at ground level and cover it with rocks, dirt, and sod. The cellar can be lined with shelves and bins for holding fruits and vegetables. Some root cellar advocates will pile insulating material like hay or shredded newspaper over the vegetables to protect them against exposure during extremely cold periods of the winter.
At the Abode Farm CSA in New Lebanon, the last of the season’s root vegetables and winter greens are harvested in early winter and packed into their root cellar. Photographer Jane Feldman visited the root cellar in the winter of 2014 where she stocked up on winter squash, carrots, beets, potatoes and cabbage. For three solid days Jane lived on soul-warming classic winter soups like butternut squash and ginger bisque and borscht.
I’m amazed at how much food is still around even in the middle of January. The ground is snowy and frozen but there’s still plenty of delicious local food to eat.
From farm to soup, Jane cooked with seasonal ingredients as the January snow piled up outside of her house in New Lebanon. The process started at the Abode’s root cellar where Jane, an Abode Farm CSA member, went foraging for ingredients. As she washed root vegetables and hacked them up for soup, she watched the whole cycle of food, from field to compost, unfold.
I was fascinated to see the whole cycle of food – from its harvest at the farm, to the root cellar, to my kitchen where it was made into a delicious meal, and finally to the compost pile, where the leftover vegetable trimmings were discarded.