Vegetable Storage Tips

Our winter squash storage cage. Photo Twin Oaks Community

Key factors to consider when selecting vegetables for long-term storage

  • Most storable vegetables are roots or tubers.
  • Winter squash, onions and garlic are the main exceptions.
  • And tree fruits such as apples and pears.
  • There are hard-headed storage cabbages too, but those varieties are getting harder to find, as fewer people grow for storage. Search the seed catalogs for the word “storage”. Other varieties are for fresh market, or processing, and won’t store for long.
  • Don’t plan to grow a specific crop unless you have the right kind of place to store it!
  • You also need a likely market. I love celeriac, but it’s not widely known, so I wouldn’t recommend growing lots until you have an idea of the demand.
  • Choose varieties that are sturdy and chunky, not slender carrots, for instance. (Shriveling is related to the ratio of volume to surface area.)
  • Ideally, practice that variety on a small scale the year before growing a very large amount, to see how it does in your soil.
  • If it’s too late to do that, try three different varieties and keep records of how they do.
  • Read the small print in the seed catalogs! Moschata winter squashes such as butternuts. Long Island Cheese and Seminole store all winter, but acorn squash do not. You can store acorn squash for a couple of months, but then move them along to people’s dinner plates.

Harvesting tips to maximize the storage life of stored vegetables

Carrot harvest cart
Photo Mari Korsbrekke
  • Storing vegetables is very much a Garbage In-Garbage Out type of thing. If you put unsound vegetables into storage, they will rot and the rot could spread.
  • Good storability starts with good growing techniques
  • During growth, fend off any serious pest predation, as crops with holes in may not store well.
  • Be sure you know the temperature at which each crop will suffer cold damage, and get it harvested before that happens.
  • Harvest when the crops are optimum size and in peak condition.
  • Ideally, harvest in dry weather.
  • Handle the vegetables gently. Bruises can happen invisibly, so if you drop something, don’t store it.
  • White potatoes can reach a storable state two weeks after the tops die in the field. If you are in a hurry, mow the tops off, then wait two weeks. Check that the skins are “set” and don’t tear, if you rub the potato with your thumb.

    Sweet potato harvest crates
    Photo Nina Gentle
  • Trim leafy tops from root vegetables, leaving very short stems on beets and carrots. During long storage, the stubs of the leaf stems may die and drop off, but this is nothing to worry about.
  • If you cut the tops off beets completely, the red color will wash out during cooking. Definitely don’t cut into the root part of beets when trimming. Some people trim the long ends of beet roots, but I never have. They don’t take up much space!
  • I do trim the roots from kohrabi, and for that task, I do cut into the bulbous part of the root, as the skinny root has such a high concentration of fibers that it’s like a steel cable! The cut surface soon heals over.
  • Look each vegetable over and only store ones without soft spots or deep holes. Carrots or sweet potatoes snapped in half can heal over and store just fine, but stabbed potatoes won’t. Superficial bug bites will heal over but not tunneling.
  • Small roots won’t store well. We have a “training tool” for new crew members which is a bucket lid with holes cut in it. If the carrot can pass through the carrot hole, it’s too thin to store well. Potatoes less than about an inch are not worth storing. Likewise tiny turnips.

    Bucket lid with holes for sorting root vegetables for storage.
    Photo Wren Vile
  • For traditional storage without refrigeration, most roots store best unwashed (less wrinkling). This can make them harder to clean later.
  • If you are going to store root crops unwashed, consider setting them in a single layer on the field and making a second trip round to pick them up into crates when the skins are dry. If you are going to wash them, the opposite is true! Get them into water before the skins dry, to help the washing go quicker. We don’t wash sweet potatoes, white potatoes or squash. We do wash all the other root crops, as it’s harder to get them really clean if the soil dries on them. Provided you store them in humid enough conditions, they will not shrivel.
  • Some crops need curing before storing (alliums, peanuts, sweet potatoes, white potatoes).
  • Tops of garlic and onions can be trimmed after the crops have cured and the leaves died. Making braids or ropes of alliums with their tops on can be a profitable option.

The best storage conditions for different types of vegetables

Crates of potatoes in our root cellar.
Photo Nina Gentle
  • In my book, Sustainable Market Farming, I have a whole chapter on Winter Vegetable Storage.
  • Growers have only good things to say about the CoolBot system from Store-It-Cold. Basically you build a well-insulated space (shed, room, truck body), buy a window AC unit and the CoolBot and follow their excellent instructions to install the device which lets you run the AC at a lower temperature, like a refrigerator, at a fraction of the cost.
  • Hang a thermometer in your storage spaces, so you know when to warm or cool them. Digital thermometers might measure humidity too.
  • You can get a small electronic device that will send an alert to your phone if the temperature goes too far out of range.
  • For storing white potatoes without refrigerators, the best place is a root cellar. You are aiming for cool and moist conditions: 40-50°F (5-10°C), with 85-90% humidity. You really don’t want to store potatoes below that range, or they go black when you make fries.
  • Most other vegetables fit into four other sets of storage conditions:

A. Cold and Moist (33-40°F/1-4°C, 95-100% humidity, works for most root crops, and also cabbage, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi and leeks.

B. Cool and Moist is mostly potatoes, as I already mentioned. Pears, apples and cabbage also store well in these conditions but not sharing space with potatoes! More on that later.

C. Cool and Dry is for garlic and onions. 32-40°F/0-4°C and 60-70% humidity. It’s also possible to store alliums warm and dry at first, 65-85°F/18-30°C, but definitely not 40-56°F (4-13°C) for garlic, or 45-55°F (7-13°C) for bulb onions or they will sprout. Never warm after cold either.

D. Warm and Dry to Fairly Moist is for winter squash and sweet potatoes. Never below 50°F (10°C). Ideal temperature 55-59°F (13-15°C). Temperatures above 65°F (18°C) hasten sprouting. Also ripening green tomatoes like 55-70F/13-21C and moist (75-85%).

  • For the warmer options, barns or basements might be suitable in the fall, before they get too cold.
  • If you are planning a new barn, consider installing an insulated basement to be a root cellar.
  • There are traditional in-ground storage methods, such as clamps, pits and trenches. The easiest version of this, in the right climate, is to mulch heavily with about 12″ (30 cm) of insulation (such as straw, dry leaves, chopped corn stalks, or wood shavings) over the row, and maybe add low tunnels over the mulch.

    In-ground vegetable storage Drawing from WSU
  • Clamps are made by setting down a layer of insulation on the ground, piling up the crops in a rounded cone or ridge shape, covering thickly with straw, then working round the mound digging a ditch and slapping the soil up on the mound.
Vegetable storage clamp.
Drawing from WSU
  • Pits and trenches start by digging a hole, lining it with straw or an old chest freezer, layering in the vegetables with straw and covering with boards and a thick layer of insulation. Insulated boxes stored in unheated areas need 6-8″ (15-20 cm) of insulation on the bottom, sides, and top.
  • This all takes a lot of work, so look into the CoolBot idea first!

Suitable containers for storing vegetables

  • We use perforated clear plastic sacks for roots, cabbages and kohlrabi. They reduce the water losses that lead to wrinkling.;
  • We use net bags for onions and garlic; plastic milk crates for potatoes;
  • We use folding plastic crates for squash and sweet potatoes.
  • We leave horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes and leeks in the ground here in zone 7a, but we don’t get frozen soil for much of the winter.
  • We don’t use any packaging materials, but in England in the past I stored roots in boxes of damp peat moss, sawdust, sand or wood ash. I find it better to get the right storage conditions for the vegetables, rather than try to insulate them in their crates.
  • Set the containers on pallets, not directly on concrete floors, to reduce condensation.
  • When stacking your containers, allow gaps along the walls and between stacks, for airflow. Celeriac needs more ventilation than beets or kohlrabi, for instance.
  • Sometimes night ventilation offers cooler drier air than you can get in the daytime.

Vegetables that have particular needs for long-term storage

Sweet Potatoes in storage.
Photo Pam Dawling
  • Sweet potatoes must be cured before storage. This means hot humid conditions until the skins don’t rub off when you rub two together. After that you can move them to storage conditions (or turn down the heater and humidifier!)
  • It is important that sweet potatoes never go below 50°F (10°C) or they will suffer a permanent chilling injury that makes them almost impossible to cook. I know because I’ve made that mistake, leaving them in the ground too long, hoping they’d grow bigger.
  • White potatoes also need to cure until the skins toughen, in moist air (90% humidity) for 1-2 weeks at 60-75°F (15-24°C). Wounds in the skin will not heal below 50°F (10°C).
  • We sort our potatoes after two weeks of curing and find that sorting at this point usually reduces the chance of rot so that we don’t need to sort again.
  • They need to stay moist so they don’t wrinkle. They have fairly exacting temperature requirements so they don’t sprout.
  • Remember to keep white potatoes in the dark while curing as well as during storage.
Home vegetable storage options, from WSU
  • Some vegetables exude ethylene in storage: fruits, damaged produce, sprouting vegetables. Some crops are not much affected by ethylene (greens for example) and can be stored in the same space with ripening tomatoes, for instance.
  • Other vegetables are very sensitive to ethylene, and will deteriorate in a high-ethylene environment. Potatoes will sprout, ripe fruits will go over the top, carrots lose their sweetness and become bitter.
  • When storing ripe fruit, ventilate with fresh air frequently, maybe even daily, to reduce the rate of over-ripening and rotting.
  • Ethylene also hastens the opening of flower buds and the senescence of open flowers.
  • Alliums like it drier than most crops. Heed my warning about the “danger zone” sprouting temperatures. Not 40-56°F (4-13°C) for garlic, or 45-55°F (7-13°C) for bulb onions or they will sprout.

Tips for extending the storage life of vegetables

  • For non-refrigerated storage, unless using outdoor pits or clamps, several smaller containers of each crop are often a safer bet than one giant one, in case rot sets in.
  • For crops that store best at 32°F (0°C), if you can only store them in warmer temperatures (up to 50°F/10°C), provided they do have high humidity, you can expect to get about half the storage life they’d last for in ideal conditions.
  • After you’ve put your produce into storage, don’t completely forget about it! Keep a record of what is stored where and perhaps a check sheet for inspection. Monitor the rate of use and notice if you’d benefit from more or less of each crop next winter.
  • Regularly check the storage conditions are still meeting your goal, and check thorough the crops at least once a month, removing the bad ones. Shallow crates make this easier.
  • For root crops and squash, and maybe alliums, the initial storage period is the most likely to show up trouble. Later the crops become more dormant and less change happens.
  • Keeping root cellar temperatures within a narrow range takes human intervention, or sophisticated thermostats and vents.
  • If needed, electric fans can be used to force air through a building.
  • Make a realistic assessment of how long your crop will last in the actual conditions you are providing, and plan to move them all on before then.
  • You may be able to reallocate crops to some colder spaces as some of the original produce stored there gets used.
  • After long storage, some vegetables look less than delicious, and benefit from a bit of attention before the diners get them. Cabbages can have the outer leaves removed, and can then be greened up by exposing to light for a week at 50°F (10°C). This isn’t just cosmetic – the vitamin C content increases ten-fold. Carrots can lose their sweetness over time, unless frequently exposed to fresh air, by ventilating well.
Storage #4 green cabbage. The name says it all.
Fedco Seeds

Root Crops in April – the Hungry Gap

Young Cylindra beets in early May.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in April

We are in cold-hardiness zone 7a, with an average last frost of 4/29. Those in other climate zones can study our Root Crops in May or Root Crops in March for information more useful in their area.

Outdoors we can sow  carrots #4 & #5, parsnips, radishes #2, (last date 4/15, sow on the shoulders of a newly transplanted lettuce bed to save space), beets (last date 4/15, hand sown or with an EarthWay seeder Chard plate, 2 or 3 passes. 1 cup sows 360 ft/110m)

Here we can plant potatoes anytime in April.

It is too late for us to sow any root crops in the hoophouse. (Besides, we want tomatoes!)

Having good stored crops like these beets will feed you through the Hungry Gap.
Photo Pam Dawling

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in April

As in January, February and March in central Virginia, in most of April there are still no roots to harvest outdoors except overwintered parsnips and maybe carrots, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish.  Radishes from the first outdoor sowing will be ready at the end of April. We can usually harvest radishes until the end of May. Our hoophouse radishes usually finish in early April. By then it is hot and any remaining radishes bolt.

From storage, if we still have them, we can eat beets, carrots, celeriac, kohlrabi, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, and turnips.

This is the Hungry Gap (see Special Topic for April below)

Colorado Potato beetle late stage larva
Photo Pam Dawling

Other Root Crop Tasks in Central Virginia in April

  • If you are growing your own sweet potato slips, cut 6-12” (15-30cm) slips daily and stand them in water. Once a week, plant rooted slips in 4” (10cm) flats.
  • Hill up potatoes when 6” (15cm) high. Cover half the vine. Repeat after 2 weeks. This deals well with weeds and gives the potatoes more soil to grow into.
  • Potato beetles: Use Spinosad [or Neem] once larvae are seen, if there are more than 50 adults/50 plants or more than 200 larvae/100 plants. If you have fewer, you can leave them alone. Spinosad: Spray when bees are not flying (early morning or late evening.) Shake well, 1-4 Tbsp/gall (1fl.oz=2Tbsp=30ml.) Approx 8-30 ml per liter. Repeat in 6 days. Clean and triple rinse the sprayer. Do not flush Spinosad into creeks or ponds.
  • Thin and weed carrots.
  • Mow cover crop mixes in late vegetable plots when rye or wheat heads up, to help legumes develop.
  • Take rowcover from turnips that were sown 3 or more weeks earlier, to use on newer and more tender crops.
  • Till beds you’ll plant in a week or two, as heavy rain may prevent tilling close to sowing time. My ideal is to till as deep as needed ahead of time, then do a superficial tilling or scuffle hoeing the day before planting. This gives the best weed control.
  • Spread compost on beds you’ll plant in 3 weeks or so, and till in the compost when the soil is not too wet, not too dry.
  • If exposed to 10 consecutive days below 45°F (7°C), celeriac will bolt.
  • Store spring and fall seeds (spinach, peas, beets) in a cool place for the summer.
Vates kale outdoors. An oleracea type, Vates is very cold-hardy.
Photo by Nina Gentle

Special Root Crop Topic for April in Central Virginia: the Hungry Gap

What is the Hungry Gap?

The Hungry Gap happens in temperate climates with four seasons. In winter the short day-length reduces plant growth, and when it’s cold, maybe damp, windy, and overcast, the rate of crop growth drops further. The Hungry Gap is the annual period of the shortfall in local fruit and vegetables. April is the leanest month of the year in northern temperate climates, and the period can extend from January to May. This may be a factor in the origin of the 40 days of Lent.

Spring is not the time of overflowing bounty you might expect – leaves are growing, but not much else. Depending on your particular climate, there may be some vegetables that are winter-hardy. Almost every vegetable lover yearns for more variety than that!

In the spring, any remaining winter vegetables are getting ready to bolt (produce flowers and seeds rather than more leaves). Growers and gardeners are enthusiastically sowing and transplanting new crops, but planting too early would be a sad mistake and it takes time before those new crops can be harvested. That gap between the last of the winter crops and the first of the early spring crops, is called the Hungry Gap.

It’s not a familiar term these days, because importing produce from warmer climates hides the reality. Vegetable consumption in much of the Western hemisphere has shifted from Medieval (leaves and roots) to Mediterranean (“ratatouille vegetables” and salads). Importing or long-distance hauling demands more energy usage, as does the refrigeration they often require in transit.

Also there has been a practice of growing vegetables with artificial heat and light. This is not ecological, as use of fossil fuels contributes to climate change. The food sector accounts for 30% of global energy consumption and produces about 20% of GHG emissions (see the 2011 FAO report). Most of this energy consumption comes from oil and gas in the form of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, on-farm machinery and food processing.

Sweet Potatoes in storage.
Photo Pam Dawling
Sustainable Ways to Bridge the Hungry Gap

How did people survive the hungry gap in times gone by, and what can we learn from those strategies? Eating in the hungry gap used to be both hard and uninspiring – a restricted diet with few options. Adding options involves advance planning and advance work.

  1. Use stored food, such as root crops, winter squash and pumpkins
  2. Preserve fruits and vegetables from other seasons. Consider jams, pickles, canning in jars, freezing, drying, salting and fermenting (think sauerkraut)
  3. Grow more winter-hardy crops that start regrowth early in the spring, and may be harvestable during the winter. Consider covering the rows with rowcover or polyethylene low tunnels.
  4. Grow more perennial crops, such as asparagus, rhubarb, sea kale and sea beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. Maritima, wild beet). Although they take several years to establish, they will then yield earlier in the year than crops grown from seed in spring. Asparagus and rhubarb provide new flavors early in the year and signal the change to come.

    Asparagus in early April.
    Credit Wren Vile
  5. Sow fast-growing cold-hardy crops as early as possible after the winter solstice, for example spring leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, collards, fast cabbage varieties, and lettuce.
  6. Add crop protection in the form of rowcovers, low polyethylene tunnels (cloches), caterpillar tunnels, high tunnels (hoophouses, polytunnels) to create a warmer environment, trapping heat and humidity and warming up the soil, providing earlier harvests. Protect early sowings of quick crops, like radishes, arugula, land cress, salad greens, and also the first few weeks of newly planted kale, collards, spinach, mizuna, pak choy).
  7. Forage sustainably for edible wild greens as a spring ‘tonic’, even if not a major item in your diet. The strong flavors provide a welcome change after repetitive winter vegetables, and a useful top-up to the supply of produce as stores run low. Spring is one of the best seasons for foraging, but you do have to reliably identify what you’re picking, so get yourself a good guide book or phone app. Ramps, nettles, violets, chickweed, dandelion, garlic mustard, and lamb’s quarters are some of the many wild greens available in spring. See Rustic Farm Life: Wild Spring Greens You Should Be Eating

    Ruby chard.
    Photo Kathryn Simmons
  8. Maximize the number of annual and biennial crops you grow that are in season during the Hungry Gap. Some are mentioned already. Here are more ideas: chard, globe artichokes, herbs, Jerusalem artichokes, kale (one variety is called “Hungry Gap” because it crops during this period. It was introduced to UK agriculture during WWll in 1941), leeks. If your winter climate is mild enough (zone 8 or 9): over-wintered Purple sprouting broccoli, and spring greens (immature close-spaced dark-green cabbages).

    Brassica oleracea ‘Hungry Gap’ – kale
    Photo Chiltern Seeds, UK
  9. Indoor gardening. Grow sprouts and microgreens. These don’t take much advance planning and can perk up a winter or spring meal. Microgreens grow in compost or on special “blankets”, but sprouts are generally grown in jars or trays. Pea shoots are an easy one to start with, and you can use dried peas from the supermarket. When sprouting it is important that you buy organic seeds, to be sure that they have not been treated with any chemicals. Rinse your sprouts twice a day, and keep everything clean.

Read more about the Hungry Gap

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbZfTAYDA88

https://theunconventionalgardener.com/blog/what-is-the-hungry-gap/

https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/spring-plate-eating-hungry-gap/

https://www.farmdrop.com/blog/hungry-gap-seasonal-british-produce/

This is the last post in the monthly series on root crops. You can see them all here:

Root Crops in May

Root Crops in June

Root Crops in July

Root Crops in August

Root Crops in September

Root Crops in October

Root Crops in November

Root Crops in December

Root Crops in January

Root Crops in February

Root Crops in March

Workhorse Crops for the Month

Next month I will start a new monthly series. Workhorses are crops that are reliable under a wide range of conditions, including weather, soil, date and other variables. Some are easy to grow, some pump out lots of food, some are “insurance crops” like chard that stand in your garden until you need to harvest them. Part of my motivation for this series is to help all the “Covid-steaders” who started growing food during the pandemic and want to up their game without investing a lot more time. Part is to help established gardeners and growers who need to make a living while dealing with the changes the past year has brought to their markets and to our climate. We need some easier days!

 

Events December 2013 – April 2014

LFH_Logo2Local Food Hub, Charlottesville, VA

Date: Wednesday Dec 11, 2013
Time: 3:00 – 6:00 pm
Change of Location: The new location is:

Albemarle County Office Building
Room A
1600 5th Street Extended
Charlottesville VA 22902
Cost: $25 (free for Local Food Hub Partner Producers)

http://localfoodhub.org/our-programs/workshops/

Providing for the Full Eating Season: Succession Planting for Continuous Harvests of Summer Vegetables, and Growing and Storing Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables

People eat year-round and growers need to expect this! Learn how to produce a consistent supply of produce throughout the year. The first half of this workshop will explain how to plan sowing dates for continuous supplies of popular summer crops, such as beans, squash, cucumbers and sweet corn, as well as year round lettuce. Using these planning strategies can help avoid gluts and shortages. The second half of the workshop will tackle growing at the “back end” of the year, with details on crops, timing, protection and storage. Why farm in winter? Here’s the information to succeed – tables of cold-hardiness, details of four ranges of cold-hardy crops (fall crops to harvest before serious cold, crops to keep growing into winter, crops for all-winter harvests, overwintering crops for spring harvests); scheduling; weather prediction and protection; hoophouse growing; and vegetable storage.

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cropped-vabf-virginia-grass-fed-cattleVirginia Association for Biological Farming Conference, Richmond, Virginia.

Dates: Thursday January 30-Saturday February 1, 2014

Location: Doubletree by Hilton Hotel, Richmond-Midlothian, VA
Registration: $130.00 for members

http://vabf.org/conference/

Book-signings scheduled throughout the conference

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Website_banner_v2PASA (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture) Farming for the Future Conference

Dates: Wednesday February 5 – Saturday February 8, 2014

Location: State College, PA

Registration: $145 for members for Friday and Saturday?

http://www.pasafarming.org/events/conference

Book-signing

Producing Asian Greens

Detailed information for market and home growers. Many varieties of tasty, nutritious greens grow quickly and bring fast returns. This session covers production of Asian greens outdoors and in the hoophouse. It includes tips on variety selection of over twenty types of Asian greens; timing of plantings; pest and disease management; fertility; weed management and harvesting.

Cold-hardy Winter Vegetables

Details on crops, timing, protection and storage. Why farm in winter? Here’s the information to succeed – tables of cold-hardiness, details of four ranges of cold-hardy crops (fall crops to harvest before serious cold, crops to keep growing into winter, crops for all-winter harvests, overwintering crops for spring harvests); scheduling; weather prediction and protection; hoophouse growing; vegetable storage.

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Lynchburg College

Date: Saturday February 15 2014 10am to 3 pm

Location: Lynchburg College, SW Virginia

Feeding Ourselves Sustainably Year Round
10-11  Grow a Sustainable Diet–Cindy Conner
11-11:10  Break
11:10-12:10  Year Round Gardening–Ira Wallace
12:10-1:10 Lunch
1:10-1:50  Understanding and Using Seed Catalogs –small group activity.
1:50-2.00  Break
2.00-3.00 Crop Rotations, Cover Crops, and Compost — Pam Dawling

Details to be confirmed soon

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AiscAvnOsQFURv1wbixykzdTEl5dCrYHumxaW5HMlv_9XK1UpLeQQEgEAD9gMcdG9L_RhllIVVAnqOEAkdAwxOJeL_fFsxWEKQyzNfllayMqc7g=s0-d-e1-ftlogo_sfcCSA Expert Exchange Online Conference, Small Farm Central and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture

Dates: March 6-7, 2014

Location: Online

Registration: $70 for access to both days

www.csafarmconference.com

Crop Planning for Sustainable Vegetable Production

A step-by-step approach to closing the planning circle, so that you can produce crops when you want them and in the right quantities, so you can sell them where and when you need to and support yourself with a rewarding livelihood while replenishing the soil. Never repeat the same mistake two years running!

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Mother Earth News Fair, Asheville (confirmed 12/21/13)

Dates: Saturday April 12 – Sunday April 13, 2014

Location: Western North Carolina Agricultural Center, 1301 Fanning Bridge Road,
Fletcher, NC 28732

Registration:?

http://www.motherearthnews.com/fair/north-carolina.aspx#axzz2k02EAfZq

Workshop topic to be decided

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