BY NATHAN PAYNE
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — There’s no time like the present to think about the coming winter, especially when it means having fresh squash, bought at low prices, stashed away for months to come.
The end of the harvest season has pushed prices for winter squash varieties as low as they’ll fall — bargains that likely won’t last when oncoming snow blankets northwestern Michigan and frost ends the roadside market season.
Buying when prices are low can save a family hundreds of dollars over paying per-pound rates that can quintuple when stores and markets begin to ship squash to Michigan from other regions of the country.
But once you’ve procured a trunk load of bargain-priced acorn, butternut and hubbard squash, how do you make them last?
"There’s got to be a way of keeping them,” said Steve Robertson, owner of Silver Lake Farms. A roadside stand in front of his home along West Silver Lake Road run by his wife and daughters peddles baskets full of squash throughout the fall.
Tuesday, one of Robertson’s last half-bushel baskets of festival squash would cost a passerby $10, or about 33-cents-per pound.
Robertson has grown a variety of squash for about five years and has tried to make some of them last into the winter himself. He successfully kept some into the winter last year, but nowhere close to the six months others say they can make the seasonal vegetables last.
"I was able to keep them into the end of January,” he said.Robertson has heard the tip that all winter squash varieties should be kept above 50 degrees in a well-ventilated storage area, but that’s about where his expertise ends, he said.
Susan Odom, self-proclaimed squash snob and proprietor of the Hillside Homestead bed and breakfast near Suttons Bay, says she’s gotten pretty good at making her stash last.
"I have this little room in my house, it’s on the first floor and relatively low in temperature,” she said. “I have kept squashes in there from now until almost June.”
She sticks with mostly hubbard squash because they’re her favorite and she contends the bigger squash varieties last the longest.
The shelf life for winter squash varieties ranges widely from acorn squash that can keep for a few months to hubbard and butternut squash that can easily last until spring if they’re stored properly.
Odom says the 50-degree temperature threshold is important but so is humidity. In the fall, before tucking away her produce for the winter, Odom checks each one for bruises or blemishes and sets them in her dark storage area.
The squash need to be spaced so they don’t touch and should be handled carefully.
"You have to treat their hard skin carefully,” she said. “Bruises in storage can become points of weakness. They shouldn’t touch. I think any food in storage shouldn’t touch. Like the old saying, ‘One bad apple can ruin the barrel.’”
Odom regularly surveys her stash and prioritizes which squash she uses first based on how they look.
"They need a moderate temperature, like one where old people would get cold inside a house,” she said.
Odom suggests stashing squash in places like spare bedrooms under the bed where heat vents can be closed during the winter months to keep temperatures lower.
Louis Groleau used a farm loader Tuesday afternoon to lug a crate of squash to the front of the Groleau Farm Market at the corner of Four Mile Road and Hammond Road.
His has seen a resurgence during the past decade in people buying squash to store for the winter. He’s never really tried to stretch his produce into the winter, but says he’s sure somebody dedicated to the effort could make them last.
"I think you could get six months anyways,” he said.
Groleau’s butternut, festival and buttercup squash sell for 49-cents-per pound now, pretty close to the bottom of the price range reported by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture in its weekly nation fruit and vegetable retail report.That report says this week you could pay anywhere from about 50 cents to $1 per pound for most winter squash varieties in the Midwest.
Several expert gardening blogs reiterate Odom’s assertion that the squash be free of scrapes and bruises to make them last. They also say to be careful to look for fruit that don’t have ripped or broken stems. A cut stem can prevent early rot, according to some experts.
"It’s not rocket science,” Odom said.
Acorn squash with cranberries
2 small acorn squash
1 cup fresh cranberries
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon butter, melted
Cut squash in half lengthwise; remove seeds.
Place cut side down in 13-by-9-inch baking dish.
Bake in a 350° oven for 35 minutes.
Turn cut side up.
Combine cranberries, melted butter and brown sugar. Fill squash with mixture.
Continue baking for 25 minutes, or until squash is tender.