Forget the pie—when Tim Richter was a kid, he’d peel the skin off ruby rhubarb stalks, straight from the field, and pour sugar down the scooped center. “That was it,” he says. “That was our Sour Patch [Kids]!”
Today, the fourth-generation farmer doesn’t eat nearly as much rhubarb as you might expect, considering his family has been growing the perennial crop at EG Richter Family Farm in Puyallup since the 1930s. And while the farm’s fields of rhubarb growing in the shadow of Mount Rainier are a gorgeous sight in spring and summer, it’s the rhubarb Richter grows inside, in the winter, that is really something special.
If you’ve picked up rhubarb at a Safeway grocery store in early February—as opposed to a farmers’ market in April or May, when the crop is usually harvested—it was likely grown on Richter’s farm, in a couple of low, windowless buildings that act as hothouses. The plants spend two summers out in the fields, storing up energy and growing to be roughly 100-pound balls. Around Christmas every year, Richter and his crews tackle the “dirty, nasty, horrible job,” he says, of uprooting the rhubarb and planting it in shallow soil in the dark, 55-degree hothouses. It’s backbreaking work that takes a few days. Then, they wait.
This hothouse rhubarb is sometimes referred to as forced rhubarb, since moving it into a temperature- and light-controlled environment tricks the plants into thinking it’s spring. The rhubarb shoots up in search of sun, burning all that stored energy and growing as much as 2 inches a day at its peak; sometimes the plant grows so fast that farmers have reported it actually makes a popping or squeaking sound. Because the buildings are kept dark, the stalks do not develop chlorophyll—they’re a deep red all the way through, with yellow leaves—and they lack the stringiness of field rhubarb. Whereas a hothouse tomato is a sad comparison to one that ripens on the plant in the sun, the opposite is true for rhubarb. Hothouse rhubarb is, as Richter explains, a delicacy.
Image by E.G. Richter Farm INC.
Puyallup farmers Timothy Richter (left) and his father Tim Richter, pack up their hothouse rhubarb, in season now; growing in the dark results in stalks that are red all the way through and pale green leaves
Within 30 days of planting the rhubarb indoors, Richter can start picking the full-grown stalks; the harvest usually starts in late January, and picking continues twice a week (it grows that fast!) until late March. Conveniently, that’s just about the time Richter’s field rhubarb is ready, so there’s no gap in supply for his wholesale clients. Richter doesn’t have a farm stand, but if you’re interested in buying a 15-pound box (or more) of hothouse rhubarb, you can e-mail him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your pies will never be the same.