Mid-Winter Update and Some Thoughts on Sustainability

So far this winter has been both rewarding and challenging following our successful Race Against Winter this past fall.  Yesterday and today we are in the middle of a short-lived and very welcome January thaw, with the temperature in the 50's and rain.  But we had to endure several weeks of unseasonably cold weather.  Almost every night the temperature was below zero, culminating with last Sunday's low of -17 degrees.  Highs were mostly in single digits, occasionally in the low teens, and one day never made it above zero.  During that time, we had three crises with our heating plant for the shop and greenhouses: first a steam blowoff and pipe rupture due to a vent freezing up, followed by pipe freeze-ups on two separate occasions.  We were helped immensely by Pinney Plumbing with the middle event, and we ended up surviving it all and came out with some improvements in the heating design.  In the summer, we joke that "it may be hot, but at least it's humid."  But lately it's been: "It may be cold, but at least it's windy."

 The rolling greenhouse after  winter storm Grayson , the so-called  "bomb cyclone."     We got 12" of snow.  The high winds kept the greenhouses clear of a heavy load of snow, but left high drifts on the downwind sides.

The rolling greenhouse after winter storm Grayson, the so-called "bomb cyclone."  

We got 12" of snow.  The high winds kept the greenhouses clear of a heavy load of snow, but left high drifts on the downwind sides.

The rewarding part is how well our seedling greenhouse has performed with the raised beds of greens, and how well we've been received at our market at Cheshire Medical Center (check out the write-up on pages 8-9), the Monadnock Food Co-op, and our new outlet at the Kearsage Food Hub.  If you check out our Market Update, you can see we've had a fairly good variety of fresh, locally-grown produce to offer, especially for this part of the country at this time of year.  We've had some great feedback on the fresh greens that Laurel has grown, the citrus (Meyer lemons, Washington navel oranges, Minneola tangelos), ginger, and always popular garlic.  Laurel has started growing micro greens too.  All in all, we feel good about filling a void in the local marketplace for fresh, good-tasting, nutrient-dense, healthy, locally-grown, winter produce. 

 

 Raised beds with salad greens.

Raised beds with salad greens.

 Baby lettuce greens.  In the foreground, they've already been cut.  Behind, they are still waiting for the next cutting.  After cutting, the leaves grow back, and we can get several cuttings.  In the background, on the right, about a third of our ginger is still growing, waiting to be harvested.

Baby lettuce greens.  In the foreground, they've already been cut.  Behind, they are still waiting for the next cutting.  After cutting, the leaves grow back, and we can get several cuttings.  In the background, on the right, about a third of our ginger is still growing, waiting to be harvested.

 Gorgeous heads of  Salanova  lettuce plumping up.  A unique variety of lettuce, only available through  Johnny's .  Even though they grow into nice heads, the small leaves can be cut to make  salad mix, and then more leaves grow back.  It's a little different than the traditional way of growing salad mix with baby leaf lettuce.  Laurel introduced this new variety to us, and we like it. 

Gorgeous heads of Salanova lettuce plumping up.  A unique variety of lettuce, only available through Johnny's.  Even though they grow into nice heads, the small leaves can be cut to make  salad mix, and then more leaves grow back.  It's a little different than the traditional way of growing salad mix with baby leaf lettuce.  Laurel introduced this new variety to us, and we like it. 

We've had several cuttings of spinach from our unheated rolling greenhouse.  This is the third winter crop we've had, and by far the best so far.  The first year we experimented with a lot of different types of crops, and we learned that spinach far and away does better than anything else here.  So last year that was all we planted.  But we experimented with planting dates, planting at two different times.  Although we got a good harvest from the first planting, it bolted before the really cool weather started, so all we had for winter was our second planting, and it was too late to start another round.  This year everything worked out great, except for record cold weather.  Spinach always has and continues to amaze me with its cold hardiness.  We weren't sure if it would survive the depth of long-running cold that we've had.  Even though it's growing inside a double-layer of inflated poly, and under two layers of row fabric, it has still been cold enough, long enough, to freeze the surface of the soil, which hasn't happened the previous two winters.  With yesterday and today's warmup, the soil has thawed, and the plants still look healthy, except for a lot of the larger leaves being wilted and edge-burned.  Nevertheless, Laurel and intern Albert are trimming the plants today, harvesting the still-good-looking leaves, and composting the unattractive ones.  We think we'll have some more good cuttings before the plants are pulled for the spring planting of the summer crop of solanaceaes, cucumbers, and so on.

 

 Albert and Laurel working the  winter spinach beds  today.

Albert and Laurel working the winter spinach beds today.

 Spinach plants hanging in there, despite the tough winter.  The Eliot Coleman-style  vole traps  were pretty busy in the fall, but we got "them", before they got much of the spinach.  Haven't seen any vole activity here lately, although we've seen plenty over near the biochar retort.

Spinach plants hanging in there, despite the tough winter.  The Eliot Coleman-style vole traps were pretty busy in the fall, but we got "them", before they got much of the spinach.  Haven't seen any vole activity here lately, although we've seen plenty over near the biochar retort.

Several months ago during one of the tours that we gave, Rich had a comment posed to him that we had no immediate response to.  But after thinking about it, we do.  During that tour, Rich was explaining the biochar retort and our water harvesting system, while Laurel covered the garden and orchard, I did the citrus/avocado greenhouse and the seedling greenhouse, and Carol coordinated the groups of visitors.  The comment to Rich was: "It sure takes a lot of money to be sustainable."  

 Rich explaining how the biochar retort works, during tour.

Rich explaining how the biochar retort works, during tour.

Well, after thinking about it, we disagree, for several reasons.  We have invested a considerable amount of capital into our infrastructure here, no doubt.  However, it certainly isn't necessary to grow citrus, to be sustainable.  (Even so, I would offer that growing citrus in a wood-heated greenhouse in New Hampshire is arguably more sustainable than shipping oranges and lemons cross-country or around the world from a warmer climate.)  Also, I think the amount of our investment is probably a lot less than a lot of "conventional", petro-chemical based farms.

But the main thing I think is that it doesn't necessarily take a lot of money to start a sustainably-based farm or garden.  But without it, it takes time.  It's the old tradeoff between time and money.  We were already in our 60's when we started, so we didn't have as much time as someone in their 20's or 30's to develop the infrastructure we wanted.  But as a comparison, our friend Doug Clayton has been practicing permaculture and sustainability for decades.  He has a wonderful garden and orchard to show for it.  As a pioneer in the biochar movement, he has been amending his soil with biochar for a long time, and it shows.  He didn't invest in a large retort; rather, he experimented with scrap 55-gallon drums and has developed a very simple but effective way to make excellent biochar.  We attended a demonstration at his place several months ago and were quite impressed with his "infrastructure" and quality of biochar produced.  Because of the smaller scale, it takes a little longer to make the same amount of biochar that we can make in a single burn, but he has more than made up for that through the consistent amount of effort over time.  Check out his videos on Youtube demonstrating his techniques.  You can link to them through a previous blogpost I did .  And so we highly encourage young people to get involved with sustainably-based agriculture while they are young, and they have the time ahead of them to develop their "infrastructure."  Another option is for young people to follow a model similar to the one we've embarked on this past year with Micah and Laurel, viz. young people with desire, ambition, and dreams partnering with older farmers with infrastructure already developed.

---Steve